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Fall 2012

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Words to the Wise
Sophia Barkat

Structuring Your Early Career as a Graduate Student in the Social Sciences

Surviving graduate school in the social sciences is not easy, but it is doable. The suggestions below come from experience—20/20 hindsight—and I wish I had known a little bit better when I was getting started. Without proper guidance, it is easy to forget your priorities. I hope you will find the suggestions helpful and put them to use.
  1. First, identify your priorities for coming to graduate school. What is this degree going to do for you? Doctoral students usually want teaching jobs in academia. If that is you, find out what the market is like for university/college teaching. A good resource for such news is the Chronicle of Higher Education. Master’s students in social sciences usually want jobs in the for-profit and non-profit sectors. See jobsites like or Read the newspaper for job trends. Check out the U.S. Department of Labor and/or your state’s Department of Labor for statistics on jobs and future trends.

  2. Second, identify how you are going to get that degree. Figure out a plan of study and a plan for your personal life for the time that you are here. Stick to your plans if you can. If you have a thesis/dissertation track, decide on a topic in your first semester; write term papers that focus on this topic and help you get closer to writing your thesis or dissertation. Get ready for graduation and talk to your department about how to take necessary exams. Doctoral students take comprehensive exams on topics they specialize in. Get a reading list ready. It takes a year or so to prepare. Master’s exams are easier, but you still need to prepare.

  3. Third, figure out how you are going to get that job after graduation. This is not the same thing as getting your degree. Attend your department’s orientation for new and returning students. Call your department if you don’t know the date/time/place. Also, early in this first semester, talk to your advisor about how to create a Program of Study as soon as you identify your thesis/dissertation topic. Talk to professors about your career path and how to attain it. Take courses in other departments that will help you. Find a thesis/dissertation advisor/professor you can work with. Make friends in your department and see what they are doing. Find professors you can get good recommendations from for summer jobs, fellowships, etc.

  4. Fourth, ask yourself if this is the best choice for your personal life. Is Flagstaff the place for you long-term? Doctoral programs are typically five to seven years. Will you have steady finances for two to seven years (or more)? Will you be able to save money? Many students have spouses who have careers: 1) Will your spouse find a job here? 2) Will commuting work for him/her? And what about your children? Will you have childcare for them for when you are in school or are at work? Will they have good options for schools? Will they have health insurance? NAU has some resources for this: check out the Office of Student Life website. International students have to worry about more things like healthcare expenses for family members, hospital expenses, and travel expenses when you go home. Talk to NAU’s Fronske for resources.

  5. Once your plans are set, you have to balance time and energy amongst your priorities. You must make some sacrifices. Sometimes your education will be a priority, but sometimes you have to attend to personal life over other things. If you have kids or a partner/spouse you know what I mean. Talk to your faculty when such needs arise. You can make up work or postpone work due if needed. Don’t lose your family over graduate school. Believe me, it happens more often than you’d think.

  6. What about managing school itself? Grad school is about time management. Never slack off. Some programs are reading/work intensive. Some are not reading intensive, but work will pile up when you least expect. If you cannot keep up for some reason, talk to faculty or your boss at work, if you work at NAU. Renegotiate your work hours, maybe. Design a plan that works better for you. But stay on top of things as much as you can.

  7. Manage your personal life well. School is intensive. Take a breather. Avoid burnout. You are NOT a machine. You will need to rejuvenate. At least one day of the week go out and watch a movie or do things with friends. Also, take care of your body. Eat well. Drink water. Get involved in yoga or dancing or other regular exercise. Enjoy the outdoors. Enjoy Flagstaff. Go hiking. Also, take care of your social life. Make friends. Keep friends. Keep in touch with family regularly. They will help make your graduate career enjoyable and stress-free. And when you need more help, you can talk to NAU Fronske or the Counseling Services.

  8. Manage your professional life. Don’t make enemies in the university. Working for people is sometimes tough, but don’t harp to your boss about the workload. You won’t look good. You may not get rehired. Don’t get involved in any organizational politics, and there will be plenty. However, do know your rights as a graduate assistant/university employee, etc. Talk to friends about how they deal with problems at work. You can also talk to the Office of Affirmative Action. Get to know NAU resources. Get involved with the Graduate Student Government. Check out the Graduate College website. Make the best of your NAU experience!

—Sophia Barkat, PhD student in Political Science