One More Thing You Should Do as a Grad Student

A couple of years ago I published a couple of thoughts on how I would do grad school if I could rewind and do it all over.  This morning another piece of advice occurred to me–one that I think I got right, but I often see other students neglect.

Get to be friendly with the admin staff at your department.

Admin staff are lower in the pecking order at an academic institution, and work behind the scenes.  Though results may vary, I’m sure they do their share of putting up with prima donna professors and post-docs, as well as being somewhat invisible to students.

However, the admin staff are the people that keep the wheels turning for the department.  For example, they file your graduation petition, they pay your stipend, they deliver your mail, they get the A/C and plumbing fixed, they arrange your travel, and they account for the (often expensive) equipment that your research relies upon.

By all means, I don’t mean to say that you should kowtow to the department chair’s admin assistant. But I do mean:

  • Get to know them by name: Jim in the accounting office. Howard in the mail room.  Susan the building manager.
  • When you pass by them in the hall, smile and say hi; chat with them if it’s appropriate. Don’t interact with them merely when you need them to do something for you.
  • Find out what they need from you to do their job well.  Does the admin assistant who reimburses your travel ask you to drop off your receipts in an envelope with your name and dates of travel on it? Then do it. Is somebody inventorying your lab equipment? Help her to quickly find all the items. Does the accounting office have a deadline for your paperwork? Meet it.

If you do these things and appreciate the work that they do, they’ll be willing to help you out when you mess up. Two examples:

  • My third year of grad school, for whatever reason I didn’t submit my paperwork for my assistantship–meaning that my paycheck stopped coming.  As soon as I realized (weeks after the deadline), I rushed up to the accounting office to try to get straightened out. Because I had met the lady before and established a positive relationship, she knew me and was willing to make a few extra phone calls to rush my paycheck, and I got it only 2-3 days later than if I had met the deadline.
  • During several of the trips I’ve taken, I’ve lost a food receipt here or there.  The great lady who takes care of travel reimbursements always accepts my word and works it out so that I’m reimbursed. Why? Because she knows me well enough to trust that I’m telling the truth.

Would these cases have happened to the average student? I can’t say one way or the other for sure. But I do know that every admin employee in my department (including the chair’s assistant) have never been anything but friendly and helpful to me when I’ve needed it.