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57 ways to screw up in grad school

A discussion with the authors of a cheeky new guide for graduate students.

By ASHLEIGH VANHOUTEN | October 27, 2015

Perverse professional lessons for graduate students: that’s the aim of a clever new book, 57 Ways to Screw Up in Grad School, written by Kevin Haggerty, a professor of sociology and criminology at University of Alberta, and Aaron Doyle, associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University. Using plenty of personal experience, humour and a “do it this way if you want to fail” approach, the two have curated a guidebook for grads that is as entertaining as it is useful. We chatted with the authors about the genesis of the book, and if there are even more ways to screw up in grad school that we should be aware of.

University Affairs: How did the idea to write this book together come about?

Dr. Doyle: We have been friends since we did our master’s degrees together. Today as professors we both supervise a good number of graduate students. We have both also been the graduate chair of our respective departments. Over the years we found that students often make a series of predictable missteps that they could easily avoid if they only knew the informal rules and expectations of graduate school. So, we thought it would be helpful to write down some of these blunders to help graduate students have a better chance of having a successful and enjoyable experience in grad school.

UA: Besides being a somewhat unexpected and entertaining way to present the information, why did you offer your wisdom as “ways to screw up” instead of ways not to?

Dr. Haggerty: No matter how the issue is framed, we are ultimately trying to help graduate students do well and have an enjoyable experience. However, grad students are famously busy dealing with immediately pressing tasks. How to get such people to take the time to read about the important nuances of graduate education? Rather than write yet another dry “how to” book, we hoped the “screw ups” theme – combined with lots of personal anecdotes – would help get students’ attention and result in more of them actually engaging with the advice. Interestingly, some veteran grad students are going through and checking off how many of the screw-ups they have already committed, just as we ourselves were guilty of a number of them.

UA: How did you go about gathering and organizing the information?

Dr. Doyle: Much of the information comes from our own experiences and those of our colleagues and grad students. However, graduate programs are extremely diverse. So, in preparing the book we interviewed people from across campus who had a wide range of experiences and who helped us refine our advice. To that end we incorporated suggestions from deans, students and faculty working in different disciplines, people working in financial services, in writing centres, on research ethics boards, officials responsible for student discipline, people working in the international student centre, and so on.

UA: You list 57 ways to screw up, ranging from overarching concepts that anyone can incorporate (“cheat and plagiarize”) to the more specific (“do not seek teaching instruction”). If you had to condense the entire book into a few key points, what would they be?

Dr. Haggerty: We list five key general themes in summing up the book at the end: make the most of opportunities when they are presented to you (which for a PhD student might mean, for example, grabbing the chance to contribute a chapter to a book in your field); take charge of your own life and your path through grad school, rather than waiting for your supervisor or others to do it for you – but look for help when you need it; build mutually supportive and friendly relationships with faculty, fellow students and support staff; and forge a personal reputation the minute you apply to grad school. These are the main themes; the book is about giving you the specifics.

UA: You dedicate some time to discussing supervisors, including the advice about not choosing “the coolest supervisor.” How do you choose the right supervisor?

Dr. Doyle: Most importantly, students should not look to any single factor when choosing a supervisor – say, the person who publishes the most, or who is personable. Students should ask their peers, professors and especially the potential supervisor’s existing students about whether that person is recognized as a solid choice. Do her students finish their degrees, and in a reasonable time? Does she publish work of high quality in prominent venues? Does she have a record of getting her students published? Does she equitably co-author articles with her students? Is she too overwhelmed with other commitments to provide personalized attention? Has she secured research grants? What kinds of jobs did her previous students obtain? Is the supervisor immersed in her academic community? Do colleagues and other graduate students find her easy to work with?

You should also consider your own needs and which of these factors will be most important to you. You will probably not find someone who has the perfect combination of attributes, but it is important to weigh a diverse range of professional and personal qualities before choosing a supervisor. It is one of the biggest decisions of your academic career, especially at the PhD level.

UA: Another piece of advice is not to “concentrate only on your thesis.” How do we avoid making that mistake?

Dr. Haggerty: It would be hard to downplay the huge symbolic importance of the thesis. At the same time, it would be great if we faculty were more candid with our students about the range of other activities that professors and researchers do beyond writing a large research project. Depending on the specific discipline, master’s students may or may not need to publish, but these days a PhD student who only concentrated on their thesis and did not publish or present their work at conferences along the way would have little chance of landing a job as a professor. More generally, it is important to spend time in your department, get to know your colleagues and participate in a range of departmental activities. Grad school can be isolating, and such participation makes the experience more rewarding at a human level, is energizing and can have a range of intangible benefits as you build relationships and learn the ways of the academic life.

UA: There were a couple points about not expecting others to “understand” or “hold your hand,” and this also relates to school/life balance. How do grad students best navigate this balance and interact with family and friends who may not understand the process?

Dr. Doyle: Students need to take responsibility for maximizing opportunities, and for managing their program and career. Some people, such as your supervisor and graduate chair, will occasionally offer advice and guidance, but students ultimately have to take control of their life and program. Part of this involves asking for help and guidance when none is immediately forthcoming. This is really no different than the situation for people in most other occupations. However, the fact that graduate students have a “supervisor” can sometimes mistakenly lead students to believe that they should passively wait for guidance about every aspect of their program, research and professional development. Students have every right to expect sound guidance, but at the end of the day they have to take charge of their own programs and careers, and sometimes to push their supervisors and committees to get what they need.

We stress throughout the book that it is healthy and wise for graduate students to maintain a mix of academic, social and family activities. Sometimes this means having to inform friends and family about the unique aspects of a graduate student’s lifestyle. This is particularly important in relation to time management, as people unfamiliar with graduate school will sometimes presume that students have more time to socialize or carry extra family responsibilities because their schedule seems more open than with a traditional job. In fact, the opposite is true. Grad students must also adjust to pressures which mean they could be working literally all of their waking hours. They need to learn to carve out down time to recharge and tend to their personal life. Graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint, and students need to learn a livable pace to reach the finish line.

UA: Do you think grad students are less prepared these days than they used to be?

Dr. Haggerty: It is hard to talk about “all students,” given the explosion in higher education enrolment and increasing diversity in graduate programs. What is probably true is that there is now a greater spread in student preparedness. At the weaker end of the spectrum are students who have been poorly prepared for the realities of a career in research and academics. This can likely be attributed to such things as the growth in graduate programs, increasing time constraints on professors and minimal training in how to effectively mentor graduate students.

At the other end of spectrum are a group of students who are far more prepared for careers in academics and related areas than was the case even 20 years ago. Better departments have put more time and energy into professional training for grad students. Twenty years ago there were also extremely few resources available for a graduate student who wanted to learn about the hidden rules and rituals of graduate school. Today there are more books like ours that offer students advice on how to succeed – or not screw up.

UA: Do you have any specific recommendations for grad students who are not planning to pursue a career in academia?

Dr. Doyle: If you are contemplating pursuing a career outside of academia, you can take several steps to help improve your chances. Try to find other people who did the degree you are doing and went on to careers outside academia. See if you can buy them a coffee and get some tips on the pathway from grad school to success in that career; most will be glad to help you out. Ask your supervisor, the grad chair, grad admin staff and other faculty and students for help identifying such people and contacting them. Also, take steps to develop any marketable skills related to your field that might be desirable outside of the academy. While still in grad school you can start to read about other professions where you might find employment, which can include subscribing to relevant listservs. You can also start to network with people in these other fields, which can be done by attending workshops, conferences or career days related to occupations outside of the academy.

UA: Are there more ways to screw up grad school? i.e., can we expect another book, or any related projects?

Dr. Haggerty: There are certainly more ways to screw up, and we would love to hear from any readers who want to to offer their own suggestions. They can also post their own screw ups on our webpage. We don’t know if we will write another book on this topic, but many people have suggested that someone needs to write a book on how to screw up as a graduate supervisor.


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  1. Bruce Shore / October 30, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    The advice summarized in this article sounds marvelous. I look forward to reading the book.

    As for how not to screw up as a supervisor, there is (with apologies for listing my own book):

    The graduate advisor handbook: A student-centered approach. (The University of Chicago Press)

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