Five Tips if You’re Heading to Grad School

Just in case you’re keen on doing an MA with a thesis or Ph.D. in the arts, here’s some pointers from someone who survived the mental gymnastics and bureaucratic hoop jumping involved.

1. Pick a Thesis You Dig: You’ll probably be pressured to do a thesis related to your supervisor’s work. Don’t. Find a subject that you dig, then do some head’s up research to make sure you can actually write it. I’ve heard horror stories of folks half-way through their program who realize there’s only enough research in the archives for a MA thesis (two or three articles), not a comprehensive work. Remember, you’re stuck with this subject for three to six years. Make sure you love it, and that it can be done.

2. Remember, Your Thesis is not Your Supervisor’s Top Priority, It’s Yours: You have the right to vent about your supervisor, but don’t get too upset when they seem to forget they have you as a student. Most profs are over worked and under appreciated with families and bills you don’t have. They will forget you exist. Your job is to remind them of their role in as friendly and humble a way as possible.  Rekindle the spark of their own enthusiasm for your work! Get accomplished as a teacher and writer, (AKA: make them look good) and they can come through like gang busters. Be a pain in the ass, and you will be the last thing they want to think about.

3. Get Hobbies: You can always read one more book or article, write one more chapter or essay, or do one more revision. And like many gigs, you’re work is never done. You’re brain will keep working on your thesis every moment of every day until you’re a doc. But if you don’t have a life outside of the dissertation, you’re going to burn out. Have friends who don’t care a shit about your academic work. Develop a skill or a trade similar or different to what you do. It flexes other kinds of intellectual and social muscles and will help keep you sane. And, no, little Bukowski and HS Thompson fans,  drinking is not a hobby. I saw a handful of colleagues think it was. None finished their work and all have vanished into the where are they now file (and one might have ended up dead at the end of a biker’s shiv). Don’t be stupid.

4. Read Outside Your Field: Not only will it make you smarter, it will make you look smarter! Anyone can go to brainy quote to stick some wisdom from Churchill or Teddy Roosevelt at the start of their essay, but wouldn’t you rather be the odd duck who actually read the books the quotes come from, and get neat quotes from somewhere else than the dime store of literature? You will always feel compelled to only read toward your thesis, but if you read outside of it, you will become a better scholar because of it will give your brain different nutrients to become more fecund. Plus, then you get to wow everyone with oddball references to lost works that you WON’T find on brainy quote. Huzzah!

5. Work on Your Thesis Every Day: This means writing or research. Have a file open at all times for stray thoughts, for little bits of wisdom from secondary sources, for titles of chapters. Often, they will be critical assets later, and, no, you wont’ remember them unless you jot them down. When you have focused time for writing chapters, remember that you wont’ get it right the first time. And that’s cool. Measure twice, cut once. Make a big, fat, ugly draft. Then clean it. One of the best things about having a big fat draft? When you cut it to hell to make it lean and mean, the sections you remove become awesome articles. When you’re done defending your thesis, edited them and get them out in the world. Hopefully, they’ll act as ads for your thesis when it finally arrives after five years of grinding through the peer review process!

And try not to believe in the myths that sleep is the enemy and coffee, beer, and chocolate are the only three food groups you need. Yes, some folks only need six or four hours of sleep a day. If you’re not one of them and you try and become one you’ll produce tired, messy, poorly analyzed and constructed work. Dont’ be anyone else but you. Do the work only you can do. And kick ass and take names.

Now go forth and add another bedrock to the foundations of knowledge!


About ridlerville

Jason S. Ridler is a historian, writer, and improv actor. He is the author of A TRIUMPH FOR SAKURA, BLOOD AND SAWDUST, the Spar Battersea thrillers and has published over sixty stories in such magazines and anthologies as The Big Click, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Out of the Gutter, and more. He also writes the column FXXK WRITING! for Flash Fiction Online. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Richmond, CA. Visit him on Facebook at
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