Welcome to Communication Studies at The University of the West Indies! Now that you are a graduate student you will find that are many changes from your undergraduate experience. Some of these changes are immediately perceivable, others are subtler and may only be seen with time. Together these changes mean that being a graduate student can initially be overwhelming. You have an extremely intense class load (especially in your first year), some significant tutor duties, and the need to begin a viable and meaningful research project. But I still believe it is a very rewarding experience. In this spirit, I have created this guide to help newer graduate students better navigate and succeed in their studies and research. And like some of the other posts on my website, remember that the faculty and curriculum are here to help you perform at your best as a gradate student. Seek out our help as and when you want.
Graduate school is about mastering a topic and then being able to contribute to this topic by adding original thought which in turn is expressed in clear analytical writing. This is what is means to gain expertise in an area. To do so, graduate students read, listen to their supervisors, attend meetings, write, work at jobs, answer e-mail, volunteer, attend classes, read and write some more, and generally try to survive. And then once all that is done, they make time to read more still. Their goals are to develop professional connections that will allow them to have a successful career, develop scholarly skills, publish papers in journals, and be competitive for major fellowships, all of which are indicators of growing expertise. But unless you put emphasis on reading and writing—the basic constitutive elements of scholarship—then you will be able to develop the professional connections you seek. The opportunities that come your way will be squandered, by for example flubbing an interview at a much sought after place of employment. The best graduate students align their activities with their goals.
The primary difference between graduate school and undergraduate degree is that grades do not matter. Grades exist for incidental institutional, as opposed to substantive professional, reasons. And so again: They do not matter! Rather, your primary goal in graduate school is to create a career and develop professionally. The goal is to become an expert. Some of the development takes place in classes, but only really abut 30%. The other 70% of learning comes from fieldwork, informal collaboration with peers, consultation with professionals, attendance at professional conferences, discussions with your supervisor, and work on your research. Although you can ‘get through’ a graduate degree by focusing primarily on class assignments, I can virtually guarantee that you will not reach your potential as a professional unless you spend a significant amount of time and energy on that other 70%. The hard part is that this 70% is completely dependent on you. It is something you must want to do. This means it is entirely based upon your initiative. Additionally, that 70% is mostly based on and around campus. This means that to fulfill your professional potential, you will need to spend time on campus.
Chances are good that your time in graduate school will be some of the busiest to date. It will also be stressful when you consider the workload requirements to prepare for fieldwork. No question about it, this is a daunting commitment of time and energy. Indeed, your very best efforts are required given that the degree will likely help you attain positions where you exercise control over the shape of social policy wit large. People and communities will be effected by the policies you help develop; they require nothing less than the very best effort from the best prepared professionals. One way to manage the workload and stress is an annual plan. I recommend that the first thing you should do when you arrive at graduate school is to meet with your supervisor and draw up this plan. Typically, this plan will map out your coursework, balance your tutorial obligations with other academic duties. Your supervisor will also negotiate roles, responsibilities, and activities required to reach your goals.
Goal setting involves four horizons. Academics tend to plan outcomes for the semester, the year, three years, and 10 years hence. Your horizon will more likely stress smaller blocks of time and fewer horizons. Nonetheless, each horizon has some formality to make sure that goals are clear, unambiguous, and observable. Examples include, ‘Submit 1 refereed paper,’ ‘Present at a conference,’ ‘Complete a chapter,’ ‘Average reading 20 hours per week for two months.’ Each of these are measurable and have clear criteria for success. They can also be broken down into sub-components. To present at a conference, you need to apply to one. To apply to conference, you need sign up to list-severs or follow electronic bulletin boards. Funding has to be sought. And so on and so forth. Each component of this process can be clear, unambiguous, and observable.
Conversely, goals like ‘Read more,’ ‘Become a better tutor,’ are not measurable because they are vague. This is not to say that you cannot measure improvement for your tutorial instruction, for example. Rather it is to say that it helps to reframe the goal to be ‘Generate a lesson plan for each tutorial,’ or ‘Host an office hour every week.’ These activities are not dependent upon perceptions or susceptible to ambiguity.
Once goals are established, then the next step is to determine the activities and behaviors that are required to achieve those goals. You can measure and track your inputs, assess the progress relative to the time you have, and then revise the plan each week as needed. Obviously if these are not synchronised, then you reduce the chances of the goal being achieved. If your goal is to become a good graduate student and then later a good professional, then it is important to go beyond basic classroom requirements. Knowing exactly what you want to do and accomplish has another benefit. It becomes easier to say “no” to tasks that will not contribute to your short or long-term objectives. This may sound excessively instrumental, but in fact it reduces your chances of becoming reluctantly co-opted into advancing another person’s agenda.
To recap, a primary goal of graduate students is to win scholarships, fellowships, and other financial awards. One of the big problems and weaknesses at UWI and in the COMS program is that students are not guaranteed money. I am trying to compensate for this weakness by encouraging all students to be productive presenters and publishers of scholarly material. This productivity will in turn make students extremely competitive for scholarships. As a rule of thumb two refereed publications and four national or international conference presentations will make you competitive for a doctoral scholarship. That is always our goal. To help my graduate students reach their goals I have a new policy that they are to submit at least one paper to a refereed journal or do two conferences, public talks, or seminars per year. The primary purpose for this new policy is to help promote behaviors that will lead to the achievement of your professional goals.
Never Use a To-Do List. Schedule Instead.
I am not impressed when people complain about being busy. I view them as being unable to decline opportunities in part because they do not have well-considered priorities and perspectives, nor are they able to self-advocate. Similarly, I find that a To-Do list is prone to being clogged with nonsense. Rather schedule all classes, regular meetings, due dates, and the like into a calendar. I would go as far as to say it helps if you schedule and structure your personal time too. This recommendation might sound cold, but it is the opposite. The practice helps ensure that you put boundaries around that time to make sure that less important things don’t intrude. But it also makes sure that you don’t let personal time expand and cloud out your commitments to your professional development. So watch Netflix, but sparingly.
I recommend putting some time into thinking about how you are going to organize your time and tasks. Granted, different things work for different people, but mindful and purposefully actions are the hallmarks of research. Establishing a good routine therefore helps the research process. Similarly, think about your priorities. This will help guide your decisions when you inevitably face difficult choices. At the most banal this may mean limiting your time going to movies to write a better essay, but it will more likely involve turning down some otherwise somewhat interesting opportunities to focus on graduating in a timely manner.
In no way diminishing mental health, everyday effectiveness can yield progress and so take the edge off some stress. One way to think about effectiveness is to assess activities as how urgent and how important they are. Some activities are very urgent and of high importance, like studying for exams, or meeting a looming deadline. Others activities are of little urgency and of no particular importance. Other combinations are possible. See below:
While there is an element of truth to the old joke that business professors can reduce any complexity to a 2×2 table, bear with me for a moment. Good graduate students spend little time in the low urgency and low importance activities (examples include updating Facebook, watching reality TV, being very online.) Great graduate students spend most their time working on the most important things. The real trap is things that are urgent, but of no importance. Answering emails, spending time in meetings, or doing busy work gives the impression of progress, but this does not amount to much—there is little achievement in responding to emails in a timely manner. (Never forget the adage ‘your inbox is someone else’s to-do list.’) Sadly, graduate students tend to overlook the low-urgency-high-important tasks. Reading, long term planning, generative writing, and learning new skills are crucial to effective personal and professional development. Yet many students subordinate them to responding to emails etc. Again: this gives the impression of progress but won’t really achieve much.
As a general guideline, 40% of your time should be spent on high-urgency-high-important tasks. Another 40% on low-urgency-high-importance tasks. Sadly, administrative nonsense will cut into your week, but don’t let this to consume more than 15% of your time. Facebook et el can have the rest. The logic of this approach is to place each task correctly into one of the four cells and prioritize your time accordingly. As you can see I think it is a good idea to emphasis importance rather than urgency. When property implemented, this means there will be no need to cram for an exam because you have studied for half an hour every night for the past two months.
One recommendation is that you stop checking emails. This is because email disrupts productivity. And replying to emails is not the same as productive research. If something is important, a person will call. I check emails twice a day—after lunch and 3pm. Part of being creative requires solitary time; time to ‘just think.’ It is hard to have that time if you are constantly chasing emails.
A good heuristic is that for every chapter you write, you must have read 75 papers or books. You probably won’t reference all of that material in the chapter because most of those texts helped you to think about how to approach the analysis. So read, read, read! Then write your notes, annotated bibliographies, and memos.
Graduate classes are designed to serve several students by giving them some common touchstones. This often means students are exposed to survey style courses. Surveys have many positives, but one drawback is that they are ‘thin.’ Still, surveys are designed to introduce student to—then spur—budding interests. In short, a graduate student should not expect to gain expertise or advanced knowledge from the collection of classes you take. If you believe that it should, you will probably never master a field of study. All of this is to say that faculty have reasonable expectations that you will seek, read, and master more material yourself outside of the classroom. The faculty are here to guide you, but ultimately, you must do the hard work yourself. To summarise, you will receive a breadth of knowledge from classes, while independent study and fieldwork will provide a depth of knowledge.
On occasion, graduate students complain that too much of their time and energy is expended on research and scholarly activities. They would spend more time on practical activities and vocational training. This is because many MA and MPhil students do not intend to follow a career in academics. Therefore, the time and energy spent on presenting and publishing research findings appears to be irrelevant to their professional goals. While I sympathise with this view, I think it is mistaken because it undervalues the depth and breadth required in the contemporary workplace. So despite these concerns, research and scholarly activities remain a critical part of moulding people able to create, then lead well thought out social developmental efforts. This holds particularly given that the model of the scholar-statesperson is a hallmark of the post-colonial Caribbean. This model retains its relevance precisely because of greater social shifts in the early 21st century.
Be Critical. And be Human.
Good graduate students are critical. This means that they do not intentionally reproduce ideologies or perpetuate epistemic errors. It also means they leave space for reflection to assess whether and how their views may be bias. Ever more, being critical—even if it does have a social price—is necessary to create communities that are fairer and more just. Still, it is mistake to think that being critical permits taking satisfactions in cynicism. Excessive snide and snark does little to help create the kinds of communities where humans can flourish, where they can enact their full species being. Worse, cynicism begets intolerance as it allows preconceived judgements to carry the day. And so, cynicism works against the very values that motivate Critical Theory bourn from Western Marxism. In other words, to be properly critical is not to fetishize disbelief about the value of cultural resources, but rather to find how these artefacts can provide avenues to social orders where human interests are prioritized. In other words, graduate school isn’t just an academic exercise.
Research is Hard.
Research is hard. This means that you may often think about a problem for days, weeks, sometimes even months at a time without seeing a solution or path forward. Oftentimes I find myself lamenting that “if someone smart thought about this problem, they would have solved it by now.” But it is important to realize that there are many smart people working on the same kinds of problems and they are likely no further along than you are. Also, if you knew in advance what the outcome of your thought would be, then you aren’t conducting research. Confirming pre-existing results, while important, isn’t as valuable as developing new knowledge.
Research is hard work precisely because you are on the cutting edge of thought, trying to find ways to express ideas still forming. Trying to think through problems will bring some rejection, and lots of critique. Understand that it is normal in academia for 90% of your grant applications to be unsuccessful, for 75% of your papers to be declined, for supervisor to ask for revisions. So please don’t berate yourself or get despondent if you think there is no easy progress. Even so, the affect you have when there is success, whether it is an article being accepted, a good conference presentation, or scholarship awarded will be amazing. I would never say that it fully compensates for all the aggravation, but it is a good reward nonetheless.
One of the problems in the social sciences and the humanities is that we tend to be solitary creatures, each hunkered down with our research in the stakes. We want to earn “our” PhD on “our” topic. But I find that when we do this we become too focused on the destination: proving an argument or writing a paper. These things are rare outcomes, so being preoccupied with them is an easy way to become depressed. Moreover, it is counterproductive to being successful in graduate school. Rather focus on putting together a good process. I have already written a little about goals and schedules, but another significant part of a good process is finding ways to work with others. This helps make graduate school more enjoyable.
Using the Summer Term to Get Ahead
There are fewer classes on campus in summer, meaning you don’t have to constantly react to assignments and other requests; supervisors are often off to conferences, which in turn means there almost no conference CFPs deadlines on the horizon. This can give the impression that not much is happening, and so there is good cause to relax. If approached in frame of mind, this attitude can lead to unnecessarily stalling your progress.
How you spend your summer greatly influences how quickly and effectively you move toward achieving the goals you have set for yourself. I advocate for using this time of reduced demands and few distractions to get work done. Use the time to invest in yourself. Summer is a good opportunity to thoughtfully reflect on your needs and goals. I recommend conducting a self-assessment early in the term, then asking for an assessment from your supervisor before they jump onto the conference circuit. Look back at the preceding year and map out your outputs. (Not efforts, outputs.) Ask what helped or hindered those outputs? Are they enough? Are they clustered? An honest appraisal allows you to recalibrate for the coming academic year, and so make better decisions that leads to better research products.
To give you an idea, this was my 2017, summer self assessment:
- While completing my first book (now published) I neglected submitting articles and missed a few peer review requests. So while the second book proposal (one based on my PhD) is doing the rounds, I will be tidying up a few manuscripts and getting to those reviews. This is very much my priority.
- I am also writing a proposal to formally request time with from Roger, our Department Teck. He and I would like to collect interviews about everyday labour in Trinidad and Tobago.
- On technology related front, I had to write the content for this website.
- At the same time recruiting MPhil and PhD students is ongoing.
- I also use summer to improve my physical health, which sometimes get neglected towards the end of each term. Mariana and I hike and climb a lot. I try to go to bed earlier.
As you can see, I try to maintain research productivity throughout the entire lifecycle.
Once you have done a self assessment, you will be better positioned to schedule events, undertake specific programs and advance towards research milestones. Again, the sooner you do this, the better. Be forewarned that faculty members are rarely on campus, so scheduling a committee meeting may be near impossible. Still, make the effort to meet with your committee members at least once, and be sure to update them on progress during the term. Students who take the most initiative are noticed by faculty members and by scholarship committees.
The trick to summer is that you don’t need to work very long or hard hours to make significant progress. Because there are fewer meetings and campus events you can work from home. Less commuting frees up time. Plus, if you are diligent about staying offline you can often complete tasks in half the time compared to the regular semester. Another benefit is that you can evenly prepare for the coming semester thereby avoiding the early term rush. Overall, working consistently during the summer is one of the best ways to reduce the time to graduation.
Let’s Review. Determine your high importance activities. These are likely grants, presentation proposal deadlines, fieldwork, manuscripts to be written, your thesis, workshops to attend, conferences, and so on. As a baseline, look to write more than a 1000 words of original thought and read 200 pages per week. (Note that this tally does not count emails or other non-academic work.) If you do this week in and week out, month after month, then you will get a lot done throughout the entire year, summer included. Establish priorities. Work with people who are flexible and can help you be your best. Be disciplined and execute the plan. Keep to your deadlines. Seek help from the faculty. Do not forget to have meaningful relationships and friendships because support is a good thing. But make sure you do your fair share of emotional labour. In the end, graduate school is rewarding, fun, and will lead to a career far better than you could possibly imagine. I look forward to seeing you take these steps in growing as a person and helping the wider society.