57 Ways to Screw Up in Grad School

Sociology prof sheds light on the ways students undermine their graduate experience


Grad school can be a daunting experience, and things can go wrong—57 things, in fact.

Sociology professor Kevin Haggerty, along with colleague and PhD schoolmate Aaron Doyle from Carleton University, have just published 57 Ways to Screw Up in Grad School: Perverse Professional Lessons for Graduate Students to draw attention to the common—and not-so-common—ways students may inadvertently undermine their graduate experience, and to offer advice about how to avoid them.

As a supervisor and former graduate chair in the Department of Sociology, Haggerty noticed a pattern in the types of problems that would crop up each year. “I found I was offering the same advice to people over and over again, and I thought, why not write this down?” Haggerty and Doyle compared and collected anecdotes from their own experiences and from across all disciplines. “The challenge,” says Haggerty, “was to break out of our own niche. We’re social scientists, we’re both PhD supervisors, so we had to think, ‘What don’t we know?’ We talked to people across campuses, international students, researchers and people in the hard sciences to try and determine what problems might occur more often in other areas. There are a lot of differences, but many similarities, and so we tried to pitch it at a level that would apply to most people doing graduate studies.”

Typically, problems arise when a student fails to prepare properly. According to Haggerty, both prospective and current grad students do not ask enough questions. Overarching all is finding the right supervisor. Haggerty believes that most of the advice in the book is something students can get from their supervisor—that is, if they have the right supervisor. “Not every faculty member has the time or the inclination, or the interpersonal skills or whatever. We want to sensitize students to the fact that this can be an issue, not understanding the whole range of factors you need to look for, because it’s not just one or two things: the person who publishes the most in your department or the one you feel the least intimidated by. You’re not going to find someone who is perfect, but you have to think about what is the best constellation of variables.”

So why are students, prospective or otherwise, not asking enough questions? According to Haggerty, it stems from a reluctance to ask for help, or a lack of knowledge of the help that is available. More often than not, the resources are there, but students may be too shy to ask or averse to “raising problems.” When it comes to applying for scholarships, students may be reluctant to enter into a time-consuming process with uncertain returns. “There’s a huge fear of failure,” says Haggerty. “It’s a lot of work, but one thing I want to stress—it’s part of the gig! One of the unintended benefits: it allows you to think harder about what exactly it is you’re doing and how to pitch to a generalist audience. It really focuses you on your project.”   

Which mistake does Haggerty most regret from his own grad program? Not teaching. “My first couple of years, I was running to stay in place in terms of getting my lectures together,” he laughs. Even for those not pursuing academia after graduation, Haggerty believes teaching is an important communication skill. “It’s an exercise in interesting an audience in something, being confident in your own skin in terms of being up in front of people. No matter what organization you end up in, you’re going to have to make presentations, or use some innovative techniques to get people to think about what you’re doing. It’s a skill set almost anybody can use.” 

Most publications advising grad students focus on the predictable moments in a student’s life, like handling a thesis defence. But few, if any, comprehensively (and with a big dollop of humour) follow the student from the initial decision to enter grad school, to handling and then finishing a degree. “Hopefully 57 Ways to Screw Up in Grad School will help people navigate the process, get what they want out of it and enjoy their time,” says Haggerty. “Grad school is a lot of hard work, but you get to meet a lot of smart people and it helps to define who you are for the rest of your life. But you can still make things easier on yourself.”

57 Ways to Screw Up in Grad School: Perverse Professional Lessons for Grad Students (University of Chicago Press, 2015)