It Should Go Without Saying…

What follows are a few pieces of advice I plan to share with students in my final lecture in my “intro to grad studies” class. These particular recommendations are inspired by recent experiences in which I’ve found myself having to articulate things that I thought could go without saying. Apparently not.

  1. When you write a cover letter, it’s a good idea to reference the specific position for which you’re applying and attempt to “translate” your experience — which is of course detailed on your c.v. or resume — to the position at hand. Last year I reviewed several dozen applications for a research job; only five or six applicants made any attempt to relate their experiences to the skills required for, and work involved in, the position. At least three-quarters of the remainder used a stock cover letter that essentially “narrated” the c.v., and the rest offered nothing but a terse “I’m interested in your position; here’s my resume.” That’s not going to win anybody’s attention.
  2. If you anticipate needing a letter of recommendation from me or from any of my colleagues in the future, it’s a good idea to make yourself known to us while you’re in the program, do good work in our classes, and stay in contact. I, for one, am always a little surprised to hear from students whom I haven’t seen for years, and who barely made a peep in the single class they took with me, who return to ask for recommendations. In most cases I decline these requests, because I simply wouldn’t know what to say.
  3. If you want a research assistantship, you need to build relationships with the faculty with whom you’d like to work. Faculty rely on their assistants to take responsibility for projects in which faculty are deeply invested, and in which there can be a lot at stake. We’re obviously going to entrust only our most responsible, capable, students with this responsibility — and we have to know you in order to appreciate your responsibility and capability.
  4. If you’re dissatisfied with a department or university policy (or with any other academic or administrative matter), address your concerns to the person most directly responsible for the issue. Try civility first. Sit down and have an adult conversation. If you want to make the case that the issue is not yours alone (it’s unlikely that policy changes or “blanket” action will be taken if all evidence suggests that it’s only you who is dissatisfied), come prepared with evidence that others share your concern. You may find that your concern can be addressed or your problem can be solved quite simply. Your first course of action should not be to write a letter to upper-level administrators lambasting their “criminally oppressive” procedures — only to find that those oppressors are actually quite nice people who are willing to work with you.
  5. Deadlines aren’t just arbitrary rules. When you have an assignment deadline, I set aside time to thoroughly review and offer feedback on your work. Late work messes up my schedule — and it shortchanges you, because I’m not able to provide thorough commentary on stuff that arrives outside of my “grading window.” Of course we all encounter minor and major crises and snafus in our academic and everyday lives that make it difficult for us meet deadlines –and that’s why I announce all my assignment deadlines on the very first day of the semester: so you can plan ahead. Still, in exceptional cases, I’m willing to negotiate extensions. I said negotiate — which means that you need to contact me well in advance of the original deadline, explain your case, and request a reasonable extension. You can’t simply write me a few hours before your work is due to inform me that you’re taking an extension.
  6. Very recent events have inspired the following caveat: Let’s say you’re in my lecture class. Let’s say I amble over to your side of the auditorium to deliver the microphone to a student who would like to ask a question to our guest speaker. You and I make eye contact. I sit down beside you while I wait to retrieve the microphone. It might be a nice idea if, knowing now that I clearly see you, you’d remove the earbuds from your ears and at least minimize iTunes, so it’s not readily apparent to all within eyeshot that you’re listening to music. In a grad class…in which most of your classmates seem to be paying attention.
    In short: some faculty ban all technology from the classroom, others permit it, provided that it helps you engage in the class rather than check out (and, in the process, probably distract your neighbors). Be responsible and considerate.

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