Top 5 Common Mistakes of New Grad Students

It is now halfway through the fall semester, so most graduate students have caught their stride.  Papers, readings, all turned in and performance is not too bad.  This isn’t so hard, you’re thinking.  This is just 17th grade!

Here are a few of the common mistakes that graduate students make:

1)      Reading every page of every book

-New graduate students tend to feel the immense pressure of graduate school and desire to impress their new advisors, instructors, and colleagues.  As a result, when preparing for classes, despite the unbelievable number of pages to read in a given week, new graduate students feel the need to read every page of every book.  Here’s a little secret about everyone else.  Most students do not read every page of every book.  There is no human way to keep up with the volume required in graduate school.  Read strategically.  Get the argument and think intelligently about it.  Then, go back to the book to read the parts of the book that will help you better understand that key argument.

2)      Writing with passive voice

-Graduate students let things happen TO them.  This is part of how we write.  “The soldiers were shot by the bad guys.”  Okay, so that may not be the most sophisticated example, but it’s an easy illustration of the problem of passive voice.  Just make the idea active.  “The bad guys shot the soldiers.”  This simple change greatly improves clarity, flow, and quality of writing.  Find a friend who can easily identify passive voice and work, often, on fixing it in your writing.

3)      Putting the intellectual above the spiritual and physical

-People live life differently.  This is part of the point of a free will life.  However, when new graduates enter the academy, far too often they focus all of their energy on reading every page (see #1), thinking every minute, and telling everyone about this new, exciting adventure.  While these are undoubtedly good pursuits, they should be balanced with both the spiritual and the physical.  Stay connected with faith-minded friends both inside and outside of academe.  Make a point to go to the gym, once, three, or five times a week.  Even if you are not a “go to the gym” kind of person, make a point to meditate or do yoga.  Keep mind, soul, and body all under consideration or you will certainly be exhausted before the long papers at the end of the semester.

4)      Finding voice in graduate classes

-One of the things that scares new graduate students is the fear of rejection in classes.  There’s a basic fact to encounter here: all graduate students were new and had trepidations at some point.  We all found our voice.  Some speak more than others by nature, but you must find your voice in graduate class.  Do not be afraid to express your thoughts about a book.  Of course some of you do not find it difficult to come up with something to say.  For some, the problem is knowing how to keep comments to yourself.  In this case, remember to yield to others, take copious notes, and if necessary, meet with the professor after class or on another day to further develop the ideas you did not have time to share in class.

5)      “Trashing” every book

-The last common mistake of new graduate students is to “trash” every book.  One of the first skills that graduate students learn is to refine their “critical” or “analytical” eye.  It becomes a knife, more butcher knife than scalpel, used to carve up the arguments of several important works of scholarship.  Instead of feeling the need to undermine these fantastic works, perhaps it might be useful to consider why the professor assigned the book in the first place.  Often, it seems, professors choose examples of excellent scholarship, rather than terrible books.  With that in mind, develop a style of positive critiques.  Ask yourself, “what did I learn from this book?” and make sure to answer that question in an equally “critical” way as the books that you completely demolish.

Feel free to comment or add to this list.  If you are a new graduate student and have questions the rest of us may be able to help.  Please post questions, or if you’d prefer, email me at and I will relay the question to others.

Stay the course!  The semester will be over before you know it.

Explore posts in the same categories: Advice, Grad School, Grad School Reading, Graduate Students

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