what do 1st-year grad students need to know?

I’m back from ASA and engaging in a little just-in-time production of syllabi. (For anyone who’s wondering, I did take notes on the “future of orgs” panel and will write those up, but want to run them by the presenters before I post them.)

As grad director, I get to run the proseminar for first-year graduate students. Ours is one hour a week, both semesters. In the past, about half of it has been faculty introducing students to their research areas — e.g. urban week, work & orgs week, demography week, etc.

But grad students have expressed dissatisfaction with this format, and I don’t think faculty are overly thrilled with it, either. So I’m trying to mix things up a bit and make it more immediately useful.

One challenge is that while we want students to get the message about the need to publish, etc., in the past they’ve found such messages a bit overwhelming in the first year, when they’re still trying to figure out how to get through Durkheim. So I’ve tried to approach this from the perspective of, “What do you need to know your first year of grad school?”

Here’s what I’m thinking in terms of weekly topics. This is by substantive area, not chronological. Most weeks will involve guest speakers; I’ll lead perhaps 1/3 of them.

  • How to get around the university
    • Intro to the grad curriculum (DGS)
    • Introduction to the department (department chair)
    • How to get things done in the department (graduate secretary)
    • Guide to library resources  (librarian)
  • How to get through the first year of grad school
    • How to “read” 1000 pages a week (DGS)
    • What I wish I knew my first semester (2nd and 3rd year students)
    • Mid-semester check-in (open discussion)
    • Surviving stats (stats faculty, 2nd-year grad student)
    • The “hidden curriculum” (including race, gender, class issues; DGS and possibly grad students)
    • Successful TAing (one faculty, one student)
    • Making the most of your RA experience (ditto)
    • Time management (DGS? Or someone better with time management skills…)
    • The personal side of grad school (social life, psychological challenges) (not sure…)
  • Thinking about the next year
    • What do I do in the summer? (2nd and 3rd year students)
    • Reverse CV exercise—find people whose jobs you want—what did they have to do to get there? (DGS)
    • Planning years 2, 3 and 4 (DGS)
    • Looking back—how’d the first year go? (open discussion)
  • Thinking about finances
    • Fellowships and grants (DGS)
    • Financial aid & personal finance (financial aid office rep, advanced students)
  • Learning about the profession
    • An overview of the profession (DGS)
    • Developing a publishable research project (one student who collaborated with faculty, one who published from MA?)
    • Developing mentors (advanced grad students)

Then there are a few topics that seem important, but that are not primarily first-year topics. I may include some of these, but open the meetings up to advanced grad students as well:

  • My first article (advanced grad student)
  • Publishing in AJS/ASR (faculty)
  • Will your dissertation be a book? (book faculty)
  • Types of jobs (guest panel—research, teaching, non-academic)
  • Presenting at conferences (advanced students)
  • Choosing a dissertation topic (advanced student + faculty)
  • Finding postdocs (???)
  • The transition to becoming faculty (new junior faculty)

What do you think? Additions? Omissions? Things to skip?


Written by epopp

August 22, 2014 at 1:35 am

Posted in academia, sociology

22 Responses

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  1. This is a great list. I plan to forward it to our dgs for comment/reflection. Some of my thoughts are in my old hoops and hurdles speech. I wrote it maybe 15+ years ago and I’d change it now if I rewrote it, but perhaps worthy of some reflection:



    August 22, 2014 at 2:01 am

  2. And here’s another essay which I’m fond of and which had some good comments:



    August 22, 2014 at 2:09 am

  3. @OW — Awesome, I will be passing these along.



    August 22, 2014 at 2:10 am

  4. OK I realize I’m filling the stream but one more thought: tell students it is ok to change advisors and tell them what to do if they have concerns about how they are being treated by their advisor or other faculty. Telling students overtly that you are willing to be a confidential sounding board if they have concerns about how they are being treated is probably the single most important thing to do to improve climate for graduate students. When I was DGS I sent around an email titled “how to change advisors” which advised students that they could change advisors, making suggestions about how to do it tactfully, and offering to provide confidential advice as needed. I got MANY positive responses from students for sending it. FYI this memo also said that advisors were allowed to dump advisees (which rarely but occasionally happens) and what to do if this was happening to them.

    Liked by 1 person


    August 22, 2014 at 2:17 am

  5. As a grad student (although not in sociology, so YMMV) I’ve gone to a bunch of department ‘advice events’ that included both faculty and students. Inevitably, even those students bold enough to give advice in front of faculty restrain themselves so as not to offend. I wouldn’t waste your time trying to fit both in at the same time. If you want genuine student to student advice you have to leave the room. I think the structure is great though and quite general.

    Liked by 2 people


    August 22, 2014 at 3:06 am

  6. Advanced graduate student here. I think this list looks great. I really value the things I learned in my proseminar. I would recommend that you definitely talk about fellowships before the NSF pre-doctoral fellowship is due (november). Applying for this is such great practice for applying for stuff (obviously), getting faculty on your “team” early on, forcing you to think about a research trajectory, etc.

    Liked by 1 person


    August 22, 2014 at 3:13 am

  7. Paul Edwards has a lovely guide called How to Read a Book that might be a useful resource for the how to “read” 1000 pages/week session.


    Dan Hirschman

    August 22, 2014 at 5:08 am

  8. man, if our prosem was ⅓ as good as this lineup, I’d be so much better off. This is excellent and I think if you can pull this off, you’ll have some lucky new students.


    grad student

    August 22, 2014 at 12:18 pm

  9. Thanks for the comments. @ZC, that’s a great point about openness of discussion — should be obvious but somehow once you’re on the “other side” it’s not. I will be sure to make some of the weeks students-only (e.g. “what I wish I knew…”). But hopefully some of the topics (e.g. “surviving stats”) can be useful with a faculty-student mix too.



    August 22, 2014 at 1:08 pm

  10. When I did a masters degree in psychology,w e used The Compleat Academic (2nd ed.) as a textbook for our proseminar, which lasted two semesters, and worked through it one chapter at a time. I thought that was really effective. Amazon allows you to look inside it, so you can check out the table of contents. Even though it’s by psychologists, all of it except for perhaps the Bem chapter apply to all of the social sciences. The Bem chapter is primarily about writing a psychology journal article.

    We also had practical assignments including a mock job interview and a conference presentation.

    I would ask students to consider purchasing Getting What You Came For by Robert Peters as an optional text as well.


    Chris M

    August 22, 2014 at 2:19 pm

  11. When I was a final-year grad student, the first-year students asked me to ask the department chair on their behalf to set up a proseminar-type session on how to write a CV. I also think some serious discussion on how soon you need to get a project together to start presenting at conferences and publishing in time to have things out before you go on the market is important. And when discussing conferences, I would also emphasize the importance of networking, getting involved in ASA sections, etc.



    August 22, 2014 at 3:26 pm

  12. I think it’s very helpful to provide new grad students with all this info, but it can also be important for them to hear stories of potholes along the way, and how long it can take to learn to do great work, not because one is dithering but because it can be a slow process. Otherwise first-year grads can get a sense that if their first term papers aren’t that great, it means they don’t belong in the program. I am concerned that this might especially affect grad students from groups underrepresented in the academy, since they may have less presumption that they’ll be fine. A realistic sense, rather than an idealized sense, of the various paths through grad school that end in successful employment of some form or other seems like it might be the key.

    FWIW, this was something I always struggled with in relation to the NSF three-year grad fellowships. I had one, and in subsequent years of grad school I used to help incoming students in the cohorts below mine with their applications. It makes such a difference to the grad school experience to have three years of funding, and it makes such a difference to first-year grads’ applications to have some basic workshopping (I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten the fellowship without the people who generously commented on my drafts), that it seems crazy for a department not to have an organized way to workshop these applications. But it can also have a pernicious effect that grad students who don’t have a great research idea in their first two months of grad school — which in my opinion is completely normal — can become very demoralized. This was a dynamic in my own cohort. I’m not sure what is the best way to balance this.

    Liked by 1 person


    August 22, 2014 at 3:57 pm

  13. My two cents: a brief critique of the standard prosem, with 15 suggestions for imporvement:

    Christopher Uggen and Heather Hlavka. 2008. “No More Lame Pro-sems: Professional Development Seminars in Sociology.” Pages 191-216 in Academic Street Smarts: Informal Professionalization of Graduate Students, edited by Ira Silver and David Shulman. New York: American Sociological Association.



    August 22, 2014 at 4:09 pm

  14. I agree with Elizabeth’s idea about lowering expectations a little bit. One week, we had a panel of 3rd-year students who had just been through the MA process, and 3 out of 4 of them had had terrible experiences because they felt inadequate, were with the wrong advisers, didn’t have the right data for their project, etc. It’s important to know that other students have struggled and felt incompetent as well. It takes a lot of the pressure off.



    August 22, 2014 at 4:11 pm

  15. Thanks. Just to be extra clear, I’m all for high expectations on two points: how hard (and, maybe more important, how regularly) grad students should be working (a pace that is intensive but sustainable), and the quality of what they will *ultimately* produce.

    But I’m for realism about the fact that working hard now to produce something great later is completely compatible with producing things that are not very good now. It’s when early-year grad students get the message that their *first* products should be great that I think we can end up demoralizing people without cause. I do think that the NSF fellowship program, which is a great program in every other way, tends to reinforce that error by attaching such high stakes to a research proposal in one’s second month of grad school.

    So, to me, it’s worth thinking about how to make prosem programs that help students succeed in these high-stakes early tasks (the Ford pre-diss fellowship is another one) without making them overly invested in very early success as a barometer of later success. I think trajectories through grad school are too noisy for that.

    (For what it’s worth, I just cleaned out old files and found some of my own early-year grad work. It was awful! I’m grateful to the faculty who responded so substantively and constructively.)



    August 22, 2014 at 4:46 pm

  16. The trick is to help students develop a healthy skepticism about the discipline and the academy, without drifting into a debilitating cynicism.
    Done properly, graduate school is manageable and really hard, and very different from an undergraduate program in social sciences. Candor about all of this–including disappointment–helps.


    David S. Meyer

    August 22, 2014 at 5:59 pm

  17. This looks far better than my pro-sem back in the day. I agree with emphasizing realism in how to get things done in grad school and land a job later.

    And I’d also recommend that some general discussion about career trajectory would be very helpful – something along the lines of Clemens et al’s “Careers in Print”. If you want an R1 position N years from now, what should you be doing? Or if you want a teaching position N years from now, what should you be doing? And how can you switch trajectories (or get back on track) if you change your mind?



    August 22, 2014 at 6:11 pm

  18. re cwalken: Don’t forget realistic discussion of job market and non-academic options. If we are going to pretend from day 1 that only academic jobs should be considered, we won’t be doing justice to our students.

    Also realistic discussion of variable skills fungibility, areas with over/undersupply and how to balance doing what you love with doing what someone will pay you to do (although this latter discussion is probably best held in year 2, not year 1).



    August 22, 2014 at 6:34 pm

  19. I feel like another issue to address, preferably before the first year even begins, is that a PhD program is much like a research apprenticeship. If you’re going into a PhD to become a researcher, that’s a good decision, but if you’re going into a PhD because you feel like it’s a continuation of an undergraduate degree, you might want to reconsider your decision.

    Although it’s a tricky subject, it might also help to address the sunk cost fallacy, and tell students they shouldn’t feel obliged to finish a PhD if they come to the realization halfway through the program, that another career track is better for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    Chris M

    August 23, 2014 at 9:01 pm

  20. I add discussion of various kinds of harassment and sticky ethical situations, focusing on bad things faculty may do to you as a grad student. This includes relatively minor things like RA overwork to more serious issues like stealing student ideas, academic misconduct, and sexual quid pro quos. None of this is common in my experience, but it’s good to get it out there and introduce some key concepts, as well as department and campus resources.

    Liked by 1 person

    Philip N. Cohen

    August 24, 2014 at 6:39 pm

  21. “Steal ideas” is a pretty murky concept. I’ve known faculty who were worried about students stealing their ideas, as well as the other way around, but ideas are a dime a dozen and people who worry about having their pearls of spoken wisdom stolen and getting published by others need to get a grip, in my opinion. The whole point of an academic community is to bat ideas around. Anybody can spin out ideas and imagining that you can claim an idea on the basis of one sentence or 5 minutes of conversation is silly. (Writers of fiction complain that non-writers think a plot idea is all there is to writing a novel. But, in fact, many different novels have been written using the same few standard plots.) It is research, analysis,writing that matter.

    Now, having your professor put their name on something you have written, that is stealing. (And it happens.) Having a professor write a paper that uses without credit the ideas and research of a student that came in by way of an actual paper, that is stealing. Lab scientists use time-stamped secure lab books to claim property rights in their ideas and also their experiments and lab results. But it has happened a lot that different scientists have gotten the same idea at about the same time, because it is typically a logical consequence if ideas floating around. Social scientists who are worried about others appropriating their ideas or research similarly need to keep time-stamped secure journals or lab books and/or deposit papers in secure archives.

    I guess the implication of this rant is the need for some discussion with students about, on the one hand, you can’t copyright some random idea you tossed out in a seminar and, on the other, you do have property rights in your written work and may have recourse if someone else steals it, although the power relations often mean that you choose not to prosecute when you have been plagiarized.

    Liked by 1 person


    August 24, 2014 at 7:20 pm

  22. This is all so great and useful. One thing I’ve thought a lot about in recent years that isn’t covered in prosem or anywhere else that I can recall, & that is related to (or builds on) your comments, Philip, is guidelines for students on how to deal with issues of harassment, sexual assault, & abuse, whether from faculty, other students, or even while doing fieldwork, and also advice on where to turn in case this happens. Increasingly, issues of abuse and assault are being addressed at the undergrad level but at the grad level, it’s almost assumed these things don’t occur (and I have no idea what the code of conduct or sexual harassment policy is in my department, for example). NYTimes published a great OpEd on this issue recently:

    Another thing: we all know that grad school can be an incredibly difficult time mentally, with many students experiencing anxiety and/or depression for the first time. It would be great to include a small bit in prosem on (a) how normal this is, and (b) where students can turn for help. It’s important not to scare students away, of course, but it’s also important to let them know that if they experience these things — and it is likely some will — they are not the first, they’re not alone, and there are resources available to help them.


    Aliza Luft

    August 26, 2014 at 8:37 pm

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