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.


Written by fabiorojas

January 26, 2007 at 3:50 am

12 Responses

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  1. You really can’t over-emphasize that “successful grad student” part. Seems like there are no end of opportunities in grad school to get advice from those folks who sit around in the computer room all day looking for people to chat with. If they’re not getting through the program on time, though, it may not be such good advice.



    January 26, 2007 at 2:42 pm

  2. Indeed, the people you should ask people are those who have shown some semblance of success. They are easy to spot: they seem to love intellectual work, they are actually doing stuff like collecting data and writing diss chapters/articles, and seem to be strategically thinking about the graduate program.


    Fabio Rojas

    January 26, 2007 at 3:24 pm

  3. You can also find out a lot about informal rules by just talking to your mentor/adviser. Besides guiding you through your department’s culture, your mentor will be able to tell you a lot about the discipline that will facilitate your success in the field. This must be at least as important as learning the informal rules of the department (or am I presaging another edition of grad school rulz)?



    January 26, 2007 at 8:33 pm

  4. I think we’re on the same page, Brayden. Your advisor can be a valuable source of information. But grad skool rulz #2 is about the specific PhD program you are enrolled in, not academia in general. So your advisor might not be the best judge of the nitty gritty.

    Even though I have been at IU for 3.5 years, the 1st year graduate students probably know more about “survival” in the program than I do. However, I do have a lot of insider knowledge about Chicago, because I got my PhD there. And I do hope that some of my knowledge is applicable to other programs. But that’s a topic for future grad skool rulz…


    Fabio Rojas

    January 26, 2007 at 10:59 pm

  5. So is it really a merciless snakepit?



    January 27, 2007 at 1:47 am

  6. It was better than Cats. I would see it again and again.


    Fabio Rojas

    January 27, 2007 at 4:31 am

  7. […] second in Fabio Rojas’s new series. This week’s rule: Know the unspoken rules. […]


  8. I wasn’t able to really start making headway until I had kids and a mortgage to pay off. Until not my life, but their lives depended on it.

    I don’t know if that qualifies as advice, but maybe a new rulz can be how to fit your personal life into a PhD program or the other way around (?).



    January 30, 2007 at 2:20 am

  9. […] grad skool rulz #2 – learn the unspoken rules […]


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


  11. Help! I just got into Georgetown’s Government program. I have no word on funding as of yet. I can’t go without it. Where can I start scrounging grants and fellowships? Is it already too late?



    March 21, 2008 at 6:26 am

  12. Great advice. One of the most important things to do in graduate school is to find a student mentor. As I came into my 1st year as a PhD student, I found someone I got along with in the same program who was a 3rd year PhD student. He saved me from making the same mistakes he had to suffer through.



    April 25, 2008 at 9:50 pm

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