grad skool rulz #1 – get the rules!

Get the entire book – Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure – for only $2. You can read it on personal computers, Nooks, Kindles, iPads, and smart phones.


One of my goals is to de-mystify academia. I believe that one of the main obstacles in getting people through graduate education is that they are ill informed about how things get done. That’s why I am introducing “grad skool rulz,” a semi-regular feature aimed at grad students. I can’t claim to know everything, but I will try to communicate some basic bits of information so that grad students, and others in a similar position, will have the information they need to navigate the academic system. Every once in a while, I will post a rule of thumb that has helped me make it this far in my professional life.

So here we go, Grad Skool Rulz #1: Get the rules! Ask for a written copy of the regulations of your department. Then memorize the rules.

Explanation: To complete your degree, you will need to know the requirements. Every program has a graduate handbook that lists the degree requirements. Go to the graduate secretary or dept office, or website, and get a copy. Right now.

This is very important because a lot of people:

  1. Waste time doing things that don’t get them any closer to finishing the degree.
  2. Satisfy requirements in completely bone headed ways that waste time.
  3. Are shocked to find that they can’t advance in the program because they didn’t do some lame requirement. Avoid these problems by learning the rules.

I have also found that faculty members sometimes give bad advice because they don’t know the rules of their own program. Why? Because professors usually have earned their degree in the distant past at another school. They almost certainly don’t know the details of the program where they teach.

My favorite example: I once attended a panel discussion on getting into grad school that had four professors from the same department. A student asked: “Is getting an MA a requirement for the PhD in your program?” The professor at one end of the row said: “No, in fact, we just abolished the terminal MA program in our program.” Then, the professor at the other end yelled: “Hold on! I’m the chair of the MA program!! It hasn’t been abolished!”

You should also consult the graduate chair, or another knowledgable person, about grad school requirements. In my case, I often tell graduate students to consult the graduate director on technical questions. I can lecture for hours on economic sociology, but I really don’t know about the fastest way to satisfy the foreign language requirement at Indiana University.

You might ask if I advocate a “careerist” and instrumental approach to grad school. The answer is yes! Absolutely. In grad school, you will have many opportunities to learn from your friends and instructors. And you will definitely take courses purely because of a love of the topic. I took great courses in topics that are not related to my area, and I did some community service. You will also learn much throughout your life that has no direct career benefit. But I did spend time figuring how to fulfill requirements without wasting my time and I am very glad I did.

Overall, graduate school is a professional training program. Anyone who tells you otherwise is really missing the boat. Therefore, you should develop a plan that helps you achieve your goals, and this includes a strategic plan for fulfilling degree requirements in a timely fashion. And to do that, you will need a copy of the rules.


Written by fabiorojas

January 12, 2007 at 5:31 am

14 Responses

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  1. De-mystifying academia is a great topic, thanks, Fabio. From my own experience as a PhD student, I could add that it is equally important to know what is NOT required. I see a lot of PhD students around me (in Finland) thinking that getting a PhD requires knowing everything about everything. I doesn’t. Yes, it does require a lot of work, but getting the whole thing done is like getting any other task done – find out what’s required and what isn’t, find out what to do and how to do it and then just do it.



    January 12, 2007 at 8:43 am

  2. Great idea Fabio. I agree (wholeheartedly? vehemently?) that success in grad school and academia is heavily dependent on learning the game and the mechanics in addition to that theory/knowledge/research business.

    Your stuff here links with our “White Cards” project. I’d like to cross link your entries, if you don’t mind.



    Dan Myers

    January 12, 2007 at 2:35 pm

  3. “…figuring how to fulfill requirements without wasting my time”

    I think that this is key. That MA thesis can be your first publication. Reading for exams is a great time to think of dissertation ideas and explore the literature. Course papers can build on one another, fulfill other requirements, or get sent out after comments and revisions. Even teaching in grad school, if it’s a requirement, is a great opportunity to prep some courses carefully to carry with you to your first job.



    January 12, 2007 at 5:30 pm

  4. […] new feature from Fabio Rojas at Highly recommended for (current or prospective) graduate-student […]


  5. An excellent idea indeed. I happened to take a look at your website and the PDFs on job talks and the job market. I think both are excellent, with one major exception. In the job talks one you suggest practicing in front of a mirror. This is AWFUL advice. Every public speaking colleague of mine would agree. You cannot concentrate on what you are saying when you are also trying to watch yourself. It’s horrifically distracting from the actual speaking. You are much better off videotaping yourself or having a few friends for an audience and getting feedback from them.


    Steven Horwitz

    January 14, 2007 at 4:48 pm

  6. […] is simple: give common sense tips on how to get through graduate school. Last week, the advice was “learn the rules.” Get the graduate program announcement and figure out how to fulfill your requirements without […]


  7. […] previous advice on getting through graduate school, please see grad skool rulz #1, #2, and […]


  8. […] grad skool rulz #1, #2, #3, #4, […]


  9. […] Grad skool rules # 1: Get the rulz! […]


  10. […] grad skool rulz #1 – get the rules! […]


  11. […] at has a whole series of posts on getting the most out of grad school.  Here is the first post and here is the whole series (via Marginal […]


  12. […] Skool Rulz One to […]


  13. […] chair and/or secretary and ask for the university, college and dept rules concerning dissertations. You should have gotten the written rules by now, but if you haven’t get […]


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