Advice on surviving grad school

I’m still not sure how I managed to complete my PhD within 4 years and also get married in that time, but it must come down to:

  • Pick the right school – I was immensely fortunate to go to the dynamite George Mason (that dares to be different), and it meant that knowledgeable people, who shared my passions, surrounded me. If you study in an environment like that, you can’t go wrong
  • Preparing well – find out the textbooks for the core subjects and read them before you start
  • Find/create a good study group and stick with it – I find that learning is a social process and therefore a stable group of close colleagues is gold dust
  • Have realistic expectations – for me the first year was about survival. I’m consistently told that ambition and aspiration should exceed merely “survival”, but for me lower expectations seems to work
  • Drink productively^ – if you’re going to get drunk a lot, make sure it’s productive
  • Love what you do – my PhD mattered to me. I was willing to sacrifice a great deal. If it’s a chore then it’s a struggle, but I never grew tired of my subject and still want to discuss and develop the ideas I pursued.
  • Change the title at the last minute – without trying to contradict the previous advice, in the final few months of intense writing/rewriting of my dissertation I changed the title. As the formatting requirements began to take priority over the content, you begin to question everything. At about 4am I had a revelation and rewrote the abstract and changed the title. It was a good decision – not only was it a more accurate title, but it reinvigorated me and breathed new life into the project
  • Endure: it is a test of stamina. Pete Boettke likes to recite James Buchanan’s advice of keeping your butt in the chair. I believe that most academics are lazy, and if you work hard you will succeed. All writing is work and all work is work in progress. Just get it down and keep moving forward. If you go straight to grad school from undergrad you’ll realise that you’re open all hours. You can have a healthy work/life balance by realising that:
    • Your life is your work and your work is your life
    • You’re not working 9-5. Whenever you’re awake, you’re working.

Bottom line is that ideas matter.

More grad school advice:

As a warning, don’t ignore 6 bullet points on why people go into grad school in the Humanities (via Tyler Cowen). Mike Moffat has a guide here. Some funny cultural insights in grad school are here and here. Michael Munger has an excellent series of videos providing a Guide to Academic Publishing.


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