Archive for the ‘Graduate Students’ category

The Pages Were Red With Ink: On Feedback

June 27, 2013

You’ve always been an all-star student.  In third grade, your teachers talked about you in the teacher’s lounge, “She used a word I had to look up.  I don’t even know what vacillate means and she used it in a sentence…”  You were the top of your high school class.  College felt a breeze.  When your favorite professor said you should consider grad school, you smiled and rattled off the top programs you were already contemplating.  He loved your work.  You always got As.  You were destined for greatness.Red Ink

Then you arrived at grad school… and everything seems to have changed.

You receive feedback on your first… maybe second paper… and it’s full of red ink.  There are abbreviations for errors you don’t even understand.  What have I done?  Who has failed me?  Why do I keep writing in the passive voice?

Graduate school is meant to be a humbling experience.  What most students master at the undergrad level is how to speak the language of the professor.  “Oh I know Jones… he loves when I connect the Civil War to theology and reference Mark Noll.  I do that in every paper!”  Then the students replicate the winning formula with every subsequent paper, affirming self-fulfilling prophecies.  Then when students try to do that kind of thing in graduate school, they quickly realize the goal is not to say what the professor wants to hear, but rather write something the professor him/herself has never even thought about.  The goal of graduate school is innovative, unique, and powerful thinking.  This does not happen over night.

I will not pretend to be the expert on this.  I’m still working on my doctoral work, but what I do have to say is to take heart.  A page full of red marks means that the professor believes there is hope in “fixing” your writing.  Let it influence you.  Take in the comments and learn from them.  Not all professors agree on good writing.  Every year committees argue over the Pulitzer and the Bancroft because no one can agree on the best research and writing.  Fortunately your first seminar paper in grad school is not up for a Pulitzer.  So, learn from the red ink.

I will finish with this advice.  Visit the professor not out of a concern for the grad, but to learn more about how to think.  Teachers face students all the time who are concerned with grades.  GPAs, of course, in our market economy can determine all sorts of quality of life issues.  In short, for undergrads, the difference of a few letter grades can determine a $10,000 grant or not.  That’s a huge deal.  But what professors want to hear is a genuine concern for learning.  Grad school, as expensive as it can be, should not just be about your grades.  Rather, focus on learning.  “I see your comments here about this awkward sentence.  Can you explain to me how to write it more clearly?  How can I improve the way I’m thinking about this historical time period?”  Those questions will go a long way in establishing your relationship with instructors, as well as your own intellectual progress.

Take a few red marks on the chin.  Don’t argue with the grade, but always learn from criticism.  Remember that when you get out of grad school (if you stay in the academic world), there will be editors, peer reviewers, and still more red ink to fix.  Revision is part of the writing process.  It doesn’t mean you’re not an all-star student any more; it just means you’ve made the all-star team and the coaches here intend to push you harder.


When will you be done? And other questions grad students can’t handle.

June 2, 2013

This is not a post for graduate students.  This is a post for everyone who loves a graduate student.  Here are some things we hate to hear and a few reasons why.  If you are a grad student and can’t bear to say these things yourself, maybe you can click “share” and let these words speak for you.eating-alone-2

1) When will you be done?
We know you mean well with this question, but graduate degrees (MAs and especially PhDs) are not defined by chronological status updates like a BA or BS.  To complete a full original research project may take years even before writing begins.  Some scholars research quickly and take years to write.  Some take years to research and write in no time.  Others take years to do it all.  Oh, and as most readers are aware, most scholars are doing all of this work in the evenings or on weekends because our days are full of teaching undergraduates.  We don’t want your sympathy, but you might consider asking, “how is your work?”  Please don’t ask, “how is school?” like we’re still in elementary school.  We know you mean well, but grad school is our job.

2) When will you get a real job?
This is a difficult question that often does not get asked directly, but it’s what people mean.  When you ask when we’re getting done, you’re basically leading to this.  “So… you’re in your late 20s and you’re still in school… you have no money and no prospects… when are you going to throw in the towel and come work at the bank/bar/hotel/factory with the rest of us grown ups?”  We don’t want to hear that.  We don’t need to hear that.  We need support.  Graduate students took a leap of faith the days we applied, got accepted, and began working on this.  Our work is the life of the mind.  We know that you won’t all “get it,” but that question doesn’t really help.  By the way, if you’re really curious, our answer to this question is almost invariably, “when the market normalizes, my research is complete, Oxford publishes my manuscript, and the perfect job at the place I want has an opening and everyone on the committee thinks I’m amazing.”  In short, we have no idea and the truthful answer might be never.  Is it still worth pursuing?  Absolutely.

3) What does your spouse think of all this?
This one is sometimes in the form of a condescending statement, as in, “Oh your [significant other] must really love you to put up with ALL THIS SCHOOL.”  Again, I point to number one in reference to this being a job and not school.  But… more to the point… the sanctimonious attitude present in this all-too-common question/statement is that we, grad students, are mere leeches on our significant others, bringing down the household income to pursue some silly dream.  I didn’t buy a Corvette and go cruisin’ down the coast.  This is not a quarter-life crisis.  This is a graduate degree that is part of a larger career.  It’s personal advancement as well as, at least we hope, helping to expand the knowledge base of humanity.  You’re welcome.

The main thing we grad students need in this process is support.  We want you to care and sustain us, but this is neither a hospital stay nor boot camp.  We made the decision to get into this ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we always enjoy it OR always hate it.  We love and despise the life of the mind.  The best advice I can give is to treat graduate students like the professionals that they are.  Would you ask your dentist when he’s finally going to quit doing all the small time local patient stuff and get a degree in oral surgery?  Would you ask your lawyer why he’s working on your small time local stuff when he could be slaying corporate giants downtown?  No.  You would talk about their work with respect and dignity, with the care and precision of a semi-interested non-specialist who cares but does not condescend.  On behalf of grad students everywhere, we would love a little of the same.

Guest Post: Mary Sanders on the Rocky Mountain Interdisciplinary History Conference

October 2, 2012

Mary Sanders is a third-year PhD student in history at Oklahoma State University, where she’s focusing in twentieth-century American religious history.  She has an MA in history from the University of Connecticut and a BA in history with a minor in theatre from Oklahoma Baptist University.  She’s a teaching assistant at OSU, an adjunct instructor in freshman composition at Oklahoma Baptist University, an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and a Post-it note addict.  When she’s not buried in schoolwork, you can usually find her taking a Zumba class or relaxing with Smudge, her 6-year old lhasa apso.


“Which conferences are you trying to go to this year?”

This is a fairly common question in my department.  Every year at orientation, we hear the same thing from our graduate director: Make sure you’re submitting to conferences!  Get your work out there!  Meet people!  Make connections!  Calls for paper regularly circulate through our email inboxes, and my colleagues and I are fairly routinely checking in with each other about what we’re working on.

If I’m being honest, I really enjoy conferences, and so I’m really glad to see a growing number of small conferences geared towards graduate students.  I recently went to one of these conferences, the Rocky Mountain Interdisciplinary History Conference (RMIHC), sponsored by the University of Colorado—Boulder history department and held on CU’s beautiful campus.  I presented a paper entitled “So What About God? Working Towards a Theological History of the Oklahoma City Bombing,” a new project designed to test-drive some methodological aspects of my dissertation.  I traveled to Boulder with two colleagues from Oklahoma State University (my home institution), one of whom presented his own work and the other of whom came along for moral support.

It was my first time attending the RMIHC, and I was very impressed with this conference.  I was particularly struck with how well the conference was run—it was well-organized, we ran on schedule, and, as far as I could tell, there were no major logistical problems.  One of my favorite parts was the professional development lunch, when we had wide-ranging conversations about oral history methodology and archival research.  Although I unfortunately had to miss one of the afternoon sessions, the papers I did have a chance to see were very interesting.  The conference organizers took the “interdisciplinary” aspect of the conference seriously, and I was privileged to see papers from fellow graduate students in history, religious studies, economics, and American studies.  It was an excellent experience—I left with helpful feedback on my work, and I had a good time.  I’d highly recommend that graduate students in the area consider submitting to this conference next year.

Of course, as I’m writing this, I’m gearing up to head to Gordon College for the Conference on Faith & History meeting later this week.  I’ve been involved with CFH since I was an undergraduate, when we held the 2006 meeting at Oklahoma Baptist University, my alma mater.  I’ve been looking forward to this year’s meeting, partly because I’m excited to see some interesting papers, and partly because…well, let’s face it: I live in Oklahoma, and it was 90 degrees last week.  Fall in New England?  Yes, please!

Hope to see lots of you there!

Job Hunt… and Trust

September 18, 2012

CFH member and OK State grad student Mary Sanders sent over this article from the Chronicle.

It highlights a rather tragic story about colleagues competing in the same job market.  This is a sensitive subject for some of us… especially if we end up competing in a similar CCCU job market.

So… hoping to conjure some good discussion here:

How does this change with us being fellow Christians?

What is a “right spirit” in this situation?

How are you, or how have you navigated the job market when it comes to colleagues, friends, and brothers/sisters in Christ?

Grad School Summers

June 7, 2011

One year I packed corn on a farm in the Cuyahoga Valley.

The next year I delivered auto parts.

The third year I read a few hundred books to prepare for comprehensive exams.

The fourth year I worked on dissertation research and writing.

What are you doing with your summer? Are you using it to advance your career, or just put some bread (quite literally) on the table? Share your thoughts and ideas on the graduate school summer.

CFP: Graduate History Review

April 8, 2011

The Graduate History Review offers an exciting new publishing opportunity
for graduate students working in all fields and periods of history. The GHR
is a peer-reviewed, open access journal published by graduate students at
the University of Victoria. We welcome original and innovative submissions
from emerging scholars across Canada and the United States.

Authors have the option of submitting either a full-length article or a
Research Note. Information about these submission formats, as well as author
guidelines, can be found on the journal website:

We accept submissions on an ongoing basis, but submissions received before
30 April 2011 will be considered for publication in the Fall 2011 issue of
the GHR.

We look forward to your submission!

Lisa Pasolli and Sarah Lebel Van Vugt, Editors
Department of History
University of Victoria
P.O. Box 3045 STN CSC
Victoria, B.C. V8W 3P4

Visit the website at

What are you learning?

March 10, 2011

Allow this post to be an open invitation for submissions from CFH grad members to post thoughts/reflections/ideas that you’re learning.

Sure it’s a busy time of the semester… sure you have a million things to do… but really, how much time would it take to write up 250-500 words on something that’s tugging at your heart?

If there’s anything I’m learning from *Confessing History* it’s that I need to spend more time reflecting on my own learning. Let’s hear what you are observing.

Submit ideas or entries to care of the graduate student representative, Greg Jones.