How to Take Graduate Courses, and Use Them to Advance Your Career

I have been on a grant writing hiatus from my blog, but this semester, I am back! I am starting a series designed for graduate students early in their career based on the first-year proseminar I teach to our human development and family science graduate students. When I designed this course, my hope was to reduce the variation in graduate student achievement that is attributed to the advisor. Thus, I wanted all students to have a good, solid base of information and advice that would benefit them in the coming years. This first post is on taking graduate courses.

Undergrad is very coursework focused. Most PhD programs are not. That said, it is important to do reasonably well in your graduate coursework. Graduate courses require a different set of skills that many students easily catch on to.

It's your first semester of graduate school - do you feel like this? photo credit: Buried Alive via photopin (license)

It’s your first semester of graduate school – do you feel like this?
photo credit: Buried Alive via photopin (license)

Skill 1: Be engaged. Many graduate seminars are discussion-based, and to be seen as an engaged graduate student, you need to be asking questions, and answering questions. Some courses will even require you write discussion questions each week. When you are in class, look at the person who is speaking, or the professor. Make eye contact with your professor and classmates. Comment on readings and answer questions. Talk at least twice during a 3 hour discussion based seminar. Use the readings as your resource, not your own personal experiences. And, do not talk just to talk. If you are an extrovert, make sure you are not dominating the conversation with another extrovert in the course. One way to be sure you are not dominating the conversation is to keep a tally of how much you talk compared to the other students. Try not to double or triple their talking turn count. Do not interrupt the speaker. Treat the other students and your professor with respect.

Skill 2: Be professional. Show up to class on time, or even better, 5 minutes early. Don’t look at your phone or websites that are off topic like Twitter. I often let students have laptops in seminars so they do not have to print the papers, but I have had graduate students shopping on Amazon when they were supposed to be engaged in class discussion. I have also had graduate students scrolling when we were engaged in an activity that didn’t require looking at the readings. That is really irritating and I always assume these students are looking at social media or the news or shopping and aren’t engaged in the class.

Skill 3: Produce quality work, and turn it in on time. Take advantage of professors’ offers to read rough drafts or to revise papers. You do not need to blow away your professor with your writing acumen, but you do need to write papers that are well-argued, formatted to your graduate program’s preferred style, and have been proofread. Do not turn in papers late unless you talk to the professor.

Do not be afraid to talk to the professor if you are feeling overwhelmed at the end of the semester. Professors will often consider short extensions on final papers to students who are overwhelmed for any reason. Reach out and ask for help. Other students are doing it, and are benefitting.

How to Read for Graduate School

I really like this article by Miriam Sweeney on reading for graduate school. It is not possible to read, in a linear fashion, every reading you will be assigned in graduate school. In fact, doing so would be a waste of your time – you should not read every word of just about any article in graduate school.

For most readings, start by reading the abstract carefully. Then, read the first few paragraphs of the paper. These usually set up the importance of the research question, and make an argument for asking it. Next, read the headings in the literature review, and skim the paragraphs. Is it using a theory you are not familiar with? If so, read that section carefully. Is it discussing a literature that is related to your research interests? If so, read this one carefully. Next look over the methods. What are the limitations? Strengths? What data and analyses are they going to use? Look at the titles of the tables and the tables themselves. What are these tables telling you? Skim the results, paying attention to the headings. Next skim the discussion, focusing on the first couple of paragraphs and the final few paragraphs. The first couple usually outline the major findings. The last few usually outline the limitations, directions for future research, and main take-home message.

In general, there is not a need to read every word of an article unless it is solidly in your research area. For theory articles, pay special attention to the sections of the article that lay out the tenets of the theory, so that you can cite it in the future. For the most part though, you can do a thorough review of a paper without reading every word.

One exception to this rule is when a paper is not boring. Many, many academic papers are poorly written and really boring (see Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style for some great quotes on the jargon of academia). If you find an article that you find engaging and interesting, pay attention to the writing. Why is this one more interesting? Is it the topic area? Or is it because it is well written? I bet that most of the time it is because the paper is well written. Use these papers as an opportunity to help improve your own research writing by emulating the best characteristics of this paper.

How to Organize All the Readings

Use a reference software to organize all of your readings and notes. I use Endnote and it is less than $100. You can download the reference directly from the journal website or Google Scholar and import it into Endnote. Once you do so, you can take all of your notes in Endnote. Endnote will then annotate them and you can easily search your notes and articles for use at a later date. You will eventually have to pass some sort of exam to move on to the dissertation, and these notes will become invaluable when you are working on the exam, as your notes will be at your fingertips.

Plus, Endnote makes citing so easy. If you need to switch from APA to Chicago Style, no problem! Some journals even have reference templates for Endnote that you can download to format your paper in the exact style they prefer. The DOI requirement of APA style is useful but irritating. Endnote does all the formatting for you, so you do not have to go through format all the references and copy all the DOIs yourself.

How to Use Graduate Courses to Advance Your Career

There are a few ways to make graduate courses advance your career. First, carefully choose the courses you take – see this post for advice on how to choose courses. But once you are enrolled in your courses, use this as an opportunity to work on your writing skills and develop your program of research.

First, as this article by Rebecca Schuman argues, use the papers you have to write for your courses as opportunities to practice your writing process. While most undergrads, and many grad students, wait until the last minute to write papers, this process does not work for manuscripts, theses, and dissertations. Why not follow Rebecca’s advice and gain experience in the drafting process in your grad classes? Draft the papers, critique them, and revise. Your paper will be much better at the end of this process, you will have improved your writing skills, and you will have had great practice for the research process that will be important for all of your career as an academic.

Second, make your papers count, so all that work crafting an excellent paper will actually be useful! Try to make every paper, for every class, advance your research career by tying it to 1) your substantive research area, and/or 2) a draft of a manuscript that could be submitted for publication. Most of my students’ first publications have resulted from class papers that we polished and submitted after the course was finished. Thus, if you have a paper for a class on child development, and you are interested in divorce, try doing a paper on the children of divorce and then polish it and submit it after the class is finished. If you are doing a paper for a stats class, pick a research question you are interested in and apply that method to the research question. Make these class projects count and help you add lines to your CV.

Classes Matter, But No One Will Know Your GPA

Finally, after I spent this entire post telling you how to succeed and use graduate coursework, I am going to end on the note that coursework is not the most important part of graduate school. Unlike undergrad, where your training revolves around coursework and your GPA is important for your future – many grad programs have GPA minimums for admission – if you go into academia, no one will know your GPA. You do not submit grad school transcripts as part of your academic job market materials; all that really matters is that you have a PhD and that you have a proven research and/or teaching track record. So, if you do end up doing poorly in a seminar, don’t sweat it. Review the semester, acknowledge the problems, learn from the experience, then move on. In contrast to undergrad, what advances your career in graduate school is the research that you do outside of the classroom, the manuscript writing that no one will track but you, and if you are lucky, your advisor. Thus, doing just good enough in classes is a smart strategy in graduate school [see Nate Lambert’s book Publish and Prosper for a great discussion on this]. And, if you follow the advice in this post and try to get the most out of your coursework, the good news is that the coursework has the potential to advance your career because you will be honing important skills and starting manuscripts as part of the coursework process.

2 thoughts on “How to Take Graduate Courses, and Use Them to Advance Your Career

  1. Great blog Dr. Claire!!! All the points you list are very, very, good and full of great advice. As I read through the list I couldn’t but read it though the lens of being a student who may be a student of color (domestic or international). The rules for “engagement” vary from culture to culture for example. I had a student from Kenya who never “looked me in the eye” as a sign of respect. A student from China had been trained not to speak in class as this seen as challenging my authority as a professor- her silence was a sign of respect. She really struggled to with “class participation”. A Black student who was very excited about the topic in class often “interrupted” others, not as disrespect but to join in the conversation and share. Just another perspective to a great discussion!

  2. Thanks Cynthia for the comment! Excellent point. I actually put that sentence in to try to make explicit an implicit “expectation” that many faculty have. Until someone (universities? advisors? colleagues?) takes some action to help faculty better understand our students of color and why they may, or may not, follow the dominant norms of classroom performance, I don’t think it is a bad idea to suggest that students look the prof in the eye, etcetera.

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