Posted tagged ‘grad school’

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.

Teaching “May Term”: Some Reflections

May 30, 2013

 

teacher writing

Some call it “May Term”… some call it “J term”… if I were a poet, I could come up with a third.  Regardless of your terminology, I’m writing about the “intensive, semester in a few weeks EXPERIENCE OF A LIFETIME” that many schools have.  “Back in my day” as an undergrad, this was not an option.  However, I’d like to offer a few points of advice from this side of the podium on how to handle teaching an intensive semester-in-a-month class.

1) Cut back – Cut back on everything.  Your Chair will tell you not to.  Your spirit won’t want you to make the class any “easier,” but the bottom line is you have to cut some content.  Students cannot retain in five weeks what they can in fifteen.  Remember the whole “uncoverage” conversation.  I don’t care if you’re teaching World Civ or US history, something’s gotta go.

2) Don’t lament the structure; embrace it.  Initially I found myself frustrated with the smaller class size and the restricted time to develop my ideas.  “I can’t do this…” I said.  “This is too hard…” I said.  But I could do it.  Once I learned to listen to my students (I know, I sound like Mr. Myagi now), I realized they were making different sorts of connections in this format.  Unlike us, these students don’t spend three hours a day working on history.  So when they do for an intensive class, they make unique observations and connections they may not make in a standard semester.

3) Let less be more.  This point is related to the first point, but what I mean is rather than focus on “whole texts” and longer readings (that students frankly cannot finish in the format), try breaking down sources together.  Running a class like this (with three hour meeting blocks), creating a “workshop” style atmosphere can be very beneficial.  While it might seem like you’re covering less “survey” material, the hands on connection points are invaluable and, for some of us, more enjoyable.

To some these might seem like obvious ideas, but I know I had to learn them the  hard way.  Feel free to share this post with friends and colleagues who may be teaching in this format over the summer or for intensive classes next fall.

Any thoughts or ideas you might have, feel free to comment below!

Finding Conferences – H-Net is Key!

May 8, 2013

At this point in our careers most grad students have something worth sharing with the larger Imageacademy.  You have a seminar paper that “ain’t so bad” and you’re ready to share it with the world.  Okay, well not THE WORLD, yet… but you want to share it with someone other than your advisor (who hates it) and your mother (who loves it).  Where, pray tell, can you find such a place?

Sometimes departments post fliers for conferences in the area, but the best way to find Calls for Papers (CFPs) is on H-Net, the list serv software from Michigan State that will fill your inbox with delightful things nearly every day.  If you haven’t yet checked out H-Net, go there now.

You can subscribe to H-lists (the H stands for Humanities, by the way) on a variety of subjects.  There are announcements for conferences, book projects, and even book reviews.  It’s a great opportunity to network with other professionals writing in a given subject within the historical profession.

Go, subscribe, and get connected!

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.

So you want to go to grad school? Five things advisers won’t tell you but you need to know

March 1, 2013

When students get the idea to go to graduate school, they immediately put their undergraduate advisor in a difficult position. The professor can encourage you to press on, apply, and go for your dreams. Or, he/she can choose to be honest, explaining the realities of the dreaded “job market” and the general societal malaise for all things “higher education.” Somewhere in this conversation of “well… you know” and “how can I say this without sounding offensive?” awkward moments, maybe inklings of truth creep through.

I decided, in my service here as the CFH grad rep, to save some of the trouble with five things your adviser never told you, but you should definitely consider about graduate school:

  1. Grad school is nothing like college. Nothing. Seriously not even a little bit. It’s a job. You’re going to a job that doesn’t pay you anything. In fact, you’re going to a job that is quite possibly going to cost MORE than your undergraduate debt. The glorious stories of drinking coffee, up late in your tweed smoking jacket pontificating about some great historical figure are often squelched by extra side jobs, chicken-scratch esoteric jargon-filled commentary from frustrated research professors, and a general disconnect from the beloved “academy” that sparked your initial interest in the “profession.”
  2. Job Prospects. The golden goose at the end of it is not a guaranteed “practice” as in the medical professions. No, instead, you will be in the precarious position of trying to oust a senior colleague who is, at that time, making the most he/she has ever made in his/her career. There’s a reason people don’t retire.
  3. You start putting quotation marks around everything and your friends/family hate you for it. No, seriously, graduate school after the postmodern turn is akin to walking on eggshells EVERYWHERE you go. You start talking about “race” and “class” instead of race and class. You read Foucault and start deconstructing everything. You order a chocolate donut and begin asking yourself about the global impact of your personal cocoa reliance… then you throw the donut away and hope that the good people of Nicaragua forgive you for exploiting them. Then you put “exploiting” in quotation marks and feel awful, again.
  4. You feel guilty for having hobbies. You will find yourself justifying going to the gym because it’s time spent away from books. You have this immaculate pressure that, because your life is not on a 9-5, it must be a 24/7 immersion in theory and difficult readings. You will be in the middle of a workout wondering what a Marxist critique of this gym might look like. You wonder if anyone else has ever even contemplated such a thing. You apply Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” to the gym rats. Then you cry a little, and remember you have a precis to write by morning. You cancel whatever fun thing you thought about doing that night and go read because no good grad student has hobbies.
  5. Awful War Stories. All survivors have a story. Mere survival IS the story. Graduate school, should you survive, makes for awful stories. When your “friends” ask where you’ve been for the past two years, you explain that you were on a mountaintop of exalted consciousness, connecting with the great minds of the ages. They ask about your library fines and tease about your use of quotation marks. Then, your friends stop calling you to hang out because either they don’t like quotation marks, or, more realistically graduate school changed the way you look at the world so much that you can’t tell a single, solitary story anymore without giving a theoretical background, a brief discussion of historiographic context, and an explicit, clear, well-articulated thesis statement. “Bro, we just asked what you had for lunch. You didn’t have to talk about the history of ‘Po boys.”

*This is decidedly tongue in cheek. If you’d like advice on attending graduate school, do not hesitate to email me at grjones83@gmail.com. I’ve had some really incredible “experiences” in graduate school and am happy to help any aspiring students with the pesky questions you’d never really ask your own advisors. And yes, I do put a lot more things in quotation marks now.

On taking a break…

September 19, 2011

This weekend I went with some friends to see the Giant Pandas at the National Zoo. Okay, really I went to visit my friends, but seeing the pandas was awesome. It reminded me a bit of the old song lyric “all creatures great and small.”

It seemed silly, amidst a crazy semester, to throw away valuable time. In fact, I returned home both energized and tired. What happens, though, when we take breaks, is that we allow our brains some time to heal.

Take some time to work, but remember to rest too. There’s a reason for the seventh day (or a weekend away).

Collaborative Content

January 14, 2011

CFH Grad Students are looking for content to publish on this blog.  If you have a book review of particular interest to the readers of this blog (those concerned with faith and history) or an idea for an article, please contact me at grjones83@gmail.com.

If you have questions or comments about the CFH in general, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Over the next several weeks, this blog will pose a series of questions with the purpose of creating discussion.  We need to think critically about what we do as graduate students, not merely as vocational preparatory work, but also as our role in this unique position.  Be thinking of questions for this series.

Again, please contact me at grjones83@gmail.com or leave a comment on this post to get started.