As a graduate student, there are many reasons for treating school like work. First and foremost, I would argue that it is very good practice. Office politics are among the things that people speak to as being among the most difficult aspects of the transition from student to professional, but if you choose to treat school like work, and are actively teaching yourself to become more aware of the social and interpersonal dynamics that are always going on all around you, you will find that you are already in a place where you can begin learning about office culture, and practice the art of navigating within it.
In an academic department, just like in any workplace, there is much that is going on beneath the surface. There are allegiances, there are conflicts, there are historical ways of doing things, and there are forces of change. At any moment, any person with whom you may come into contact is likely dealing with many if not all of these things at once. Probably they are experiencing them in very different ways if they are a faculty member, an administrator, a student, a university employee – all of which bears thinking about. Perhaps I was more in tune with all of this because I came back to graduate school after a few years in a very hierarchical and competitive workplace, but as a student, to remain ignorant of all that is going on around is to do so at your peril. Use this as an opportunity.
If nothing else, at the very least, choose to pay more careful attention to the people around you. Some folks are being paid to be here, and some folks are paying to be here, but we all come with histories and experiences that we can share. To recognize these is to recognize the many opportunities for learning and growth all around you, including perhaps identifying models for your own behavior. Reflect on what drives the people around you. What can you recognize about their skills and interests? What do you know about their values? Think about how you know this. The clues are all around you. Who do people talk about as being obnoxious? What aspects of their behavior are being called to attention? Don’t be like them.
Glean information about the culture by listening and observing. And only after you have learned enough about HOW to ask (c.f. Charles Briggs), should you begin asking questions. There are likely to be projects in need of assistance, but your likelihood of receiving one such opportunity is likely going to depend on the way that you ask about it.
You are being observed
Not to make this all sound like Big Brother, but your colleagues form impressions about you by the ways you act and interact every day. If you are in job search mode, you want for your classmates and professors and department administrators to know it, not just because you say it, but because you SHOW IT. Tell them with your actions that you are responsible, hardworking, dedicated, and smart. Students are reminded to think about this when they ask for a letter of recommendation (that how you ask is going to be as important as who you ask), but EVERY TIME that you show up for class, or hand in an assignment, or raise your hand is an opportunity to communicate something about yourself.
Know when to have fun!
This is not to make you paranoid or make you feel like you can’t be yourself. People like to surround themselves with people they enjoy, so if people enjoy your company, this might be the reason they think of you when they hear about an opportunity at their workplace. If you are a silly and goofy person, the people you work with should know this about you, but knowing the time and place for everything is key. Boundary-setting is a crucial life skill, and here again is an opportunity to practice.
Your behavior reflects on others
Remember that who you are says something about who WE are because you are a part of a community. Knowing this is especially important if someone is going to recommend you for a job. They need to know that such a recommendation is not going to come back to haunt them years later when their boss says: “why on EARTH did you bring that guy to work here?” Again, you will need to communicate this not just with your words, but with your actions. If this awareness is new to you, use your time in grad school as a chance to get practice and feedback. Ask your classmates and your professors for input about how you are coming off. Frame it as important knowledge that you need for success in your professional future. People will share if they trust that you will honestly listen.
Cultivating Awareness of Skills
As it often does in this blog, it all comes down to increasing your awareness. To treat school as a job means also to pay attention to the skills that you are acquiring and cultivating. Think about it! Sociolinguistics is about being an expert at communication and culture, so it is only natural that we as a community have very high expectations about our members’ ability to recognize the elements of communicative competence for participating in our culture. Grad school is and opportunity for both learning and practice, and these skills are well worth it! Believe me, such awareness is going to be something that you will rely on for the rest of your life!