Archive for the ‘Grad School Reading’ category

Advice for Surviving Graduate School

April 1, 2013

While I’m not completely finished with graduate school, I am on the “downhill” side of doctoral coursework and comprehensive exams, so I thought I’d provide some thoughts on surviving graduate school for some of my junior colleagues. In a world spent mostly looking toward what’s next in my career, it seems appropriate to take a look backward for a moment. books

  1. You can’t read everything, so read strategically. There are some graduate advisors cringing at this right now because they read so adamantly, they’re even reading my blog. They won’t skip point two because it might be the point that unlocks the piece. But the bottom line is that you can’t possibly read everything, especially when a syllabus has “extra readings” for the week. On top of the two books required, the professor suggests you read three of these others. Really, professor? Five books for one class? Yes, seriously. This will be asked of you. So you have to read strategically. Learn to grasp the nuts and bolts of an argument quickly and efficiently. It’s an acquired skill, but it’s best to acquire it early in the process.
  2. Stay balanced. One of the biggest mistakes people make in grad school is selling out to their program of study. You have to go to the gym. You have to sleep. You should stay plugged into a church. Even though none of us are studying science, we need to know enough about how the human body works to give it food and workouts and rest. Your brain will not allow higher level thinking if you don’t take care of your body. Aside from that, research shows that creativity (and higher level processing) happens when we shift our focus away from what we’re working on. It’s why places like Google and 3M allow their employees to play pingpong and take walks. Because when those workers return to productivity, they have better ideas.
  3. Make and cultivate relationships with colleagues. Graduate school is, by definition, an alienating experience. You are becoming one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet in your niche of specialization. So in that, there are very few others who can relate to what you’re enduring. Your significant other may not “get” what you do. You friends may not understand the time commitment and may drive you nuts with the “so when will you be done?” question, as if grad school is just a jog around the block. That’s why connecting with colleagues, beyond just someone to complain about that “stupid paper we had to write this week” is important; they can commiserate on the life of the mind.
  4. Protect your intellectual vitality. This is not an excuse to be lazy. In fact, what I mean is not that you read more but that you stay connected to the important influences that directed you to graduate school. Don’t get so sidetracked by the theory-heavy reading lists of courses that you forget to read theology and life-giving ideas about the profession that motivates you. Read pedagogy when you’re frustrated with disengaged students. Read a biography of your all time favorite pitcher if it breathes life into your historical intellectual curiosity. Don’t get bogged in the mire of grad reading lists.
  5. Vary your studying atmosphere. Some of my colleagues have their spot. For some it’s at home, others a coffee shop, and some (shockingly) can get work done in the office. But wherever it is, you will eventually hit a wall. When that happens and the words won’t flow or your eyeballs seem to cross, find a new place. Universities are full of places to study. Switch it up. Study in a different building on campus. Go to a different part of town. Sometimes studying at a friend’s house can result in minimal actual “study” work, but I’ve gotten more done in 15 minute chunks in intellectually-stimulating places than I have for hours in the institutional confines of various places. Find what makes your lightbulb glow, but don’t stay plugged into the same outlet. Explore and illumine other places.
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Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 31

June 7, 2011

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF
(Cross-posted by permission of John Fea’s blog *The Way of Improvement Leads Home*)

I’m feeling ambivalent about the summer break. I need relief from the academic schedule, but something false is implied in this notion of a summer recess. I turn my last final into Blackboard at 5:00 PM, and the stack of blue books sitting on my desk continues to dwindle. The end is nigh. Yet, in nine days I must complete my first-year portfolio, which includes a compilation of my best work from the first two semesters, a reflection essay, and a tentative proposal and outline of my secondary field.

After I complete my portfolio, the real toil of the summer begins. Not only must I read as much as possible from the 100+ book Qualifying Exam list, I need to make significant headway on my secondary field (a formal proposal, a bibliography, and an historiography of the fifty most important titles from the field), and I need to write a proposal and competency goals for my Advanced Research Skill (ASU’s requirement in lieu of a language)—all of which could easily become my full-time summer job.

Summer break for a PhD student is a Catch 22. If I want to feel comfortable going into the fall semester, I should accomplish the aforementioned tasks. If I want to feel sane and rested going into the fall semester, I should relax and spend adequate time doing the things I love with the people I love. I suppose the best option is to find balance—a middle ground between productivity and rest.

Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 25

March 29, 2011

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF

[Taken directly from *The Way of Improvement Leads Home*]

This is not the time for me to run out of steam. Just last week I wrote how the cruise gave me the R&R I needed to make it though the end of the semester. But my 7-day foray into the Western Caribbean only provided me with enough steam to write a draft of a 30-page seminar paper—which I finished on Tuesday. That was pretty early in the week to burnout. Not once, but twice this week, I ’ve fallen asleep reading books. The first, Badger’s New Deal, put me out for two solid hours. Today, Sunset Limited by Richard Orsi gave me the impetus for a forty-five minute power nap, which sadly resulted in no extra energy. I better pick things up soon.

I still have six weeks until the end of the semester. Six weeks can be translated in two ways. First, it’s only six weeks. The second week of May will come quickly. I have a seminar paper to finish, two historiographical essays to compose, four book reviews/critiques to write, and about twenty-five books to read. Or, six weeks is an eternity. I have plenty of time to complete my work—too much time, perhaps. Right now, six weeks oddly feels like both: so close, yet so far away. Honestly, I just want the semester to be over. While Quinn indulges in March Madness and season five of Dexter, it’s very easy to imagine a different life. But, despite the ease with which I can drift into creating an alternative journey, one that includes a nine to five job, reading for pleasure, dinner at nice restaurants without emotional breakdowns, and guilt-free television sessions, I need to keep in mind (again and again) why I do this and that one day I will be doing what I love for a living.

Dispatches from Graduate School — Part 23

March 16, 2011

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF

[Taken directly from *The Way of Improvement Leads Home*]

In just a few short hours, I depart from a port in Ft.Lauderdale for an all-expenses paid cruise to the Western Caribbean. For the next seven days I will be completely disconnected (unless I want to pay $6.95/minute for internet access, a service in which I will not indulge).

I must confess, however, I filled my carry-on bag with seven books on tourism, the environment, and the American West. I also toted three books for my North American core class: Environmental Inequalities (Hurley), Crabgrass Frontier The (Jackson), and The New Deal (Badger). This means that while the family enjoys their light and airy novels in the sunshine, I’ll read my academic books and write a 20-30 page term paper draft. But how can you complain when you’re off of the coast of Cozumel with a piña colada in hand?

Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 22

March 9, 2011

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF

[Taken directly from John Fea’s blog *The Way of Improvement Leads Home*]

I just met the archivists at the Arizona Historical Foundation. Since I will likely spend an inordinate amount of time perusing their collections, I figure that now is a good a time as ever to make new best friends. In case you don’t hear from me for a while, you might find me on the fourth floor, behind the vertical files, or beside the the card catalog!

Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 21

March 2, 2011

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University.  For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF

[Taken directly from John Fea’s blog *The Way of Improvement Leads Home*]

I had my first official PhD meltdown on Thursday night. My family requested to take Quinn and I out for dinner on Thursday night. We settled on The Mission, a Latin restaurant situated in the bustle of Old Town Scottsdale, and within walking distance from our condo. My parents and brother were seated when we arrived, so Quinn and I took the empty seats across the table. I was about to dig a hot corn chip into the made-to-order guacamole when my brother nudged his head to his left, my right. Barry Zito and five friends were seated directly next to our table. The tables were positioned rather close, so it felt a little like we were actually sitting with their party. So basically, I had dinner with a Cy Young Award-winning Major League Baseball pitcher. Kind of. Anyway, on to the meltdown.

We finished our meals as we discussed our upcoming family cruise to the eastern Caribbean—what to pack, what not to pack, etc. The waitress brought the check to our table and my mom, in typically fashion, proceeded to leave a 30% tip—roughly $40. Then I thought to myself, Barry Zito will likely leave an equally, if not more, generous tip for our energetic, cute waitress.  Then I started to do a little math. We were two of her three or four tables. And we were a 7:00 reservation. So if you figure she does about 3 tables per 2 hours in three successive waves making on average $50/hour, she walks with at least $300 at the end of the night. I make a little more than $300 in a week. One full week. 7 days. She makes $300 in six hours.

All of this went through my head in a matter of moments, and I interrupted whatever conversation was going on with my rather upsetting epiphany. This lament led to another, and to another, and to another, until tears were streaming down my cheeks. I felt a little embarrassed that this was happening in front of a major league baseball player, but then I remembered that Zito and I both have reason to cry—he might not make the rotation this year. That offered consolation for but a minute before I started on a rambling list of the difficulties of graduate school.

We closed our bill and walked outside to avoid further embarrassment for my younger brother. My mom gave me a kiss, told me I was her hero, and we parted ways. As soon as I got home I opened Indeed.com in my web browser and searched for jobs. Even after six years of college education under my belt, there is little for which I am qualified. That led to further depression and to a lengthy yellow notepad cost-benefit analysis. It makes no sense and isn’t the least bit helpful to try and conduct a cost-benefit analysis for a PhD program, because frankly, time, money, and security cannot and should not be factors in pursuing such a path. That’s not what this is about.

On Friday I had lunch with one of my classmates (who has become a dear friend). I shared with her my meltdown experience and she lauded me for making it this far before my first lapse into weepiness and irrational thoughts. I told her that it had happened before, but only in my mind and never led to an actual public hullabaloo. We decided that because we’re at a Research 1 university, we have few examples of what a balanced academic life might look like. The faculty are largely single, or on multiple marriages, and have moved from place to place to place, all consequences of climbing their way up the ivory tower. Feeling as if I had to conform to that image (and the realization that I will subsist on rice and beans for many years to come) caused me a great amount of distress (e.g., crying like a baby in front of Barry Zito).

Neither my classmate nor I aspire to such a lifestyle, but when that is modeled for us, it’s hard to imagine anything different. So we resolved to not live that life, to always seek to find balance, and to think about what is best for our families before we think about what is best for our careers. I doubt that Thursday night’s meltdown will be my last. But hopefully each time I will gain a new perspective on this journey.

My takeaway(s) this time around: 1. It’s not about the money. I’m doing this because I love to learn and I want to share that passion with others. 2. I need to forge my own way.  I cannot always look to others to define my experience—this is not a value judgment, just a realization that my life doesn’t need to look like anyone’s but mine own. I’m sure there will be many more lessons acquired. I just hope that next time I grapple with them in the privacy of my own home!

Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 20

February 23, 2011

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University.  For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF

[Taken directly from John Fea’s blog *The Way of Improvement Leads Home*]

I would call few of the books assigned for class “page-turners.” Alfred Chandler, you are a good man, but The Visible Hand didn’t quite take hold of me. And one of the words I would not use to describe The Fall of the House of Labor is riveting. However, each monograph has a rightful place in the graduate seminar.
Understanding the transformation of the American economy in the mid-nineteenth century or the demise of a united labor front at the turn of the twentieth century are essential to piecing together a larger narrative of American history.
Every once and a while I am assigned a book that makes my usual approach to reading difficult. I typically use the following steps as a guide: 1. Read reviews. 2. Carefully examine the Table of Contents. 3. Read the prologue and the epilogue. 4. Skim chapters. I don’t like this process, but I’ve found it to be a necessary evil. I would love to sit down and read every single book (well, I take that back…most books) from front to cover, but that just isn’t realistic. For example, the second week of courses I was assigned three books, each more than 500 pages in length. I also had to write two essays and prepare two lectures. Now, some might be capable of such a feat. Me, not so much. I suppose if I had forgone sleeping and showering, church, and my requisite yoga classes (believe me, no yoga makes for an incorrigible Cali), then I might have been able to give a thorough reading to all 1500 pages.
This was yet another week full of an intimidating amount of reading. I still haven’t touched The Promise of a New South by Edward Ayers or the book assigned for Global Enivronmental History. But I just cannot put down White Mother to a Dark Race by Margaret Jacobs. Jacobs writes a comparative analysis of settler colonialism and indigenous child removal in the American West and in Australia. She reveals striking similarities between the two nations, particularly in a time when both the U.S. and Australia were bent on securing a more powerful place on the world stage. In her exploration of the American West, Jacbos shows how Indian removal allowed white women to leverage power, yet despite their heavy hands in the removal, rearing, and education of indigenous children, white women were ultimately subject to the male-dominated authority of the state—a state with an acute goal: to acquire land for the sake of nation-building.
White women in both the U.S. and Australia used a variety of means to justify transferring children from the care of their tribes to boarding schools, dormitories, and white homes, but most of their rationale fell under the umbrella of Christian charity. I found one excuse especially troubling. Women missionaries involved in removal zealously advocated for a sexual division of labor based on middle-class, Christian, white gender norms. According to Jacobs, these women believed that “‘true women’ oversaw domestic duties and guided affective relationships in the home while their husbands worked outside the home for pay.”[1] Indigenous sexual division of labor did not conform to this standard and thus white women actively upended the long-established traditions of both Indian and Aboriginal families.
When white women saw indigenous women engaged in what they perceived to be roles coded masculine—planting, harvesting, setting camp—they assumed that the indigenous women were enslaved to their idle husbands. And they set out enthusiastically to right such a wrong. What was so striking to me was that these white women no doubt used their interpretation of Scripture to defend removal. I immediately thought of Proverbs 31—an oft-cited passage describing a good Christian wife and mother. The following excerpt really complicates the white critique of indigenous labor:
She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.[2]
Although some of the above tasks were considered domestic and appropriate for women by nineteenth century standards, others were condemned or considered men’s work. How could missionary women, committed fully to spreading the gospel and Christianizing indigenous women (and men), have interpreted the physical labor of indigenous women as backward or oppressive when clearly, the godly woman from Proverbs engaged in similar tasks? This made me think about how our interpretation of Scripture is at times subject to the larger cultural and social patterns of the world in which we live (similar perhaps to how the women, despite their own maternal instincts and efforts, were subject to the demands of the state).

This both humbles and frightens me. In what activities do I engage in the spirit of Christian compassion or concern that in one hundred years will be understood as oppressive, judgmental, or misdirected? I can only hope that I am not completely blinded by my situatedness. I can also strive to be self-reflective enough to recognize my own prejudice and bias, and that I might leave a legacy not of unrestrained criticism, but of patience and perceptivity.

[1] Jacobs, 114.

[2]Proverbs 31: 13-19, ESV.