by Rosa Conrad

Recently, I was asked to speak to a group of new graduate students in a Master’s program for sociological practice and offer some words of wisdom and advice for these students who may be nervous, eager, and dare I suggest excited as well? I dare, so perhaps excited. I didn’t prepare a script or notes and without really having time to think about the advice I was going to give. I simply said what came to mind. I talked endlessly about staying close to your cohort, how they will be the ones to understand what you are experiencing in grad school, understand the workload and stress, the isolation from your family and friends, etc. I suggested that they be prepared and work on their literature reviews throughout the coming semesters and to stay organized. I shared that having potlucks with your cohort bonds you with them and that food is essential to getting through those four-hour-long classes. Lastly, I mentioned being in their seat last year feeling like an impostor and looking around thinking, do I belong here? Did someone make a mistake? Thinking that perhaps I should walk out the door because I didn’t feel I was ready for what was to come, because a year ago I truly had no idea what was in store for me. And I reminded them that a committee had decided that they did so therefore they did. I stopped for a split second to think of what else to add. I was left with nothing else to suggest. I drew a blank.

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Now that I have had more time to consider I could have added that it is essential to meet all the professors you may want to ask to be on your thesis committee. Take time out of your busy schedules and do some research on them. Look at some of the work they have done, read some of their research, ask if you could attend one of their lectures, and make an appointment to meet them. This is more important if you did your undergraduate work at a different university or if you are not coming from the sociological discipline. Before you know it, you will have to select your committee and the person who you may really want has already been asked and is no longer available, and you may be left having to look for someone else. If you were smart, then you won’t have a problem selecting someone else because you have an idea of who to ask. If you didn’t, well, then that sucks for you because you are now left wondering who to ask and may not know if they are a right fit for you.

You may be wondering, right fit? By this, I am referring to the following:

Are they familiar with the research you want to do? This by no way indicates that they need to be because, well, let’s face it man any if not all the faculty are in their positions because they are the crème de la crème. It helps though if they are familiar with your research topic because they can help you with suggesting readings as they have read much of the literature already. They can recommend books and may connect you with some of their contacts in the area you are interested in doing research. Professors work on their own research and are familiar with their own given topics, and if yours is along the same lines, then they can be a great resource. They are also knowledgeable in other areas and will have suggestions, but you may have to do more research on your own to further your knowledge on that particular subject. There are other things to consider such as:

Does your work style mesh well with theirs? This is important, even if it may not seem to be. If you are very structured and they perhaps are more relaxed, for example, this may not work for you. Or vice versa. You may need someone who is organized and structured because you are not.

Does their schedule work with yours? You will have to set up meetings and if you work schedule is not open to when they are available, it only complicates it for the both of you when you may need to meet.

Who do you want to ask to be your chair, your second, and your third member? Consider this carefully and make a list of why you are putting them in that order. Shuffle them around and see how this scenario would be different.

How many committees are they currently on? Are they the chair, second, or third person on these committees? Knowing this will let you know how busy their schedule might be.

Don’t be afraid to ask them directly and upfront whether they have the time to be on your committee.

Ask who they work well with, and with whom they have been on committees with.

For those in their first semester, you may be thinking you have time and you do, but before you know it Spring semester has begun and you are now having to start organizing yourself for the Fall. This would include having your committee decided.

What other advice do I have? Well, I could do a ten-week blog on this, but for now this is what I have come up with. Below are 7 things I wish someone would’ve told me before I began my graduate program:

  1. Apologize once at the beginning of your semester to your loved ones for neglecting them and then stay focused on what you need to get done and get it done.
  2. Be ready to spend long evenings at home and on campus finishing up work. Weekends blend into weekdays.
  3. Read all of your emails from your professors.
  4. Ask questions no matter how stupid you think they sound.
  5. Don’t underestimate yourself.
  6. Take time to breathe.
  7. When you have time to sleep, sleep.

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