Advice to Graduate Students
By Carlos J. Alonso

Excerpted from Carlos J. Alonso, "Editor's Column: My Professional Advice (to Graduate Students)," PMLA 117 (2202): 401-406. © 2002 MLA

  • Keep in mind that during the first years of your future career as a professor, your pedagogical repertoire will probably depend a great deal on courses that you took and on readings, bibliographic material, photocopies, and other instruments of scholarship that you read or received while in graduate school. Do not throw away anything that you may use in the future to plan a course or a seminar. Buy a filing cabinet at the beginning of your graduate career, and devise a consistent system to organize such materials.
  • Understand that conducting a good class is a skill that can be learned just as any other; rid yourself of the widespread notion that people are either born teachers or not. Take the time to become aware of your professors' classroom strategies: how the tempo of the class is set, the tactics used to elicit participation and sustain discussion, the balance established between presenting material and allowing the group to arrive at it. Even ineffectual teaching performances can serve as useful workshops for an attentive pedagogue in training. Take liberal note of what works and what does not in all aspects of the classroom.
  • Remember that in the vast majority of academic jobs, you will be required and expected to be (at least in the beginning of your career) a generalist. This applies to the usual divisions of the undergraduate and graduate curricula by centuries or movements, but it applies as well, for instance, to genres and critical perspectives. There are myriad intellectual reasons why limiting the range of courses you take while in graduate school is foolish, but if they don't convince you, this fact should: you never know what you will be called on to teach as an assistant professor. Many students arrive in their first year of graduate school knowing exactly in which area they will specialize, and they see taking courses outside it as an obligation and a chore. Some programs unwittingly encourage this view by allowing students to shape their reading lists according to their individual interests. Chances are that anything outside your area that you do not read while in graduate school will go unread.
  • Take as many courses as you can outside your department. Open yourself to other literatures and other critical approaches. The more narrowly you define the parameters of your scholarship, the more you preclude opportunities for meaningful contributions to your field of study.
  • When you write a paper for a course, do not tailor your paper to the professor in that course. Work to arrive at a critical voice of your own. Your discourse and your effort should be uniform throughout your various papers. If in your view the professor's performance is lacking somehow, remember that the authors you have read are excellent and that you owe them a good paper.
  • Learn the MLA Style Manual rules and conventions for bibliographic citation thoroughly, and apply them accurately and consistently. If you use them for every paper you write in graduate school, by the time you graduate you will know them by heart.
  • Do not attach yourself too dearly to your writing; learn to erase, modify, and, above all, discard anything you have written. Just because you wrote something doesn't mean it is clear, exact, or right.
  • Learn a word-processing program backward and forward. Make it second nature, until you are able to compose directly on the screen with it. Become completely familiar with computers in general: they are without question the future of publishing, manuscript submission, and information retrieval. Become familiar with Web writing as well: this is the future of teaching.
  • Keep in mind that a dissertation is an occasional exercise and not a book. Be original, but also understand the limits that must be placed on the thesis by its nature. The book will come later. Beyond a certain point, every year that you spend writing your dissertation counts against you. Stick to the schedule you and your thesis advisor design for the completion of the stages of your work.
  • As much as you can, familiarize yourself with the inner workings of the institution where you do your graduate work. If you remain in this profession, you will spend more than half your life in the academic environment, and it is in your best interest to know it well. The same goes for the structure of your department. I am continually amazed that graduate students often have no understanding of the differences between an assistant professor and a full professor (or of the process that takes us from being one to the other) or how department chairs differ from chaired professors.
  • Avoid taking sides or otherwise getting involved in disagreements or fights between faculty members in your department. Resist any attempt by a faculty member to involve you in a conflict he or she has with a colleague. You will only lose regardless of whom you side with.
  • Some professors will want to be your confidants. They will provide you with information you should not have to receive information you should not give. Identify this situation for what it is, realize its dangers, and if you decide to walk into it nonetheless, do so with eyes wide open.
  • The friends you make in graduate school will be the first network you will have as a professional. Your continued relationships will be helpful for, among other things, placing your students and, more generally, for keeping in touch with your field outside your chosen area of specialization.
  • From your first year onward, think of yourself as a fully invested member of a professional field. Make every effort to participate in all scholarly and social activities sponsored by your department: guest lectures, job talks, workshops, receptions, and so on. Like any other, this profession includes a lot of conventional, codified behavior that (to paraphrase Yogi Berra) you can observe by watching.
  • Read critical articles on works outside your field. Remember that criticism is a professional language game and that you are trying to get a sense of what critical moves are allowed and judged successful in an engagement with a text. There is no reason why you should restrict your repertoire to the moves of critics working in your field.
  • Be aware of your position in the departmental hierarchy, but do not be afraid to speak your mind as long as you can justify your opinions on intellectual grounds. People will respect you for thoughtful assertiveness.
  • Understand that graduate school is as much a psychological environment as an intellectual one (at times more so). Departments tend to take on all trappings of family life: tensions, scapegoating, alliances, favoritism, secrets, and the like. Realize that this is perhaps inevitable but also that, although you can't choose your relationship with your family, you can decide how much energy and time you are going to put into this dimension of your department, even if sometimes it doesn't feel that way.

Our undergraduates blissfully know little about our professional life; this is in all likelihood one reason some of them choose us as models and decide to become academics. And if the difference between an undergraduate and a graduate student is but one summer, we must ensure that for prospective graduate students the end of summer marks both their loss of innocence about what we do and the beginning of a professional education in which they will learn by themselves as much as from us.