just graduated, and fumbling through grad school.*

This NYTimes article, Just Graduated, and Fumbling Through a First Job, appeared in my newsfeed today, despite being published last week. My initial thought was that it would make a nice addition to the “Examples from Everyday Life” links for my Social Psychology class (impression management, socialization, age vs. cohort differences, etc.). But my DGS role soon eclipsed those thoughts and I imagined a parallel piece that might appear in the Chronicle of Higher Education, as the article had a lot of insight that new graduate students could benefit from.**

The article begins with Tara Goodfellow, a career coach in Charlotte, North Carolina, reflecting back on her own career with Alina Tugend, the Times writer. Now in her late thirties, Goodfellow wishes that her 21 year-old self would have known: “How to manage my expectations, learn about office politics and realize that perhaps I didn’t know it all.”

Goodfellow points out that workplace issues with the next generation often get boiled down to work ethic (or lack thereof), but that it is much more (both structural and personal) than that. In the rest of the article Tugend draws in on insight from Goodfellow and other successful folks about how new college grads should navigate their careers post-college.

Here are some of the insights of the article, tweaked a bit*** so that they apply to graduate programs and the prospective and current students navigating them (or hoping to):

Most [departments and universities] operate with fewer employees and tighter budgets than ever before, so there’s not as much willingness — or time [or funding] — to let [new students] come up to speed gradually.

Rapid technological changes mean that some [students] are much more computer-savvy but also that ideas of etiquette — what’s the problem with engaging in a conversation and rapidly texting at the same time? — may differ widely.

One of the big problems for new [students] is that they don’t know what they don’t know, especially when it comes to soft skills — like working with people and being self-motivated — as opposed to hard skills, like knowing how to code.

An online study, the Student Skill Index, of about 2,000 college students from 18 to 24 years old and 1,000 hiring managers found large gaps between students’ perception of their level of preparation and employers’ perception. For example, a far greater number of students saw themselves as very capable in the areas of prioritizing work, organizational skills and leading a [discussion] than did [faculty in their departments].

[The expansion of methodological training, theses requirements, and undergraduate journal promotion] of many departments means [that] “there’s a higher bar for [prospective students] to demonstrate their value [to a program]. Now when you show up, you’re expected to hit the ground running.”

But experts say they believe that [new students] need to think in terms even more basic than soft or hard skills, such as old-fashioned manners, grooming and communication.

Garry Polmateer, 35, a co-founder of Red Argyle, a company that designs custom applications, said that in his first job, he wished he had understood the importance of dressing professionally, or at least ironing out the wrinkles.

One of the most common mistakes workers make at their first job is to appear entitled, especially if they think they’re overqualified for the [program]. [New students] shouldn’t act like “this isn’t what I signed up for,” [Vicky] Oliver said. “If you have a chip on your shoulder, you’ll make [your grad school experience] worse and [have difficulty finding an advisor, department allies, and securing recommendation letters].”

Say you end up as a [teaching assistant for a class you have no interest in] — not the [assignment] you planned for when you [accepted this grad school’s offer]. Nonetheless, “learn about [this professor’s pedagogical approach. Even if you don’t agree with her assignments or reading list, ask her about how she created the syllabus, what an appropriate reading load is for the students there, how she preps. Show her that your interested in her work and take notes about what you will, or will not, do in your own future teaching],” Ms. Oliver suggested.

Timothy R. Yee was that [annoying graduate student] who thought he was hot stuff. He graduated [from a prestigious undergraduate program and was accepted to the top program with a generous fellowship on his first try]. “Someone told me to spend six months getting the lay of the land,” he said. “I didn’t. The way they were doing [sociology and running their program] was obviously wrong and I was going to tell them.” “I was insulting, arrogant and shallow,” he said.

As a new [student], it is often hard to figure out the line between being too passive and too aggressive.

“I was lucky to get [accepted to] a prestigious [grad program] right out of college,” said Heidi Waterfield, 48, who [is now a super successful sociologist]. “I had always done well in school, but had no real [graduate] experience until then. So I assumed [grad school] was like [undergraduate school]. I sat in my office and waited for assignments. When they came, I fulfilled them to the utmost. I was bored out of my mind.” Her [advisor] finally called her in and told her she needed to take more initiative.

Megan Hall, 28, had the opposite experience [in grad school] — being too willing to take on projects. “I was too eager to show my capabilities, and that was easily taken advantage of by my [advisor]. I often would work 50 to 60 hours a week for a $20,000 position,” she said. “I wish I would have known how to better pace myself professionally, to slowly figure out what I was capable of doing while maintaining a good work-life balance.”

Learning to read the people around you to see if you should initially hang back and watch or jump right in is a crucial skill to develop, Ms. Oliver said. And if you’re not receiving any positive feedback, “I always think it’s a good idea to check in with a supervisor during a calm moment and solicit feedback,” rather than waiting for [major grad school milestones or funding decisions], when small deficiencies may have grown into serious trouble.

So, if not the Times, where can grad students go to get advice on how to navigate their programs and to make a great impression? There are always the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, Fabio’s Grad Skool Rulz, or a wide variety of academic blogs (including those in our blogroll on the left, like the relatively new Conditionally Accepted).

But there is also a new resource that I would like to briefly plug, The Hidden Curriculum. Originally intended for members of the Sociology of Education section, The Hidden Curriculum is branching out to help others. It has a number of cool features that should make it particularly appealing to students. First, it covers topics relevant to current students, post-docs, and junior faculty. Second, the content is almost exclusively reader driven. Readers can submit their questions anonymously and the people who run the site will enlist the help of experienced folks to respond to those reader-posed questions. That brings me to the third feature, the wide variety of contributors. The blog includes a range of voices, some being from the very top scholars in the field. I highly recommend that folks check it out and that some of you submit a question, as I know they would love to get new material up there (and I am overdue with my own contribution – forthcoming, one of these days – on choosing a mentor in light of some of the research out there). And, if you’re well beyond this stage in life – lucky you! – take a few minutes to send your students that way so that they can benefit from the collective wisdom and figure this thing out out long before Goodfellow and the others in the article might have.

* Although also relevant to students who graduated a while back and/or who are attempting to stumble, or actively stumbling, into grad school.

** Maybe some people think I’m being to hard on students by singling them out. There are certainly faculty who would benefit from topics in the article, including considering things like basic manners and investing in an iron (or a personal stylist). The fact is, this advice is good for anyone. The business leaders in the article don’t give advice on what to do to land the job or our first promotion. They were arguing that this is what they wish they had known all along.

*** This makes the quotes not real quotes, so please don’t attribute my tweaked words to these folks who graciously contributed to the actual article.




2 thoughts on “just graduated, and fumbling through grad school.*”

  1. Thanks, OW. While I don’t think that smug or entitled and disadvantaged backgrounds are necessarily mutually exclusive, I think that the list might be less relevant to the disadvantaged folks because they are more likely to have learned these things well before college graduation. It’s telling that the article is titled, “…fumbling through a first job.” Lower and working class students are much more likely to have had full-time jobs before they set out on their post-college job/career and have already honed these important skill sets. I certainly learned a lot of the above (particularly as related to a workplace, but also graduate school) by working at my parents’ restaurant and McDonald’s in high school and before college.

    I also think that some of the things on the list might be more common among disadvantaged backgrounds (working too much without saying anything, erroneously thinking that grad school is an extension of undergraduate school) and that any type of explicit socialization/professionalization information is particularly important for people who might not have significant others who are in professional positions.


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