Advising: Over the Hoops and Through the Hurdles

Surviving the Graduate Program in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin

Pamela Oliver

This talk grew out of informal remarks I made to the entering class several years ago. When I was invited to reprise the talk more formally, the title OVER THE HOOPS AND THROUGH THE HURDLES was created by Paul LaPore (who is now on the faculty at the University of Washington). I was so inspired by the title, that I organized my whole talk around it. I’ll talk not only about the five big formal requirements — the hoops — of the program, but the five big unwritten requirements — the hurdles — in the program.

My perspective comes from my own history. I hated being a graduate student and I love being a professor. In retrospect, I now believe I was so alienated from graduate school because I had all the wrong ideas about how to think about the process. My suggestions to you are based not on what I did, but on what I now wish I had done.

I believe the reason graduate school is fundamentally unpleasant is that it entails inherently self-contradictory demands. Structurally, it is school, it is infantilizing. You are structurally a child, and adult teachers are ordering you around. I went straight through school, and when I hit graduate school at age 21, I was already too old to appreciate being treated like a child (Many of the people who work for a while before coming back to school find the infantilization even more intolerable, although others find that work experiences make them more motivated and tolerant of the structure of grad school. It probably depends on how bad your job was.)

If the status degradation of being treated like a child were not bad enough, the familiar contours of school are misleading, because they suggest to you that success is achieved by being very careful to do everything the teachers tell you to do, and that your task is to focus on being sure you understand exactly what their expectations are and exactly what they want you to do. But the truth is that you cannot succeed in graduate school by focusing only on doing what you are told. While amidst this infantilizing structure, your goal is to turn yourself into an autonomous self-motivating professional with your own internal standards of performance and quality and your own research agenda. And yet, if you become too innner-directed too soon and ignore the official hoops, you will be punished. The task is to somehow pay attention to and negotiate the structural hoops while retaining a sense of perspective about your real goals.

The Hoops: The Formal Requirements.

Chronologically, you take the required master’s courses, do a master’s thesis, take the rest of your courses, pass prelims, and write a dissertation. Ideally, you take some courses and write your master’s thesis in two years (4 semesters). This includes the summer after your second year, by the way, and it is quite common for people to finish their theses over the summer, and defend them in the fifth semester. In the next two years you take more courses and pass your prelims, becoming ABD within eight semesters of your enrollment. If you come with a master’s degree, you have three years (six semesters) to take courses and pass prelims. You then have up to five years after passing prelims to complete your dissertation.

For each of the five big hoops, let me talk about what the problem or hoop is, and how to get over the hoop by transforming it into a task of professional development.

  1. Required courses in theory, methods, statistics. Some people do not mind these, but others object quite a bit. THE HOOP: coping with courses that are a lot of work, do not interest you much, and you are not good at. GETTING OVER: “Adversity builds character.” — Calvin’s Dad. If nothing else, you will bond with your cohort as you jointly experience these travails and critique the faculty for its narrow, retrograde, or imperialist conception of sociology. But, hopefully you will at least feel that you’ve gained the capacity to read the journals and have at least symbolic solidarity with sociologists in general. And, possibly, you may even discover talents or interests you did not know you had.
  2. Seminar and minor requirements. THE HOOP: Most people don’t mind these much, actually; they like learning and are pretty good at taking courses or they wouldn’t be here. The biggest danger actually is in believing that you are still an undergraduate, and that taking courses is your only important activity. For most people, the only real problem is when the total workload seems overwhelming, as it can be for everyone, and especially is for those who have obligations to jobs, families, or community groups. GETTING OVER: Treat course work as part of your professional career. Take reading notes you can use later in your writing or lectures. Let your term papers be rough drafts of possible research projects. Don’t worry too much about feeling lost at the beginning. If you have other obligations, try to define priorities and pace your work across four years; don’t try to do everything in your first year. Advisors also have lives and competing obligations. While whining and complaining may annoy people, honest communication with your advisor or other faculty about the totality of your obligations, coupled with requests for suggestions about pacing or priorities, almost always helps.
    WARNING: Avoid incompletes, even if the professor is mellow about them. A course paper is a draft of a professional paper, not a polished paper ready to send to a journal. The problem with an incomplete is that what you feel you have to do to be done immediately rises once there is no deadline, and your stress and anxiety can rapidly go out of control. This is like borrowing money from a loan shark at 100% interest. The short term relief is not worth the long term price. (Of course, there are exceptions to all rules and there are cases in which an incomplete is appropriate, but my advice is not to do it unless you are very sure you have a good reason.)
  3. Prelims. This chronologically follows the thesis, but I’m doing it next because it logically belongs here. THE HOOP: It is objectively absurd to have your merit as a scholar assessed by essays written while locked in a room for six hours without your books or notes. Devoting your attention to the exam itself, and cross-examining the faculty about exactly what you have to study and exactly what will be on the test will make you (and them) crazy. GETTING OVER: Do not try to make sense of the system; it is a compromise created by faculty who do not agree about what a good prelim system would be. Unlike you, the faculty have years of experience with it and actually have quite realistic expectations about students’ performance under these conditions. Focus most of your attention on gaining a mastery of a broad range of literature, which will prepare you for teaching and give depth to your scholarship. Take the kind of notes that you will find useful for yourself in your future work. Use black humor and relaxation techniques to help you prepare for the event itself.
  4. The master’s thesis. THE HOOP: Realizing that this is not absurd, it is the whole point of being here. Most of the faculty have come to believe that the ability to do a good master’s thesis in a reasonably timely fashion is the best predictor of a person’s ability to do a dissertation and become a productive researcher. This is not easy. It involves taking your work seriously and figuring out what an interesting research problem is. It means tackling a real research project that is too big to do in a 48 hour rush, and defining it so you can finish it within a year. Coping with having to reify your professional- intellectual- political-methodological-personal identity in a single project and thereby distorting your full reality as a human being. Discovering that doing the research right is a lot harder than knocking out something interesting for a term paper, or a conference presentation. Facing writer’s block and having anxiety attacks. Making time for the work in the face of more urgent and easier competing demands. Getting a draft done and having your advisor bury you with critiques and suggestions for revisions. Learning to write and rewrite until the argument is strong and clear. Cultivating a desire to get things right and do quality work without sinking into the paralysis of excessive perfectionism and self-criticism. GETTING OVER: Realizing that this is what the faculty do: we write, rewrite, send articles out for review, cope with criticism, rewrite again. You are not assumed to know this when you come in; that’s why you are a student and other people are faculty. Be willing to let people teach you. Realize that the thesis is just ONE project and not your whole life or identity; you will do more. Bite the bullet and do the work.
  5. Dissertation. The master’s all over again, only much worse. But it does end. By the time you are ready to defend your dissertation, you should be the expert. At the oral exam for a good dissertation, the dissertator knows more about the subject than anyone else in the room. At this point, you are supposed to be an independent scholar. Your advisor and the rest of the committee make suggestions, but they don’t hold your hand. It is the last hoop. After that, you are free to fly on your own.

The Hurdles: The Unwritten Requirements.

These are the important tasks of professional development that you have to accomplish that nobody ever writes down anywhere. All of these actually continue into your first few years on the job.

  1. Recognizing and overcoming the shock of rising to your level of competence. Depending on your class background and where you went to school and have worked, many of you are used to standing out and doing well without much effort. For many of you, this will be the first time you are surrounded by people who are as smart as you are, and if you are not used to it, the experience can be traumatic. You need to learn how to keep your own ego and sense of adequacy intact while appreciating and learning from the talents and knowledge of others. If you try to act like you are the only person around who knows anything, you will rapidly be thought a pompous fool. But don’t make the mistake either of being intimidated and thinking you don’t know anything. A former student who now has her PhD reminded me when she was finishing of something I had told her in her first year which she said was very helpful, so I will tell it to you. You will not generally get a lot of praise around here, and this can feel bad if you came from a place where people were constantly telling you how good you were. If you are praise addicted, you will soon find yourself in an acute state of withdrawal. It is very helpful if you learn and practice ways of praising yourself. Remind yourself that being average in this circle is already an accomplishment. Focus on the pleasure of the work itself, rather than on the external reward. When all else fails, praise yourself for having the courage to keep going in the face of disappointment and adversity.
    Let me also say something about the hierarchy coming in, especially since some of you got fellowships and others did not. I will guarantee that no matter how you rank yourselves coming in, you will be ranked differently going out. Everybody we admitted seems to us to have the capacity to do well in graduate school, and your credentials coming in are only an imperfect predictor of how well you will do. Some past fellowship winners have done poorly in the program, and some people who were not even offered aid have ended up as stars coming out of the program. What matters here is how good your work is.
  2. Forming and maintaining mentoring/advising/training relations with faculty. At a superficial level, this may seem to be the same problem as the formal requirement that you find an advisor, but it goes beyond that. In your first year, you need to find a temporary advisor, and the understanding on both sides should be that the relationship may not continue past the first year, depending on how your interests develop. By the second year, you need someone who will be the advisor for your master’s thesis, and from then on, you should always have a fairly permanent advising relationship. I need to stress that students can change advisors in this department without penalty, even though the interpersonal relations involved can sometimes be awkward. The Director of Graduate Study can give you confidential advice on this subject, or you can ask other faculty for advice.
    Beyond the advisor, you need to get to know at least five faculty well enough that they will serve on your dissertation committee. You will hear repeatedly around here that we train you collectively. And we do expect to train you. We view you when you enter as talented but uneducated, and we think our task is to transfer knowledge to you and nurture your intellectual growth until you leave here as our equals. You are getting our best and most important teaching when we criticize your work: when we push you to develop your research ideas, when we suggest you do something differently, when we make you revise a paper. If you are still locked into the infantilized school mentality, where the goal is an A paper with only praise and no criticism, you may experience criticism of your work as negative and demeaning. But if you can shift paradigms, you will realize that your best professional friends are people who take your work seriously and criticize it constructively. Along the way, you have to learn when to take advice and when to ignore it. You will learn that some advice is just wrong, and other advice is wrong for you and your agenda. You will learn who gives you criticism that is useful to you.
  3. Making the transition to a professional self-identity. By the time you are writing your dissertation, you should be well on your way to thinking of yourself as a sociologist, not as a student. The first year of graduate school is not too early to start the transition process. This is partly a matter of concrete skills, but even more importantly of having your own intellectual and professional agenda, of having internal standards of quality and an internal sense of the purpose and direction of your work. The process of professionalization also involves coming to terms with elitism and your own rising place in a stratification system. No matter where you came from, if you stay on this path, you will end up as part of the educated intellectual elite, and most likely you will end up as a professional with class privilege. For many of you, this is just fine. For others, the process involves reconciling competing identities and commitments. But whether you like it or do not like it, it will happen and you will have to deal with it.
  4. Deciding/learning what kind of sociologist you are. This involves finding the right mix for you of teaching, research, and public involvement and choosing a research agenda that you really care about and can do well. The only really useful advice I can give you is to learn to play to your strengths, and to focus most of your attention on doing the best you can at what you are good at doing. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new methods, new ideas, and new activities, but there is no value in trying to force yourself into a mold you don’t fit. In all fields, the best work is done by people love what they are doing.
  5. Integrating “life” and work. This is in many ways the most important, but not something I can write a memo about. Most professors love their work and view work as a part of life. But we also need to make a place for family, relationships, politics, service, recreation, health. Choosing the mix of these and the place of work in the mix is part of maturing professionally. It involves making choices and living with their consequences. Being hit with events you did not choose, and living with those consequences. Understanding the material and social structural constraints on your choices. Choosing whether to make your peace with the constraints or to devote some of your time and energy to trying to change them. And, ultimately, finding a way to live your life as a decent human being.

Madison, Wisconsin 1995, 1996

Revised 1997