The first post in our four-part series about the CRDM experience comes from Lauren Clark, who’s entering her second year and thinking about selecting her committee. (Right, Lauren?)
Oh, the first year. I’m proud to say that my cohort members and I all survived year one of the CRDM program, which is proof that graduate school doesn’t actually kill you (well, it’s some favorable proof, anyway). But it wasn’t a cake-walk! Though I can’t speak for everyone (they can leave comments to confirm or deny my claims), I have some opinions about what it takes to rock your first year after having lived through it. This is all stuff I’ve heard before and I’m sure you, incoming first-years, have heard it as well. But there is a reason why suggestions such as these get reiterated so much they reach platitude status; it’s because following them really will help you succeed. I’ve gotten this advice, I’ve not followed some of it, and I’ve suffered setbacks as a result. Don’t let the same thing happen to you!
Suggestion #1 (this one’s important): Talk in class. You don’t always have to be the discussion-starter (though those people are fantastic), but you do have to participate. Why? Because if you don’t, your only chance to show your professor that you were actually paying attention all semester is through your seminar paper. And that doesn’t really cut it. I know it can be hard; it’s hard for me. I get shy and think I’m going to sound stupid. But no one has ever made me regret speaking up; CRDM is populated with smart, interesting, and seriously noncompetitive folks. In fact, chances are you’ll end up advancing the discussion, perhaps onto a new trajectory, and that’s always the point at which things start to get more interesting and fun to debate.
Suggestion #2: Read (at least some of) everything. Don’t bog yourself down trying to figure out what the hell Deleuze and Guattari are talking about while ignoring the other 200 pages of stuff you have to read for that week. If you’re slugging through an assigned reading, put it away for a while and move onto something else. I tend to take an all-or-nothing approach toward my reading, but when my workload reaches my eyeballs, that method isn’t advantageous. If you can take even just one measly thing away from a reading, you’ll be better off come class time. Being as prepared as you can be for each class is much better than being super prepared for one class and completely in the dark for another.
Suggestion #3: Sign up for presentations early. There are two benefits to this: the first is that you get your presentations out of the way, and you’re not stressing about them at the end of the semester when you should be focusing on your seminar papers. The second benefit is that if you present early, you get to help set the bar for the rest of the presentations in class. If you can be an early presenter, you’ll generally rock it, and then it’s done. One less little thing to worry about.
Suggestion #4 (maybe as important as suggestion #1): Make friends. Be social. Take breaks during the week and go out on the weekends to keep your sanity and stay refreshed in the face of your workload. And talk to each other. When you’re feeling down in the dumps and like you’re not going to get out of CRDM alive, tell someone. Chances are very good that your cohort members feel the same way. Knowing that helps you to recognize that the challenges you’re experiencing are par for the PhD-student course. Talking to someone a year or two further in the program is helpful, too, because they can empathize and then build you up again with reassurance that you’ll triumph and carry on to your next set of CRDM challenges. Also, go see your professors. Visit them during office hours and clarify what is expected of you. They won’t think you’re dumb; on the contrary, it’ll help you build an important rapport. I know this sounds like undergraduate advice, but when you’re feeling unsure of yourself, it can be easy to keep it hidden inside. Don’t let your apprehension get the better of you.
As with any academic program, I believe that breaking the CRDM program into chunks to master one at a time is the best way to manage your time at State. Don’t overwhelm yourself at the prospect of becoming a Doctor of Digital Awesomeness in four or five short years. Take your first year a semester (or a month) at a time, and take advantage of your resources; your cohort members, other CRDM students, and your professors. No matter how scared or intimidated you are, everyone does want to help you and see you succeed. I promise.