There’s a lot of good advice around here – not to toot our own horns, it’s the truth! Here’s my own two cents on recommendation letters. Sometimes it’s really difficult to know who to ask, and how. If you’ve done a special research project with a faculty member, that’s a great place to start. If you haven’t, it’s not too late! Have you written a paper you are especially proud of? Use that as an “in” to get to know a professor. It can be tough approaching professors for favors like these, and that’s why it’s important to develop a good rapport with your letter writers beforehand. And above all, put yourself in their shoes. Does the person know enough about you to write a good letter? If you have doubts, it’s time to put some face time in.
I had some trouble thinking of who to ask for letters when I applied to graduate school. One reason for this is that I took two years off between undergrad and grad school. If you are thinking about taking time off, try to find ways to maintain contact with those undergrad professors who will be writing your letters in the future. Even one or two emails – maybe seeking advice on your grad school search – are a better prelude than emailing someone out of the blue and requesting a letter. Another tip for those taking time off: use your time wisely. Grad schools want to see that you are making progress, even outside of school, and contacts made in the interim can also write those letters for you. I chose to volunteer for an anti-looting organization during my time off. This gave me valuable experience and an additional letter of recommendation. Even a little volunteering over a summer or winter break can broaden your horizons (please excuse the cliche) and produce a great letter from a new perspective.
I hope you all had time to celebrate a little! I got a little carried away in costume planning one day. It was worth it, but now I’m paying for it by frantically trying to finish a grant proposal before tomorrow’s looming deadline. I’ve secluded myself in what I like to call “The Isolation Chamber” – a room tucked away at the back of my house, away from distractions generated by roommates, spouse, or large windows with a view of the outside world. Having a place where you can really focus is critical in graduate school. So whether you prefer a desk at the library, the backroom at Soma coffeehouse with your headphones on, or a room like mine, find your happy focus place and use it when the deadlines loom!
This month it’s time for advice on seeking advice!
some factors to consider when choosing an advisor
Finding the right advisor is a big part of applying to grad school. I bet you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating because it’s true! You want to find a good match because your advisor will be an integral part of your academic life for years. One of the most important things to me for choosing an advisor is similar academic interests. This can mean a few things. In an ideal world, your advisor and you will…
be interested in similar subject matter
be interested in the same region of the world (at least, this is true for anthropology and probably many other fields)
have similar philosophies or approaches to your work
You can start to investigate these three things just by browsing through the work that the person has published, but eventually you will want to exchange emails to really figure out if your interests are similar. Sometimes the information you find online won’t reflect new directions that a professor’s research is taking. My advisor recently switched her geographic focus from Belize to Central Asia – that’s a big shift! And of course, if at all possible, it’s always good to meet the professor in person. All that said, it’s hard to get all three of those things in one person – and this isn’t even a complete list of desirable advisor qualities! My advisor and I are interested in similar subject matter and have similar philosophies, but we don’t study the same region of the world. That’s okay, and you can often compensate for the areas where you don’t match up by selecting secondary mentors. I have an advising committee of four professors, and each one aligns with my interests in a different way. So when you find an individual who you think might be a great advisor match for you, take a look at other people at the same institution and consider who else would make a good mentor. When you build a network of advisors, you don’t have to rely on a single person to fulfill every role and your academic perspective will be well-rounded.
Maybe it’s a little early in the semester to be talking about rewards, but we all need some motivation to keep us plowing through the readings/papers/meetings/deadlines that are our daily routine. Even the most serious-minded student needs to take a break sometimes, and if you plan little “gifts” for when you get through certain tough spots you’ll be able to have an academic life and a life-life too. Don’t miss out on the sweet things – use them as motivation to keep yourself productive. One thing I never miss out on is enjoying Indiana in the fall – going hiking, picking apples, taking pictures. It’s absolutely lovely here during autumn, and getting outside to experience it boosts my mood. And there are always those other incidental benefits too…
Okay, well maybe it’s not foraging per se, but it’s fun and outdoorsy and you can do it at Anderson Orchards in nearby Mooresville.
P.S. If I seem too carefree it’s because I JUST FINISHED MY QUALIFYING EXAMS! Hooray! I’ll share some more serious advice on quals in an upcoming post.
Starting graduate school is a little like being thrown head first into a rushing current and not knowing which way to swim – all the new information, new people, and new questions can quickly become overwhelming. For a little while, you might feel like you’re struggling to keep your head afloat – but don’t worry! Things will get easier with time. In his previous post Tony mentioned networking, and I’d like to continue from there with some valuable tips that I have learned since starting grad school three years ago. Networking can expand your opportunities out there in the wide world of academia, but it can also be an enormous help close to home in your own department. If you haven’t met them yet, here are three groups of people who can help you make sense out of your first weeks of school:
Senior Grad Students – They’ve been in your place before, and they’ve learned lots of tips and strategies in their years in your department. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel – go to them with questions on classes, how many credits you should be taking, program requirements, where to eat – all of it!
The Office Staff – These people keep your department running, and they are great people to know. I go to my department’s staff with all those technical questions (like “How many credits do I need to take my qualifying exams?” or “Do language credits count towards my degree?”). Being friendly with the staff has made my grad life much more pleasant.
Department staff might seem menacing... but they are actually great friends to have. (Left to right: Agatha Wong, Linda Barchet, and Susie Bernhardt of the Anthropology Department)
Your Advising Professors – This one might seem obvious, but checking in regularly with your advisor(s) will keep you on track. They can help keep you aware of deadlines and opportunities, but they can also give you the reassurance that you are doing just fine and banish the “imposter syndrome” doubts you might have.
Networking with these three groups will help you academically, but it will also help you feel like you are a part of the grad student community. And that’s important!