Advice to Students
The Student's Bible
Getting into the scholarly life is not simple, but students rarely get advice on it. A common attitude among teachers is, If the students are any good, they will figure it out for themselves. Astonishing though it may seem, giving advice on scholarship is actually against the ethos of scholarship. Notwithstanding the ethos, here are some suggestions on the graduate school phase, and the first career steps that should be taken at that time. Students over the years have found them helpful. Some of them can be shocking at first hearing. It seems that many students don't know how the world works. Things might go better for them if they did. We will start with the moment of choosing a graduate school.
- 1. Don't go to the school you like, go to the school where you are liked; ideally one which will value the contribution you can make to its reputation.
- 2. The best thing a school can do for you is give you access to the field. Judge schools accordingly. Access to evidence and interpretation you have already, in the library. The field as such is a different matter.
- 3. Read the work of anybody you plan to study with. Read the reviews. If you are less comfortable with the work than with the hostile reviews of it, go back to the drawing board.
- 4. If you plan to study with someone, be sure they will be in residence when you are there. If you go to consult someone, be sure you know their office hour. When you set out for an appointment, take a book to read when they don't show. Improve your mind one way or the other.
- 5. Don't write your personal statement in order to express yourself; write to be read by the people you are addressing. What are they looking for? Stage a mock meeting of the selection committee in your head. What will they laugh at? What will they linger over? The reputation of a department ultimately rests on the quality of its graduates. Departments know this. What can you offer?
- 6. The average reader of a half-inch thick graduate application file spends two minutes on it, and reads only three parts of it (transcript, recommendations, personal statement). Plan accordingly.
- 7. Never (never), either now or later in life, write a letter containing more than one request, or occupying more than one page.
- 8. Chinese political theory warns of the danger of flattery. Most committees don't know the theory; they are easy to flatter. But perhaps the honorable form of flattery is the compliment of thinking them capable of directing serious work. Be serious. And then see what happens. (Analects 4:14)
- 9. The escalator approach (mindlessly taking courses in their numerical order) puts undue faith in the curriculum. The curriculum is likely to be the outcome of an interpersonal process, or feud, that has nothing to do with you. Take charge of your life. Start at the top. Read the writings of the masters. Use your classes to help you catch up, to the point where you know what the masters are talking about.
- 10. Start ancillary skills (Sanskrit?? Analysis of Variance??) now. You are defining the limits within which you will be operating all the rest of your life. Be sure they are wide enough for the future you.
- 11. If you have to rewrite some textbook to understand the subject, save your notes. Make a four-page outline and send it to a publisher. If it is rejected, make an eight-page outline and send it to two publishers. You may as well be paid for your work, and others may as well benefit from your work.
- 12. If in your courses or your reading (Wilamowitz-Moellendorf to a young visitor, early one morning, "What are you reading?"), you find you are being given answers to questions that hadn't yet occurred to you, you aren't thinking hard enough. Think harder. Read more, to have more to think about. Look again at the sources, to keep up your momentum.
- 13. You need a meishi (name card) with your affiliation, your E-mail address, and your web site URL. It should be clean, open, and without logo (unless your institution has an attractive seal logo and you are entitled to use it). Not scented, not tinted fuchsia, and not printed in script.
- 14. Don't have some kooky E-mail address. Juvenilia are out of place even for juveniles. When you change your E-mail (or postal) address, let people know; don't make them hunt for you. Keep a list of people you will want to keep in touch with. If the list prints out on less than 2 pages, and does not contain at least 20% tenured persons, you are not getting out enough. Get out more.
- 15. Neither scholars nor library desk attendants should make personal statements with their appearance. They represent a transpersonal purpose. And even at the personal level, be more than a bumpersticker. Work out your identity problems, and then keep the answer to yourself.
- 16. Don't be caught empty-handed by a request for a publicity still ("head shot"), which will be urgently requested, some Wednesday afternoon, by a school that has asked you to give a talk, and wants to get display value for their honorarium. Do a portrait (not oval, not airbrushed, not soft-focused) every two years. Have 8x10 glossies of it ready, so you can Express one in any next morning's mail. Keep Express mail envelopes and labels on hand against that and similar (curriculum vitae) moments. Have a digitized version you can attach to an E-mail message. Upload it to your web site. Chance favors the prepared mind, and the prepared publicity file (Pasteur, revised).
- 17. Take any opportunity to do a seminar presentation or class lecture. If no opportunity arises, seek one. If none are found, make one. Announce a talk on the bulletin board, and hold the talk in the hallway. Start a lunch club, and be its first speaker. Putting your ideas into finite time will show you what they actually consist of. When you find out what they consist of, redo them in the light of what you learned while (eek!) listening to yourself.
- 18. The great fear of the first-time lecturer, typically the TA to the class she is TA for, is running out of things to say. The great error of the first-time lecturer is preparing too much to say. If you are ten minutes into your talk and are still referring to it in the future tense, you have erred. If there are twenty minutes left on the clock and you are still in your prefatory remarks, you have erred. Prokofiev, working with Eisenstein, would turn up each morning with exactly 127 seconds' worth of music (or whatever fit the day's filming), fully scored and ready to go. Don't put 20 pages on the lectern and settle down to read them as a 20-minute talk. Write to time, and practice with a timer. Get on with it. Life is short, everybody else's included. The essence of public presentation is to be considerate of everybody else. If you take their time, give them something in return.
- 19. Be clear. In anything above the level of an audience question or seminar suggestion: (1) say where you are going, (2) go there, and (3) when you get there, say where you have gotten to. Aristotle would like it, and hearers will appreciate it. Don't talk or write in order to mystify. Avoid jargon (it merely affirms your guild membership). Avoid literary gestures (they merely display a sometimes questionable taste). Avoid humor (it dates you). Avoid animadversion (it pigeonholes you). Avoid nominalized constructions (they show that you have been reading too much academic prose). Remember that the simplest paragraph may be an equation, and that the most readily intelligible equation may be a diagram. Plan a paper to be within four pages (the rule of the French Academy of Sciences, passed in 1835), and a talk to be within ten minutes. It may be impossible, but in trying, you will find where the heart of your discourse is.
- 20. Don't take time explaining why you are doing something, or why you are not doing something. Do what you do, and do it well. Finis coronat opus.
- 21. Join the professional organization. Now you have a professional identity to go with your meishi. Put it on your curriculum vitae, in the computer. And what other organizations are there? If there aren't any, get together with some like-minded students and start one. If you don't know any like-minded students at other schools, why don't you?
- 22. Go to the meeting of the professional organization. Now you know what its meetings are like. Right. But go again anyway. The forum for contributing to the field is no better than it is, but this is where it is. And where it will be, even after you get your own organization going.
- 23. Ask a question following a paper (don't be shy). But not two (respect the chances of others).
- 24. Interview for a job you don't want, to practice for a later job you do want. Would you walk on stage to solo in the Grieg Concerto, without having played through it, at least once, the day before? Aspiring scholars do this all the time. Not all their aspirations are fulfilled.
- 25. Don't wait for things to happen, unless your name is George Dantzig. The one who should be planning your next career step is yourself, with maybe a little help from Philip Hamerton.
- 26. Find a journal in your field that accepts short notes. Do your next term paper on a topic that would make a good short note. Hand in the paper already formatted as for the note. Don't do things twice. Do them the second way, the first time. When the note comes out, reserve twenty offprints for ceremonial presentations and another ten for future grant applications. The other seventy are to send to people you want to read the note. Nobody actually reads the journal; offprints are the medium. See, you should have ordered extra offprints. When yours run out, make more copies from your master sheets. Always assuming that you had thought to save your master sheets.
- 27. Sketch out the curriculum vitae you would like to have in four years' time, and highlight in yellow the sections that need the most work. Make a realistic plan for doing that work. In two years. Keep the curriculum vitae on the computer, and update it every month. If at the end of any given month you have no updating to do, plan to spend the next month differently.
- 28. Find a large question that interests you; a career question. Locate a good point of attack on that question. Do your thesis on a topic at the point of attack.
The Last Step
- 29. Outline your next piece of research before you start working on your thesis. That outline will context your thesis, and define the job the thesis has to do. It will help to keep the thesis from stretching out endlessly, as otherwise it will.
- 30. The one virtue a thesis can possess is to be finished. Plan to finish it. In six months.
- 31. Don't finish Chapter 1 of your thesis and then start Chapter 2 of your thesis. Write your thesis all at once. If you must segment, start at the end and work backward. You can't compose the overture until you have the opera. Rossini was sometimes a little rushed with his overtures, at the last minute, on the afternoon of the first performance, but the opera as such was done months earlier.
- 32. If relations with your thesis advisor sour during the writing process (or at any earlier period), you will need to consider shifting - to another advisor, or another school. (Don't make the mistake of initiating confrontation procedures. The advisor's behavior may be outrageous, or even illegal, but any professor is more important to the school than any student, and you will lose the confrontation, besides the mere time it takes, plus the psychic wear and tear). This situation implies a failure to follow Rule 3. OK, so you loused up. But here is where the senior people you know in the field (Rule 14), and your list of publications (Rule 26), will come in handy. The publications make you more portable, and the acquaintance gives you rights of consultation about the portability process. It's not the most pleasant way to finish, but since many academic careers are an extended study in portability anyway, you can count it as useful practice, and carry on. Winning arguments (especially those involving the higher administration) is not the big thing. The big thing is to carry on.
Now you are out. Congratulations. But remember that a degree is just a learner's permit. You are free to begin the real work. The freedom part is wonderful, but don't forget the real work part. For some absurdly simple tips on the daily routine of the real work, in case you haven't already picked them up empirically (and you should have), see The Scholar's Checklist:
15 July 2012 / Contact The Project / Exit to Advice Page