Jan 252003


amory’s 19-point guide to graduate school

check out the new “guide to your supervisor/advisor


  1. Don’t try to read everything assigned in your classes. You risk destroying your ability and interest in reading anything at all. You will have to reread it anyway if you ever publish in the area, so rather than reading every word focus on learning the landscape and what is at stake. Write really useful briefs with heavy citations that can guide you when you return. You must protect your mind and your love of learning from the academy’s disciplinary regime of shame and intimidation — which is not only demoralizing but also depoliticizing.
  2. Learn ASAP how to read a text and summarize it accurately in one paragraph with minimal but appropriate necessary quotations (such as phrases unique to a new theory) and maximum citations (every important point in your summary, even if you don’t use a quotation, should be cited to a particular page or page range so you can find it again). Summarizing requires distinguishing between your reaction to a text and what it actually argues. This is one of the most important skills you need to get in graduate school. It makes your work both easier and more credible.  It also helps you know when can congratulate (and reward) yourself for having done one unit of reading/lit review, because you’ve got your little paragraph done. Allow yourself to write about your reactions, but do so separately, also using quotes and citations there. Being able to find some things that are wrong, contradictory, or offensive about a text is NOT the same thing as being able to summarize the argument, which is an essential task not only for producing academic work, but for being a responsible, informed intellectual. (It’s sorta like being a good listener who doesn’t constantly distort, judge, react to, or put words in the mouth of your friends in conversation.)
  3. Don’t ever try to “work all day”. It’s a big waste of time. Try to work for 2 hours every day. If you do that you will find you’re getting more done than when you sort of bounce around your office or cyberspace for 10 hours straight. As you organically become more connected with scholarly work and your work, you will slowly find yourself able to work effectively for longer periods, but this will probably take years.  Don’t push it, it’s toxic. (You’ve gone toxic if you’re totally “stressed”, never have time for friends or political meetings, are always “working”, and aren’t getting much done…  The cure is to spend 2 hours actually working, then stop even if you’ve hardly gotten anything done and go to a political meeting and then beers with your friends. And again the next day do TWO hours.)
  4. Give your faculty SHORT things to read as your work is progressing. If you have developed a collective understanding with them you won’t have to do major re-writes. Another reason for handing in short pieces is that there is an indirect density relationship between submissions and feedback; ergo, the shorter the piece you give them the richer feedback you’ll get. When they have 100 pages to read, you’re not going to get feedback on writing issues, just on overall structure.  
  5. After each meeting with a member of your committee (thesis, exams, dissertation) write them a bulleted memo summarizing what you think was decided at the meeting. If they only see you or your work every 4 months, you’ll likely get an entirely different (and possibly contradictory) response from them each time, partly because they simply can’t remember the details of what happened last time (also because different aspects of your work will bring out different ideas and responses in them, because they’re intellectuals). The memo will be of great assistance to them and you in keeping track of your consensus about project development. (With the number of projects and info they are processing, there are many things they can’t remember, and don’t be surprised when things you thought you would always remember start slipping…)
  6. One of the hardest things about graduate school is that you keep having to write things like proposals, exams, and theses when you don’t really know what a proposal, exam, or thesis is. Looking at other people’s can give you a sense of form and the quality range, but the more difficult issue is trying to get a sense of the scope and intensity of what you are trying to produce. In my experience the best way to learn about this is to talk with your faculty early on and continually about your exam, proposal etc. as if you are pitching a movie, like a very quick, 5 sentence outline, mentioning the main points, arguments, and sections as if it’s a story. Hopefully they respond by saying things like “well in a proposal, it’s mostly lit review and methods and you really don’t need to put in all that high theory yet, but you will have a chapter on that in the dissertation.” (Comments like that can save you a LOT of work.) You’re looking for them to answer in a way that not only achieves the kind of agreement discussed above, but that helps you get a sense of what the hell this thing is that you’re writing.
  7. Do not assume that the faculty individually or as a whole have thought through how to actually train you for the discipline, the type of job you seek, getting tenure at the kind of institution you’ll be in or anything else. Demand specific training from them, like “How do i figure out which journal to submit a given article to?”, “How do i ‘keep up’ with journals when they’re so dumb and boring? Which ones do i read and how much of them do i read?” OR “How do i write a successful journal article when my work is very complex; i feel i can’t tell this story in 30 pages?” OR “How do i find out what kinds of things community colleges are looking for in faculty hires?” OR “What sort of things are supposed to happen in a ten minute conference presentation on a 60 page chapter from my dissertation?” They will probably be happy to help you with these things, but be aware that they are not thinking as if they are responsible for actually TRAINING you. (Overseeing you writing a passable dissertation is not the same thing as training you.)  Don’t avoid embarrassing or revealing questions like this in hope of impressing them, it’s not worth it. In the long run, they’ll like you because of what you pull off in your dissertation, not because of how professionalized you acted as a student. And if you don’t get this training because of your pride you’ll wish you had.
  8. Tell your faculty what you need from them: deadlines, gentleness, mentorship, advocacy, encouragement, gratuitous advice, unyielding demands… Otherwise they will likely be excessively hands-off out of respect for you as an independent person.
  1. Academic journal articles are absurd, arcane, boring, poorly written, and have little relation to anything you care about in the world. Academic conferences are essentially a manifestation of the poverty industry. These events are so hypocritical that any self-respecting radical will never go anywhere near them. HOWEVER you can have a secure job for life with more political freedom than any other if you can manage to get 6 journal articles published and make a few conference presentations. If you can publish 10 journal articles or so you can probably get to live somewhere interesting. This is actually very little work with a lot of payoff. THEREFORE, while in graduate school learn how to write journal articles. They are deceiving monsters. Most are so boring that it seems an obvious task, however when it comes time to translating your work into one of these short, dull pieces, you will find it surprisingly difficult. GET HELP learning the formula for writing them. Your faculty must teach you this.
  2. Do NOT write a book. Despite being a significant and seemingly meaningful activity (unlike writing journal articles), books only count about 2 articles toward tenure so it’s not worth the effort. And your political allies won’t have time to read them. Spend your political writing time doing short pieces for magazines and websites that people actually read. 
  3. While in school do political work with undergraduates. Faculty and graduate students are generally too stressed out about their careers to be reliable political allies. Undergraduates, on the other hand, are less encumbered and more willing to be confrontational and hopeful. If you don’t make time to be an activist while in graduate school you will not like who you become. Your graduate department is not a good vehicle for activism, so don’t be depressed or affected by what doesn’t go on there politically. Recommended reading: Chris Dixon and Alexis Shotwell, “Leveraging the Academy: Suggestions for Radical Grad Students and Radicals Considering Grad SchoolMonthly Review 12.1.07
  4. After surviving the indignities of graduate school, you will gain a little bit of status, prestige, and financial security as faculty. However your academic work will continue to be demoralizing. You feel that you must master and keep up with an impossible amount of material. You will never know enough and you will live in fear of getting caught not knowing something that you should. While you will get positive feedback from students, most of your colleagues will appreciate your successes and failures only insofar as they provide useful cannon fodder for their own careers and egos. You will find only sporadic meaning and fulfillment in this work. You may have very few or no colleagues with whom you have satisfying intellectual relationships. Therefore, you must DESIGN a life with political activity and meaning. The academy WILL NOT meet your political (or social) needs on its own. You will have to make a political path outside/beyond the academy. See your academic life as one part of an overall plan for your political, intellectual, community, and life-meaning development. This is a big task. Live your life as a graduate student building political connections, activist skills, community involvements, and popular pedagogy so that in the next phase of your life you will already know how to connect with communities and do political work outside of the academy as a public intellectual, a community member, a citizen in service to social justice organizations, a political activist, etc…
  5. Marry/commit to someone you meet during graduate school. Choose someone with a more marketable and portable skill than a phd. If you must date a graduate student (or have a hard time meeting other people), try to find someone doing a professional degree or a terminal masters so that they will have more job flexibility and mobility than you. Do NOT count on there being a lively singles scene where you get a job. Realize that most non-academic people your age will be married with infants by the time you finish your phd. (If there’s no one to play with, being single is not quite as fun…) A partner can also protect you from total dependence on the professorial job market.
  6. Maintain (or learn, if necessary) some popular social activities, like softball, fantasy football, or pool so that you will have something in common with your fellow citizens when you graduate. (Note: Film crit does NOT count.)
  7. Learn a backup skill so that you are not 100% dependent on finding a tenure track job somewhere that you want tal-poo live. Accounting, grantwriting, landscape design, and anything in the construction trades (electrical, plumbing, carpentry, tile) are excellent choices because they are highly portable, decently paying, and potentially independent livelihoods which could give you more freedom to make decisions about your life as well as get you through if you end up as a temp lecturer.
  8. Read Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes their Lives (2000: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham) by Jeff Schmidt, a physicist and former editor for Physics Today. Or read my summary.
  9. Know that radicalism is not necessarily activist. If you accept this, it will save you a lot of time and energy wondering why so many scholars seem to be incredible hypocrites.
  10. Activists experience the intellectual-political work of scholarship as part of the struggle. But I’ve come to understand the academy as a place where I do some outreach and networking, and sometimes try to transform the institutions to be more liberatory, but for the most part my academic job is not part of THE struggle. This job is a way to support me and the work I want to do. I’m recognizing that playing nice with people I don’t actually respect is a way to get that support. If I network and be nice then my expertise may get recognized and I could get publications, invitations, jobs, etc. that take care of the material needs so i can be more free to do what i really want to do. Another need is to get recognition for the work I do. Taking the war to work, to conferences, to textual debates means that I’m undermining the basis of security and witness which would enable me to fight the real struggle. I’m not saying to hold back on the political values of the work, just that it doesn’t hurt to be nice to people, even if they’re liberals or the kind of radicals who never do anything.
  11. You might also want to read my short chapter in the book, Academic Repression.