(Grad) school supply list

Sisyphus made a funny:  since ’tis the season that the back-to-school supplies lists are being mailed out to parents of elementary schoolers, why not offer up some helpful hints on supplies and tools one might need in order to be a successful grad student?  Her list is as follows:

  • Bourbon (at least three bottles per quarter)
  • No-Doze and Redbull
  • Flash drive
  • Box of tissues
  • Antidepressants
  • Portable stapler (because none of your students will ever think to bring their own or to staple their own essays, ever.  Ed. note:  hang onto this, because students who submit papers to tenured professors still haven’t figured this out.)
  • Uncrushable sense of purpose

crayolasHer commenters had other great suggestions–some humorous, but most very practical.  Some of my favorite serious suggestions include:  Trail Mix/Power Bars, coffee,a good thermos or non-spill coffee mug, a water bottle, and post-it notes.  I might also add a bottle of hand sanitizer this year, because of the Swine Flu, and a flu shot if you can get it, especially if you’re a T.A. and are coming into contact with 60-100 undergraduates per semester (and God knows where they’ve been, or how recently they’ve washed.)  Nothing is more teh suck than moving to a new city, being scared constantly that you’re the admissions committee mistake, not knowing what you’re doing really until March in your second semester, and on top of that getting the flu when you don’t have family or friends close by.  Remember the Girl Scout motto:  “Be Prepared.”

I was surprised that no one suggested a flash drive–whereas it seems like our grad students always have them on lanyards around their necks and don’t bring their computers to campus.  I was also surprised to see the recommendation for 3 bottles of bourbon per quarter, even (presumably?) in jest!  Can grad students afford to drink like that?  I used to buy a 6-pack of beer per week, and that was a huge splurge.  But then, in my first year in grad school, my stipend was $7,200 for the entire year (1990-91).  And I lived on that, folks, and even took a few (domestic) plane trips, too.  But you tell kids that these days, and they won’t believe you!  I did in fact walk to school, but it wasn’t uphill both ways, and only rarely in the snow, so a sturdy and comfortable backpack or book bag might be key.

What advice do you current or recently graduated postgraduate students, or faculty silverbacks, have for incoming graduate students?

0 thoughts on “(Grad) school supply list

  1. Find a sympathetic ear to cry into.

    Mom & Dad will only be so useful, as will Best-Friend-Who-Doesn’t-Understand-Grad-School.


  2. I second Cassandra’s advice, especially for those who lack family support. I’m not convinced I would have gotten to this point if I hadn’t become fast friends with another grad student during the first week.

    My other recommendation is pricey but the best decision I made was to buy a Tivo. Barring that, a Netflix subscription will do.


  3. On top of the flash drive, I have no idea what I’d do without my laptop! Also, a sturdy bag for said laptop and/or your books (at LEAST for the books) is a MUST.

    I don’t carry a flash drive, though: I carry a 30G external hard drive, which has every paper I’ve ever written in grad school, plus all my dissertation files, plus all my dissertation chapters to date (all materials are, of course, thoroughly backed up).

    I also recommend an open mind. And the recognition that you truly do NOT know everything.


  4. One of the most important things I had in grad school was an honest friend. She read my work and gave me caring feedback that made me a better historian.

    She taught me to be an honest friend, too.

    I also recommend vodka. Lots of vodka.


  5. Practical and cheap: book stand that folds up and can be carried around for use in the library. Bring your own teabags and thermos to campus if you’ve got a source of free hot water (fancy water cooler, nice barista.)

    And as for the friend…I’ve found it’s nice to have someone outside of your classes, but in your department. As an Americanist, I hang with a Latin Americanist and Europeanist, mostly. Allows for venting, cross-fertilization, and advice-seeking without competition but with the same structure of the program and likely similar problems.

    If you get the flu, take the damn time off and let yourself recover. And get some Theraflu to take the edge off. Yum, apple cinnamon goodness (speaking from unfortunate experience.)

    My sense of purpose may not be uncrushable, but it does pop back into shape pretty easily and without permanent wrinkles…


  6. The most useful home/office accessory I ever got was (six years ago) a $99 “all-in-one” print/copy/scan device. Never needed maintenance, still going strong, does suck up a fair amount of ink though. It would not hold up to diss. chapters a few years down the line, but endlessly useful for copying and printing smaller things. And the prices have actually never gone up.

    Conversely, the only flash drive I ever bought (last month) still sits here in its hardshell plastic wrap. I’m a little afraid of it, in truth, but when I got the new laptop I learned those rumors of the total demise of the 3 1/2 inch disk were too true. My tech guru says I can store my next four projects on it, though, plus maybe a few movies. Who knew?

    Your old walking route to school is still flat as a pancake, Historiann, but just beginning a years-long cycle of major university-related construction activity on both sides of the street all the way out. So maybe a pair of virtual reality goggles to turn the place back into bucolic Blockley Township of centuries gone by?


  7. Lightweight sweater for the overly-chilled libraries.

    Small paper notebook for when power’s out, laptop’s unavailable or when you want to appear busy. (Also vital for taking quick notes of a title someone’s recommended or an idea for your current project. Yes, you may have your smartphone but, trust me, even a tiny paper notebook will save your ass at some point, smarty-pants.)

    Some sort of calendar to keep track of everything (due dates, meetings, deadlines, office hours, what-have-you).


  8. Heh, I was trying to set up some parallelism with the elementary school list I copied, but thought that 3 bottles per year, like the glue sticks, was laughably low. I guess it would matter whether you were planning on going out to drink with friends at bars or invite them over to your place regularly (if indeed you are the type who would share your bourbon). Regardless of whether drinking at home or drinking out is cheaper, I would recommend new grads make it a social, not a solitary, activity — after all, you’re in a new place and need to make friends, and all that reading and library work is plenty isolating already!


  9. Sisyphus–I’m a total moron! I missed your parallelism, but of course, I see it now. (I got distracted imagining all of those empty bottles in your recycling bin.) I hear you about the social drinking rather than solitary drinking–if you can get your friends to buy or bring an occasional bottle, then it’s a much more affordable pasttime.

    Now that I think about it, the reason I bought just one 6-pack per week is that I’d share pitchers of beer in dive grad student bars with my friends. That was probably not as cost-effective, but it was probably a necessary and beneficial way to bond with colleagues and to blow off some steam.

    I second Quail’s advice about seeking friendships outside of one’s department and one’s classes/subfield/s. It’s also good just to know how other departments handle their grad students and how other grad students solve their problems.

    Great advice, everyone else. I think whenever you’re working from a finite budget (and who isn’t, really?) thinking about what’s important to you, and spending your money so as to make your life easier, is a good way to go. For some, it will be a top-of-the-line laptop. For others, maybe a printer/scanner, as Indyanna suggests. For still others, it will be on those 3 bottles of bourbon per quarter…


  10. I would add a work out routine (or at the very least a get out of the house and away from the computer everyday routine). I know this is a lifestyle thing—but I was a much happier grad student when I started running during my second year.


  11. Good point, Mary–running or walking is perfect since it doesn’t require a gym membership, at least not in temperate regions most of the year. For North Country runners, I recommend a pair of “Yak Trax,” which snap over your shoes and give you traction in snow and on icy streets. They’re invaluable 2-3 times per winter out here.

    Rad, I don’t know if bringing a child is a good idea, but it’s not necessarily incompatible with grad school. I think grad school parents probably spend a lot less time complaining in the library in those endless 20-minute conversations with other grad students, and less time having coffee to complain with other grad students.


  12. Regarding the bourbon: whiskey varies in price quite a bit, so it can tax the budgets even of the wealthy. But, at least at the cheap end–where you’ll find the standard Jim Beam and Evan Williams–the amount of buzz per buck of bourbon reveals it to be a better value than beer. Most beer in the US is 6% or less alcohol; bourbon ranges from 40% alcohol to a bit over 60 (Bookers).

    Bourbon also needs no refrigeration, and you can carry a flask in your backpack (check local laws, as you’re probably breaking them with said flask on campus). Beer has more filler, and that matters for those watching their mid-sections.

    Your six-pack per week should not cost any less than a bottle of Evan Williams every three to four weeks, and unless you slam it all down at once, you’ll get far less of the numbing that I suspect was behind the recommendation. If you cultivate a taste for good microbrews–Dead Guy Ale, for instance–two six packs cost more than a fifth of Jim Beam.

    Just as whiskey was the cheapest way to transport corn in the early national period (remember the Whiskey Rebellion), today’s bourbon offers an economically advantageous pharmakon with respect to beer.


  13. A thick skin, a sense of humor, and an ability/willingness to eat whatever is on sale.

    Re: Alcohol consumption. I much preferred pitchers of swill at the pub with friends. Just drink it fast, before it warms up. I respect James’ bang for your buck analysis, but I’m not fussed on Bourbon. There’s nothing quite as celebratory and stress relieving as the arrival of a fresh pitcher of beer.


  14. — a map to Walmart (if you’re not bothered by any of the ethical implications), Target (if you’re fancy) or Sam’s Club (if you’re especially concerned with value);
    — a friendship with the department secretary, who might translate some of those arcane and ambiguous degree guidelines, or even let you know about fellowship opportunities that get sent to him or her. Ditto your subject librarian, or any librarian really, especially the ones who get input on the library’s budget;
    — some kind of audiobook or CD that teaches you to meditate, for the times when you desperately need to relax but can’t afford to be hungover tomorrow;
    — a Sigg or Kleen Kanteen bottle (preferably with a shoulder strap, if you can cope with looking like a dork): fill it up at water fountains, keep hydrated, save money on both bottled water and coffee, and ensure that by early afternoon you have to take breaks every 15 minutes to use the bathroom;
    — index cards. I’ve tried almost every kind of note-taking, thought-organising software Lifehacker can suggest — index cards are cheaper, and they force you to condense notes for when you’re desperately trying to remember what on earth that book you read two years ago was about;
    — one of those purple ‘A Complaint-Free World’ bracelets, or something that performs the same function, for when you realise (or worse, when someone points out to you) that you’ve been complaining non-stop for years.


  15. I would advise trying to find a friend(s) *outside* of grad school. Do non-grad-school stuff whenever possible. it’s such a relief when you can hang around somebody who doesn’t know anything about your work and wouldn’t care/ be interested if he did. Even with people outside the dept grad students (like work colleagues) tend to talk shop pretty obsessively. That’s important, but a balanced life was key to my grad school sanity, and my local friends helped bring that balance.


  16. Oh, I second the thick skin!

    The map to Walmart made me think of the most important shopping destination for grad students: Ikea. If you live near one, everyone will shop there. Everybody’s grad school apartments will be versions of each other.


  17. Hey, James–it’s good to hear from you. Thanks for doing the cost-benefit analysis of bourbon v. beer. I believe you–esp. when you factor in the pub premium for drinking in bars. But I think I’m with Digger about the pleasures of the suds: “There’s nothing quite as celebratory and stress relieving as the arrival of a fresh pitcher of beer.”

    I like Bertie’s comment about the sling for the water bottle, “if you can handle looking like a dork.” Hey–we’re talking about GRADUATE STUDENTS here, people for whom the cool ranks pretty low on the scale of values. In fact, I think there’s sometimes a kind of anti-cool culture in grad school that can be oppressive. If you wear short skirts, if you go out on weeknights, if you look like you’re having too much fun, it can be held against you by your joyless peers.

    Perpetua’s comment about having friends who aren’t in grad school at all is important. They’re important for not taking yourself too seriously, I think. When everyone you know is either a student or faculty member at your university, you can sometimes get stuck in that self-contained and highly artificial world. When I was in grad school, I lived upstairs from a family raising a couple of preschool boys. I liked that, because it reminded me that not everyone was aged 18 and over, as it is at a university.


  18. Great suggestions all around. I’ll add a specific one: Moosewood Cooks at Home, the culinary bible of graduate students (at least in the ’90s) — if you’ve got a couple of cans of beans, some onions, some garlic and some olive oil, you’re somewhere between 75 and 100% of the way towards dinner.


  19. Good point, JJO. In grad school, I was a master of beans-and-rice and vegetarian pasta dishes. Now I take the lazy way out with lumps of protein purchased from my local meat farmer.


  20. Get a dog. Dog will keep you walking regularly everyday, give you something else to focus on (and it’s really nice when that something doesn’t speak, loves you unconditionally, and can learn cool tricks that impress your friends), and allow you to meet people outside of grad school. This is not to slag on cats, which I do love, but only to point out that dogs get you outside and moving and being social. Which is important, to the impoverished hermit grad student!

    Also, figure out where the cheap psych. counseling service on campus is, and use it. You’ll need a therapist, and you’ll need therapy to be affordable. Figure out also if there is a nurse practitioner or clinician on campus at the health center, and make that person your primary care go-to. They’re usually cheap or free for grad students, and everybody always needs healthcare.

    And lastly, get your ass in a union, if you can. They’ve got your back.


  21. a no-hassle repair contract/coverage plan with a friendly local drop off place for your computer/laptop. When my lemon-y laptop died at the end of two semesters in a row, knowing I could just take it to Jennifer at the Computer Store, who would do the repair or send it off to Apple, all for free, took some of the agony out of the experience.


  22. I really like RL’s advice — particularly that about taking advantage of campus counseling services. Taking some time before you’re depressed to be proactive about stuff will make it easier to get help when you do need it. If you’re already in a deep hole, trying to figure out the campus healthcare bureaucracy will be the last thing you want or are able to do.

    I’d qualify the dog advice a little, though — only do it if you really, really can commit to being a responsible dog owner. I’ve seen too many grad students with underexercised, neglected dogs, and it’s not good for anyone.


  23. Pre-emptive therapy for all grad students, RL and JJO? You really found the experience that traumatic? To each her own, I guess–it never once occurred to me to seek counseling in grad school. But then, maybe I was self-medicating, because 3 bottles of whisky per quarter also struck me as way too little booze…

    The suggestions to meet friends off campus and to grow a thick skin are especially important, I think.


  24. Don’t go home for Thanksgiving your first year. You are in the throes of learning a new language and all of a sudden your family is more annoying (if possible) than usual and they don’t understand what you are talking about (and this goes for any graduate or professional program). And you can’t decompress from the semester yet because you are still in it so the trip will NOT be fun or relaxing in any way. Stay at school and finish the papers you’ve avoided working on when drinking all that beer in the pub.


  25. Grad students don’t need PRE-EMPTIVE therapy, Shane! But there will come a time when damn, but a grad student will desperately need it–perhaps when Best-Friend-Who-Doesn’t-Get-Grad-School dumps you because you “just aren’t fun any more?” or your advisor is a psycho? or your partner “grows tired of living in [your] emergency” and moves out on the eve of your defense? or your grandma dies and you can’t afford to go to her funeral? Shit’ll hit the fan, and you’ll need help.

    Also, word to JJO on being a RESPONSIBLE dog owner. Don’t get a dog if you can’t walk a dog and train a dog and be social with a dog.


  26. Ignatz chiming in: Take weekend trips to nearby cities when totally stressed. Stay at a hostel or a Motel 6; stroll in parks; go to museums; send your friends postcards; drink cheap wine at cafes; grab the town’s alternative paper for free concerts and cheap eats recommendations.

    I found living by myself very peaceful; do so if you’re unpartnered and can afford it.

    As with a job, ask people who’ve been at your school longer to tell you how to get things done given your university’s particular byzantine bureaucracy: which person to ask for at the registrar’s, whom to avoid at financial aid, the number that gets you to a real person when you dial admissions, etc.

    My university town, like other big university towns, had many Goodwills and other thrift stores, and each had its strengths. I went north for shoes, south for TA dresses, and central for jewelry. Shop early and often, and donate your wearable castoffs.

    As for likker, we always opted for local beer. But it was hot and muggy where we were. If I were in, say, St. Paul, vodka would have seemed more appropriate somehow.


  27. At my grad. school there was someone in a faceless office, Mrs. E——e; we didn’t even know what the name of the office was, just what floor of which building. She was the person who made the calls that cut through the red tape, no matter how convoluted. We always said that if she said “I can’t fix that one” you would be totally done for, but it never happened. Don’t know if she was still there when you went through, Historiann.

    This must be a generic position in these schools. Find out who this person is and be nice to her.


  28. I’ll de-lurk to add vitamins to the list. I just finished my first year of grad school in May and found that my memory loss, excessive fatigue, and general confusion were not the product of overwork but instead the result of a massive B-12 deficiency. This is a where a diet of coffee, toast, and departmentally-provided donuts leaves will lead.


  29. I have to second Indyanna’s suggestion, that you find an administrative wizard and stick to them like…a very sticky substance. We recently had a new departmental assistant come in, and I don’t know where she came from, but I think it was heaven. She just made things happen, and she was new to the school. She just didn’t mess around. A wonderful ally and a great friend!



  30. Many years ago, when I was still a grad student, a newly minted Assistant Professor asked a snarky question of the Dept. Chair’s Administrative Assistant. He got a snarky answer back. As full-of-himself Asst. Prof. turned and walked down the hall, the Chair flew out of his office and ran down the hall after him to say, “you’ve just pissed off the most important person in this department (and he didn’t mean himself).” If I didn’t know who to be polite and respectful to before, I knew then.

    (and I read this blog because one of my escapes from doing political science is reading early American history.)


  31. If you land in grad school in the upper midwest, think WINTERIZING. Get a crockpot so you can eat warming food without much cost or prep. And get some very decent boots before the first winter. You can usually acquire coats and other accessories inexpensively, but don’t skimp on the boots, and don’t get anything cute. Epecially if you won’t be driving to campus, your footwear is your vehicle, invest carefully.

    Also, a hot-air popcorn popper for your office–cheap quick snack, and it can also blow on your frozen feet when the heat goes off in your building, in November. (Yes, I did that one day. I also filled glass soda bottles with boiling water and stuck them in my cardigan pockets.)

    The dorkiest accessory I had (and that’s saying a lot) was one of those collapsible wire carts to bring my groceries home (no car, remember). It meant that I could buy more than a backpack’s worth of food at a time, from a real supermarket instead of an overpriced market catering to students. Helped with budgeting my time and money.

    I didn’t access the counseling service, but I did take advantage of the learning disabilities office–it was in grad school that I realized I don’t read very efficiently, and the free evaluation/support was a big help in figuring out how to manage my reading load.


  32. Spending the money for a student membership at the local Y has been so worth it. I see people of all ages and stripes, which is a good reminder of the world outside the 20- and 30-something bubble of obsessives I belong to, and avoid running into students in the shower. (I decided after one naked almost-encounter that the school gym wasn’t a place I wanted to interact with people from work.)

    I’m almost done and wouldn’t be if I hadn’t had access to cheap therapy.

    One more thing for the list: A not completely inflexible, but reasonable commitment to not date or socialize entirely where you work. My happiness and productivity skyrocketed in my third year after I divested myself from the incestuous, time-sucking vortex of the t.a. office.


  33. Mine would be to check out the services offered by your campus learning/writing centre if you haven’t already. Even if you think you’re good at research, taking notes, and structuring/writing papers, they’re sure to have some useful tips you can use. Likewise, make friends with a good research librarian.
    Also, an iPod full of good tunes to help you either relax or energise, depending on the circs.
    And I would swap out both bourbon and beer for some tasty cheap red wine.


  34. Pingback: A Meditation on Recent History, Belonging and Endurance - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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