What Every Successful Academic Comes to Understand While in Graduate School

Scaling the Ivory TowerGreetings! My name is Alex Salter, and I am an assistant professor at Texas Tech University. I’m also a research fellow with TTU’s Free Market Institute. I’m going to do a series of posts on navigating graduate school and the job market in order to build a successful academic career. My advice will be geared primarily towards aspiring economists, but lots of what I have to say will be generalizable across disciplines in the human and social sciences.

First, it’s important to enter graduate school with your eyes wide open, and with a clear understanding of your priorities.

A PhD program is not a continuation of college. This is usually hardest for students who enter PhD programs immediately after college to understand. You are in graduate school to learn how to be a researcher. This will prepare you for an academic job.

If you know you don’t like doing research, or you don’t want an academic job, I strongly urge you to reconsider getting a PhD. There are other kinds of graduate programs for those who want careers in, say, policy work or the private sector that have far smaller opportunity cost.

By the time you get to the job market, you want to be able to demonstrate that you are a competent academic, and that you will be a welcome addition to any prospective department.

There are multiple things you can do in graduate school to accomplish this.  At a minimum, by the time you finish your graduate program, you should plan to accomplish the following:

  1. Attend an academic conference and present a working paper
  2. Teach a course for which you are the sole instructor of record
  3. Publish (or have accepted for publication) a solo-authored article in a reputable peer-reviewed journal

Your main focus in graduate school should be on making the transition from student to scholar.

You’ll notice I didn’t say anything about coursework in the above list. That’s because your focus should be on producing your own original research. Passing courses and your field exams is important, of course, especially if you’re on, want to stay on, or want to acquire funding. But since you are pursuing a PhD, others simply assume that you have the intellectual capability and self-discipline to do these things.

In addition, it cannot be said often enough that the best people in the classroom are not always the best people at being contributing members of a scholarly community. Making the transition from being a consumer to a producer of research can be difficult, which is why I want to spend most of my time talking about navigating this transition.

Graduate school can be, and should be, intellectually satisfying. I remember my graduate school years fondly; the intellectual environment fostered a constant creative high. There’s no reason you can’t do everything within your power to maximize what you get out of graduate school, while simultaneously having lots of fun. Over the next few weeks and months, I’ll go over in more detail everything I said above, to help you make graduate school as productive as it is enjoyable.

See more posts: Surviving Grad School 

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