grad skool rulz #2 – learn the unspoken rules
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A few weeks ago, I started a new feature: grad skool rulz. The idea 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 wasting time. This week’s advice: learn the “unspoken” rules.
What do I mean? It’s pretty simple – every program has informal rules about how to get through the program. For example, I learned that at the Chicago econ program, students prepare for the infamous general exam by studying previous exams. In theory, you should be able to pass just by taking the econ core courses, but it turns out the exams cover specific topics in specific ways that aren’t always covered in econ core courses. It’s way easier to work from older exams and work on basic skills, then memorize tons of materials, most of which never appear on the exam. So this is one informal rule of many programs: practice from old exams and ignore coursework. There are other rules: avoid exams in topic X; take courses with professor Z; and don’t spend too much time studying for foreign language exams – except if you are a foreign language grad student!
How do you find out about these rules? It’s actually pretty simple – ask successful graduate students who are still in the program, the people who have finished coursework and exams in a reasonable time period. You will soon find out that graduate school is kind of like a mine field. There are all the invisible dangers, but they are easy to avoid if someone points them out to you. By talking with other successful graduate students, you will get a sense of how “things work” in your program. Try to get a handle on the following topics:
- Which courses & workshops are useful.
- How to fulfill requirements in a straightforward and quick manner.
- Certain personalities to approach or avoid.
- How to pass the graduate exams, which topics are on the exams and how to answer them.
- How to get financial and academic support in the program and from other units on campus.
- How to approach professors, as students and possible collaborators.
Orgheads are invited to add informal rules in the comments.