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Timely Advice: Your First Year

August 28, 2009

Assistants to the Directors of Graduate Studies (DGSAs) Share Their Prescriptions for Persistence

As the heartfelt accolades in this issue’s second feature article demonstrate, assistants to the directors of graduate studies (DGSAs) play a critical role in guiding graduate students throughout their courses of study. In what follows, DGSAs representing a range of disciplines within the Graduate School (biological sciences, humanities, physical sciences, and social sciences) share some of their advice for getting off to a good start in graduate education.

Caroline Morris, the DGSA in Chemistry, provides some practical reminders: check your Duke e-mail every day, always carry your DukeCard with you, and give DGSAs the opportunity to help you by asking all those questions about the non-academic aspects of your graduate career, such as payroll, program policies, registration, and deadlines. She also shares the following thoughts with international students:

Take advantage of services offered by the International House. Their job is to ease what is often a stressful transition for new international students. Also, international students are responsible for keeping all their visa information up to date; so don’t wait until the last minute to file for your new I-20 or leave the country without making sure you have all the necessary documentation to get back in. Also, don’t plan your return flight to Duke from outside the country with only a day or two left before the semester starts. You’d be surprised at how many times international students miss the start of a semester because they were significantly delayed in their return while their visa was being checked.

Anne Lacey, DGSA in Biology, encourages graduate students to stay healthy, mentally and physically. At departmental orientation meetings, she covers issues like bike safety, tick-borne illness, and not walking alone at night. She also shares the following thoughts:

Graduate school is difficult—even if you want to be here; if you are burned out, depressed, or ill, it can become impossible. The nature of graduate research in a science department can be very isolating. Often, the simplest way to find your friends is to look among the other students, which means almost all your time is spent with other grad students who study with the same faculty you do, and who have similar goals, concerns, and worries. I encourage you to find some friends outside the department, and to find time for movies, hobbies, and exercise. I encourage you to take electives, such as dance, tennis, and music classes, along with your tutorials and graded research. Those classes are good for your minds and souls (and they don’t cost you anything!).

Holly Francis, DGSA in Cultural Anthropology, offers a no-nonsense approach for staying on track academically:

I always tell our students to watch how many courses they decide to take. The standard load in the social sciences is three classes, but many students enter the program anxious to do more. The workload in a Ph.D. program is much greater than most incoming students ever imagined; so at least in the first year, my recommendation is to stop at three and take care not to overdo it. I also encourage them to pay close attention to the requirements of their particular program, both during and beyond the first year. Checking one’s progress on a regular basis, even if everything is on track, is time well spent. It is certainly better than being surprised by a missed requirement near the end of one’s study. Finally, stress is the enemy of persistence; so don’t underestimate the value of taking time to relax and have fun. At times, a much-needed break can be just as important as time spent on course work.

And Tiwonda Johnson-Blount, DGSA in Literature, shares these final thoughts on setting realistic goals:

Maintain a positive attitude and stay motivated at all times. Be realistic about what you can accomplish and don’t over extend yourself; set daily, weekly, or monthly goals. If you set a goal and don’t reach it, instead of focusing on why you didn’t meet the goal, focus on how you can attain the goal the next time around.