Graduate School Superstars

Late last week, a friend of mine forwarded me something he’d gotten from a third, mutual friend (gotta love email). It was this list, taken from the Marian College Psychology Department’s handbook, a basic “how-to” for graduate students on becoming so-called “Superstars”. The list is an excellent resource for incoming graduate students in psych (and other fields as well), and echoed a lot of my own personal goals and personality in grad school. I figured I’d post on it and point out a few anecdotes.

  • When I was in graduate school, I was in the office 3-4 days a week, and made it a point to say hello to people, roam the hall a bit, poke my head into other’s offices to see what was going on, etc.. I did this mostly because I was tired, bored, or a combination of both. However this made me highly visible in the department. Other students I knew for a fact were in 5-7 days a week, working many more hours, did not do these things (In fact, they were annoyed at the suggestion they should). When they were tired or needed a break, they’d surf on their computer, go somewhere outside the department (the union) or just close their office doors and pretend they weren’t there. While this gave them the same temporary unwind as I got from wandering around, it also made others go “so-and-so is never around…”
  • The list notes that “superstars listened, learned, grew, and produced through close working relationships with faculty” which I apparently did without realizing it. I believe I enjoyed a very close and mutually beneficial relationship with my advisor, J.D. Jasper, which helped him both get work done and evaluate my progress, while also allowing us to become friends. Still, I never tried to take advantage of this, knowing that while we were friends, until the day I defended, I was still his student. In the years since, during my postdoc, I’ve realized that this is not the norm – most graduate students I observe at Columbia are detached from their mentors, have multiple mentors that they see perhaps 1-2 times per month, and generally don’t check in unless prompted to. Even worse, I’ve also noticed a few students (who shall remain nameless) who take advantage of the detached mentoring style to do subtle things that, if their advisors were to know about, would not be tolerated. How in the world are you supposed to build a good working relationship with people / a community of researchers if you make it clear that you don’t care to form any sort of social interaction with them? Your advisor can be your friend, within bounds, and should never be considered “just my boss”. This is why you went into academia in the first place – to have a boss that cares about more than just the bottom line.
  • Speaking of “taking advantage” of a faculty relationship. Shortly after I defended, I began to wonder how it happens that students fail their defense (Mind you, I was worried I’d fail mine, which in retrospect seems a bit like worrying that a tornado could strike my house – possible, but not plausible). I found a few threads that talked about how defenses were failed, and one story stuck out in my mind. It was of a student who failed simply because she felt that she’d been around long enough in the department that she was on level with faculty. I suppose I can understand how this happens. During my time at graduate school, we hired new faculty who, while 5-6 years advanced in their career from me, were still “new” to the department and thus it could have felt like I had “seniority” in some odd way. I can especially see this in situations where graduate students are teaching a “faculty” level load, have been doing so for a few years, and have a brand new tenure-track person come in who hasn’t taught in years due to a postdoc.

Anyway, I think it’s a great list for anyone advising students, or new students coming into a program. Graduate school is meant to be a time of learning, exploration, training, and even fun. Why some choose to treat it like a dreary boring job where they tred water for 7 years and then get to leave, I’ll never know!

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