Lessons from Graduate School, Part 1

Thirty-six days ago, I defended my dissertation from my kitchen on… Zoom. It was a far cry from the dissertation defense I envisioned in February. When I scheduled my dissertation defense, I planned to wear a black dress with a grey blazer (great for masking nervous sweat!). I imagined myself standing at the podium in the Geography Department’s seminar room, in front of the intro slide while my advisor introduced us. Instead, it looked like like this:

Screenshot of Dissertation Defense (30 Mar 2020)_LI
Screenshot of my Zoom Dissertation Defense [Photo Credit: Matthew Lee / Amateur editing for privacy: Me]
Due to extraordinary circumstances, I was separated from my work clothes (about 724 miles of separation, in fact), so I wore a black top and dark wash jeans, while I defended my dissertation in my kitchen. After all was said and done, I had minor revisions prior to pre-deposit formatting. After nearly 5 years of work, my dissertation is deposited!

Now, that takes us to the point of this blog post: What are my lessons learned from grad school? To answer that question, I have to foreground my response with context.

First, I graduated from undergrad (U.C. Berkeley) amid a recession as a History major. It wasn’t a great job market, and I quickly realized that my goal of going to law school might not be a good fit, and this conviction was strengthened as I witnessed friends graduate with law degrees into an extremely competitive and contracted job market.

So, after an unsuccessful search for full-time employment, I focused on short-term contract-based project work and freelance writing. It was hectic, but it paid the bills- rent, student loans, electricity, etc. I was also fortunate to benefit from the provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that extended dependent coverage to adult children up to age 26, so I was able to take the risk of being more or less self-employed, without employer-sponsored insurance. I also benefited from having been able to save from my job during undergrad, which tided me over in the dry months.

About 2 years later, I reapplied to graduate programs- this time, with the aim of getting a PhD in History. I had my sights set on being an academic- and I figured, a Plan B (read: not academia) with a PhD couldn’t be so bad- or that it’d be better than my current reality. I was offered admission into several programs- but routed to their Master’s programs. The program that offered me the most funding was the University of Chicago’s (hereafter: UChicago) Master of Social Sciences Program. And honestly, it had the best location of the programs I applied to, so I was happy.

row of books in shelf
Image Description: Metal bookshelves in a library / Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Well, long story short: the Master’s program at UChicago was essentially a bootcamp. In keeping with the spirit of the institution, it was very much a sink-or-swim environment, where some had life rafts, but the vast majority had a life vest, at best. You could say it served the purpose of showing who had the will and resources to continue on to a PhD program, and who did not.

I emphasize both will and resources, because it takes both. “Resources” take the form of income and wealth, as well as social capital (do professors care about you, a lowly Master’s student? If so, why?). I quickly learned that professors are- rightfully- busy people. And there’s a cold calculus in how their scarce resources- time and energy- are expended. Early on, I was brushed off by a professor who quickly assessed my proposed project on the basis of their notion of feasibility and determined that they did not wish to mentor me. In retrospect, I suspect that I was low in the hierarchy- a short-term “investment” that scarcely counted toward their tenure packet. Ultimately, it is helpful or advantageous for any student or would-be mentee or trainee to aim to be as self-sufficient and intrinsically-driven as possible.

The lessons I took away from my experience as a M.A. student in a Social Sciences program at a R1 university are as follows:

  • Being smart is not the same as seeming smart. You don’t have to have the most to say in the grad seminar. The masculinist posturing might curry favor in some contexts, but it is not the basis of careful or ethical scholarship. It’s OK to be thoughtful and make the most of the few words you say.
  • Being smart is not the same as being kind. Being kind is not a loss of power or social capital. It is not weakness.
  • People for whom commiseration is their primary form of sociality are not evergreen friends. In fact, keep your circles small, and take care not to share your dreams and goals with people who are quick to tell you what is and isn’t impossible.
  • Being right is overrated. The offensive posture of always being right can get in the way of building relationships and enabling effective communication. The messenger can indeed get in the way of the message.
  • There is no substitute for doing your own reading. But, there are ways to read more efficiently, and they will differ based on your discipline.
  • Pick your battles. It is important to observe institutional norms before jumping in. Don’t “pick sides”, because you might be stepping in a decades-old beef that has nothing to do with you. I would heed the advice of classmates who warn you not to cite X in Y’s class, however.
  • Remember why you are there. Toward the end, #JustHereForMyDegree was my internal dialog. I was tired, overworked, and underpaid, and I just wanted to finish my degree and get a job. Stripped down to the barest essence, my goal was to get work that paid me well enough to live- and afford healthcare.

In June 2013, I walked across the stage in the beautiful Gothic Revival halls of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and received my degree. It was a beautiful day, and I recall it fondly. I did not think that I would pursue any further education, because I hoped that a graduate degree was enough to clear the hurdles as a job applicant who faced racist and ableist discrimination in hiring and compensation.

Well, that wasn’t the case. I received a diagnosis that confirmed that I was deafblind, and I began the process of preparing- again- to further specialize for work that would be accessible to me as my disabilities progressed. So, it was back to school, after a year of working full-time in a role for which I was overqualified and underpaid.

I began as a doctoral student at the University of Illinois in Fall 2015. I was a student in the clinical audiology (Au.D) program for a year before I transferred into the Geography and Geographic Information Science (GGIS) Department at UIUC. I found that research, rather than clinical practice, was more accessible to me. I could better modify my work environments and technology to meet my access needs.

In my time as a PhD student (and later, candidate), there were a few key aspects that profoundly shaped my experience:

  1. Prior exposure to methods and subject matter
  2. Funding – internal and external
  3. Conferences
  4. Publishing

Coursework

In my time as a PhD student in the Department of Geography and GIS, I took coursework in Epidemiology, Geography, Community Health, Sociology, and Biostatistics. This was on top of the previous clinical coursework for the Au.D program (Neuroscience, Anatomy and Physiology…), so I actually took a wide range of courses with both lecture and lab formats. The biggest challenge I faced in the switch to Geography was learning GIS and spatial analysis. My previous research was all qualitative, but I did have quantitative coursework and training. That prior exposure helped a LOT as I transitioned to quantitative methods courses.

Funding

I also found that, at the doctoral level, my experience of grad school was more profoundly shaped by how my studies were funded. At first, I had a Research Assistantship (RAship), which meant that, on top of coursework, I also worked with a research lab. It was, without a doubt, an invaluable experience!

Then, in Spring 2016, I applied for and received a competitive national fellowship (the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Health Policy Research Scholars (HPRS) program), which meant that I was externally funded, and no longer needed to teach or work as an RA to have funding. The money bought back my time. Mind you, I still continued the collaborations that began when I was a RA.

It seems that doctoral students are increasingly expected to pursue external funding early and often. This expectation is communicated by universities when they invest in External Fellowships Offices. Depending on the discipline, external funding includes private and federal funding mechanisms, such as Wenner Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grants (Anthropology), National Science Foundation – Graduate Research Fellowships Program (NSF-GRFP – open to a range of social scientific, scientific, and engineering disciplines), or a Ford Fellowship. If you’re in the health sciences, you can apply for National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding mechanisms, such as R36 awards to fund dissertation research. It’s good to look into funding opportunities and make a note of the following:

  • Whether the grant or fellowship covers cost of living and/or research
  • Deadlines
  • Application requirements
  • How many letters of reference/recommendation (LORs) are required

I kept track of these funding opportunities in a spreadsheet, where I pasted the grant name, funder or funding agency, deadlines, application requirements, and number of LORs.

On that front, it is advantageous to build relationships earlier rather than later, so that you are able to ask for letters of reference or recommendation when you do apply for funding. Further, your relationship with your primary and secondary mentors is a huge asset in the application process, because they can help you hone your application materials, in conjunction with the University’s Fellowship Office (should you have one.)

Conferences

Another thing is: conferences matter a great deal more for doctoral students, compared with Master’s students. This is because conferences are essentially networking events with the opportunity to keep up with the latest scholarship. Presenting your work as a doctoral student means that you’re visible and you can meet people with like interests. However, the accessibility of conferences is another matter. There were points where the sheer cost of conferences amounted to a month of income (context: most grad student worker appointments are for 9 months). And, for me, there was the added layer of my disability and the mobility constraints that came with them, so I couldn’t just lodge with my fellow grad students in cheap hostels, because they were often physically inaccessible and farther away.

I was fortunate, because my husband was also a PhD student in the Geography Department, and we could share expenses associated with conference attendance. Still, every Spring and Fall, we had lean months due to conference registration and travel-related costs. Thankfully, this was offset by the Department’s conference travel funds for students.

To that point, my biggest piece of advice is:

  • Apply for conference travel funds at every chance
  • Don’t be afraid to push yourself and present work in progress at conferences– the feedback can be invaluable for improving upon your thinking. It can also be a nice external push to keep projects moving along.

Publishing

Now, publishing is a biggie. My first publication was 3 years into my doctoral program, and it was my first dissertation chapter. It took a great deal of work on my part, and on the part of my mentors to get the original work to a publishable state. It took many many many drafts until I finally understood what is expected of scholarly output in my discipline. It was a humbling process, and it was worthwhile. I am so grateful to the mentors who patiently worked with me throughout the process of transitioning from a consumer of knowledge to a producer of scholarly output.

Often, when we talk about publishing timelines, we are talking about the time between submission, review, and publication. The real timeline is between the project’s inception and the published results.

For me, that timeline began in Summer 2016, when I prepared for transferring into the Geography program by acquiring datasets and cleaning them and building literature reviews. The abbreviated timeline looks like the the below. This does not include the work

Summer 2016

  • Procure and clean datasets
  • Literature searches
  • Annotated reading notes and draft literature review
  • Practice with mapping and statistical methods
  • Begin systematic review study for RAship project #1

Fall 2016

  • First draft of dissertation proposal
  • First draft of first dissertation chapter – submitted as a term paper
    • literature review
    • methods section
    • preliminary results
  • Early draft of 2nd dissertation chapter
    • This chapter was the second half of my first draft of the 1st dissertation chapter

Spring 2017

  • First dissertation grant funding applications
  • Further work on 1st and 2nd dissertation chapters
  • Begin focus groups for RAship project #2

Summer/Fall 2017:

  • Drafted methods sections for 3rd dissertation chapter
  • Drafted IRB materials for 4th dissertation chapter
  • Defended dissertation proposal

Spring 2018

  • Finalized Chapter 1
  • Revised methods for Chapter 2
  • Procured data and taught myself the methods for Chapter 3
  • Submitted IRB documents for Chapter 4

Summer/Fall 2018

  • Submitted Chapter 1 for publication
  • Finished analysis for Chapter 2, in time to submit the abstract for conferences in Spring/Summer 2019
  • Finished coursework

Winter/Spring 2019

  • Revise & resubmit (R&R) for Chapter 1 is accepted for publication
  • Publications 2-3 accepted for publication
  • Presented Chapter 2 at the American Association of Geographers (AAG) meeting

Summer 2019

  • Presented Chapter 2 at the AcademyHealth Annual Research Meeting, and the International Medical Geography Symposium
  • Publication 4 accepted for publication

As you can see, research takes time. We know this intellectually, but the doing is something else. It’s important to keep reading. If you have a target journal, read papers that they published to get a sense of the structure and formatting. There are disciplinary norms that are not taught explicitly, and reading and studying papers in your target journal can help you pick up on them.

I think I’ll stop there for now. I’ll add more in Part 2!

Meanwhile, you can read previous posts on the topic of grad school here:

2 Comments

  1. Hi Arrianna! We met at IMGS and I think we had dinner together. I had no idea you had such a great blog. Helpful and insightful. Will be sure to follow -and congratulations on the successful defense and on your new position!

    1. Hi Sarah! I remember meeting you! I hope we can see each other a future IMGS meeting! And thank you for reading my blog :)

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