Ask Questions, Remember Your ‘Why’ Anthropology Professor Tells Grad Students

Associate Professor Shana Harris, Ph.D., is a cultural and medical anthropologist with research interests in drug use, addiction, and health politics and practice in Latin America and the United States.  

She was the sole recipient of the 2023 University of Central Florida’s College of Sciences Excellence in Graduate Teaching Award, which recognizes outstanding graduate-level teaching.  She was also nominated for the university-wide award. 

Here she shares her advice for grad students:  

Editor’s note: Answers have been edited for clarity and length.  

What are some common mistakes new graduate students make? 

1. You are not an undergraduate anymore. 

The workload, expectations, and responsibilities of a graduate student differ greatly from those of an undergraduate; it is a whole new ballgame.  New graduate students can look shell-shocked during the first few weeks of their first semester, often underestimating how much time and energy it takes to succeed in their new program.  They usually do not mentally prepare themselves for this shift and, as a consequence, are left feeling lost and anxious.  It is important to know that things will and should be different in graduate school, and that is okay.  

2. Do not be afraid to ask questions. 

Most new graduate students are very sensitive to coming off as ignorant or incompetent.  So, when they are confused or unsure about something (course material, university bureaucracy, etc.), they often do not ask questions.  The faculty, staff, and peers in your department are there to help you.  It will be better for you and them if you ask questions instead of fretting about it.  And it is always better to do so sooner rather than later. 

What strategies do you recommend for balancing studies and life?    

1. Do not make graduate school your entire life. 

Graduate school will very likely take up a big chunk of your time, but that does not mean that you have to dedicate every waking hour to it.  One of the best ways to ensure this does not happen is to create a separation between you and your studies.  Make friends outside of academia. Enjoy hobbies unrelated to school. Reserve time to spend with just your family.  Staying balanced means creating balance, so make this a priority. 

2. Get organized. 

You will be juggling multiple things at once as a graduate student: classes, research, teaching, and/or service.  And that does not even include friends, family and other obligations.  A great way to manage your time is organization It can reduce anxiety, save time and help you be more effective.  Find what works for you and stay on top of it. 

3. Ask for help. 

Graduate school can feed and intensify your worst insecurities. You may feel like you are not as smart as your classmates. You might fear that your level of productivity pales in comparison to theirs.  You could think that everyone else is having an easier time balancing the demands of graduate school than you.  This self-doubt and anxiety are very common among graduate students, but you do not have to face them alone.  Do not be afraid to turn to your support system (friends, family, mentors, mental health professionals, etc.) to help you work through whatever you are thinking and feeling. 

What are some words of encouragement for graduate students?  

1. Your thesis or dissertation is not your life’s work. 

Writing a thesis or dissertation is no easy feat; it takes time, dedication and hard work. It can also be emotional. It is common for graduate students to attach a lot of meaning to their research. This is understandable; you want to be proud of your work.  But doing so often leads to the pursuit of perfectionism, which can create all kinds of problems (anxiety, slow progress, frustration). You must remind yourself of the purpose of a thesis or dissertation: to demonstrate to your committee that you have satisfactorily applied the skills that you learned in a research context.   

It is no doubt a major accomplishment, but do not get stuck trying to perfect it.  Remember that it is just a steppingstone to the next stage of your career.   

2. It is normal to make mistakes. 

You will inevitably make mistakes in graduate school.  You are human; it is part of the deal.  Do not be afraid to make those mistakes!  You will learn from them and become a better researcher, teacher, citizen and colleague as a result. 

3. Remember why you chose to go to graduate school. 

All students hit bumps along the road of graduate school, but do not let them deter you from reaching your goals. Remind yourself of why you applied to graduate school when faced with challenges.  Keeping these reasons at the forefront of your mind can help you avoid discouragement and stay on target. 

How can graduate students prepare today for building a career after graduation?  

1. Take advantage of opportunities. 

UCF and professional organizations offer all kinds of opportunities to network, build skill sets, promote your work, engage the public and more!  But too few graduate students take advantage of these opportunities, especially the free ones.  It never hurts to participate in workshops, sign up for listservs, attend webinars, or take part in other activities that can help you get a leg up on your career.  In fact, doing so may put you one step ahead of the pack. 

2. Think about alternatives. 

Many graduate students believe that the only possible (or even worthwhile) job post-graduation is an academic one.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Your graduate education can be leveraged into jobs in and outside academia.  It all depends on the kind of career that you want to have.  And with the unpredictability of the academic job market, it only makes sense to consider alternatives to academic careers.  


Considering graduate school? Explore all of the graduate degrees that the College of Sciences offers.   

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