Jason Brennan on How to be a Graduate Student

Graduate students can often be left in the dark when it comes to actually being a graduate student. Dr. Jason Brennan, who is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Professor at Georgetown University, hopes to shed some light on these issues and help graduate students overcome these difficulties. We spoke with Brennan about these challenges and how he overcame them.

Fortunately for Brennan, he developed a mentorship with his former teacher and Kendrick Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, Dr. David Schmitdz.

jason brennan
Jason Brennan
Brennan Book

What began as an idea posed by Brennan to Schmidtz about possibly switching fields, turned into a lifetime relationship that has been equally rewarding for both scholars. Along the way, and with guidance from Schmidtz, Brennan discovered many tips and tricks which helped him to not only survive but to excel in a competitive academic job market.

Recently, Brennan published Good Work If You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia, a refreshing but sober look into the academic marketplace and what that means for graduate students today (John Hopkins University Press, 2020).

Here are some of the most notable tips for graduate students offered by Brennan:

  • Don’t let the urgent get in the way of the important: There will always be a myriad of things that present themselves as urgent, but prioritize the important first as it will be worth it in the long run. For example, many people become overwhelmed and inundated with emails they view as pressing and requiring an immediate response, which can disrupt the flow of work that is most important for graduate students who are trying to gain a leg up on their writing and research. In other words, it’s prudent to focus on what will give you an academic edge over the competition, like writing and publishing, rather than siphoning time from these productive activities to ones that warrant less urgency, like administrative emails.
  • Reward yourself when you reach a goal or pass a milestone: Once you accomplish an objective, allow yourself to be rewarded for your hard work. This incentivizes you to work even harder for your next goals. It also prevents you from burning out early in your career for a lack of enjoyment. If you get a paper published or win a teaching award, treat yourself to something nice or find a way to celebrate the occasion.
  • Budget your time so that you’re prepared in times of stress: When you allocate your time efficiently, you have more leverage to confront challenges that manifest themselves unpredictably. This helps to alleviate stress that will undoubtably arise in the course of your academic career.
  • Spending more time on writing and publishing is encouraged: Whether or not you want to get a teaching or research-focused position, publishing early and often is the most assured way to get hired and do what you most enjoy.
  • Always be ready to discuss anything you put on you CV for at least an hour: Anything on your CV is fair game for an interviewer to bring up. Expect to talk on anything you include on your CV for at least an hour, which is not unusual in an academic job interview.
  • Network, network, network: Reaching out to professors or even fellow graduate students can be a great opportunity to potentially publish papers or even books in the future. These relationships can also help to build your academic status and improve your changes of being published in a more prestigious academic press or journal.

These are just some of the many lessons Dr. Brennan learned and observed over years of trial and error. And as the supply of graduate students have continued to soar, any marginal advantage over the competition can be the difference between a desired academic position and one that leaves you wanting more.

Brennan believes these lessons require a demanding amount of self-discipline but are worth it in the end. Once a graduate student can master these skills, they are better equipped to handle distress and achieve their full academic potential. The result: an enriching career that can make a lasting impact on future generations of students.

IHS offers a wide selection of funding opportunities for graduate students interested in our core classical liberal ideas, as well as discussion colloquia and research and paper workshops. For additional stories on mentorship throughout the years and the Institute for Humane Studies’ 60th Anniversary, visit TheIHS.org/60.


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