And So It Begins…
With its perennial mix of enthusiasm and anxiety, the academic year begins. For some of you it’s the beginning of graduate school, for others the return of routine or the continuation of ongoing work. In any case, here we are again.
Unfortunately, graduate study resembles “school” (we even call it “graduate school”), with its suggestion of tasks being set by others and students dutifully completing them (or not). This is terribly misleading. For master’s students, the resemblance is particularly close, and disguises the importance of shifting the control of what’s going on toward the student, not the taskmaster—er, professor. For doctoral students it’s all the more urgent that the student start creating his or her own box in or out of which to think.
Like weddings and bar mitzvahs, graduate study is the beginning of the rest of one’s life. From the start, the student needs to figure out where she or he wants to go. Not just how to get to the degree, but what it is for and what needs to happen in pursuing the degree so that the longer-term goal is reached in good shape. This is not just the choice of which subject matter to emphasize or which courses to take. It also means thinking about which relationships to cultivate, to whom to reach out beyond the faculty members of the one’s degree program, what skills are needed to complement the standard ones of the field of study.
For doctoral students, it means thinking early on about the kind of research that will best prepare for the career goals chosen. And, therefore, the mentor(s) best suited to supporting those goals.
The risk is drift. Take courses, read a lot of stuff, spend time working in the most convenient lab, postpone the real decisions, let fate unroll its verdict. These are childish things.
Be, as the French say, sérieux. It’s your life you are beginning.
At the same time, do remember to smell the roses.