Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Advice for First Year History Graduate Students


1. Don’t skip class EVER – You aren’t an undergraduate any more, professors will notice if you are gone, think less of you, and assume you aren’t serious about becoming a professional historian
2. Read, study, and write in the library – Unless you are at some university with a new-fangled coffee/bar virtual library, the library is a great study location. It is quiet, all the sources you might want are easily accessible, there aren’t the distractions of T.V. or laundry, and your fellow graduate students and teachers will see you working and think that you are dedicated.
3. Read, read, read. And even when you know you aren’t going to be able to finish all the reading you are supposed to do for the week, keep reading to get through as much as you can. There will NOT be an opportunity to go back and catch up later on the reading.
4. Read critically. It is not enough to just read the book and walk into class not having thought about subject critically. You need to be prepared to discuss it like a historian. That means an hour before class sit down and figure out what the book’s thesis is, why the book’s author thought this book needed to be written (I’m talking about historiography here), whether or not you found the author’s argument convincing, and why it was or was not convincing.
5. Talk in Class. Do not talk while the teacher is lecturing, but participate in discussions. The only way your teacher is going to know that you are reading, reading, reading is if you talk in class.
6. Get yourself a textbook. If you are in a graduate class about the Early Republic there is a very good chance that you won’t be taking lecture notes about what the presidents were doing. Instead you’ll be reading books that discuss a small part of what a certain president did and you’ll be expected to understand the historical context that it occurred in already. Having a good textbook on hand to refresh your memory from undergrad days is a lifesaver.
7. Get to know your advisor. Take her or his classes, read the books and articles they have written, and go talk to them about important history related subjects during their office hours. Your advisor can be one of the most important resources you ever have. They can fight to get you funding, they will write reference letters for you, and they can recommend journals or presses that might be interested in your research.

Personal Life

1. Have at least one good friend who is not in graduate school. You will need someone to let you know who won the World Series, what new restaurants have come to town, and simply remind you that there are people who don’t care about Bernard Bailyn’s interpretation of the American Revolution.
2. Drink with fellow graduate students. If you have a class that meets in the evening. Try and convince a group of your classmates to go out for a drink after seminar each week. Some of the best conversations I had about course material in graduate school, I had over a pitcher of beer. Socializing with your classmates, moreover, helps lessen feelings of competition between you and your peers.
3. Your peers can be one the greatest sources of information on what classes to take, what professors to avoid, and how department politics works. Hang out in the graduate student offices or the student lounge and get to meet as many as you can.
4. Take care of yourself physically. Try not to eat only junk, go to the gym or run a few times a week, don’t give yourself an ulcer because from the stress of graduate school.
5. Take care of yourself mentally. When the semester is over, drive out into the country and scream and yell until you are hoarse. It is oddly renewing.

Odds and Ends

1. Buy a laptop. If you are going to be working in the library you’ll need one. Moreover, you’ll probably be going on a research trip to an archive sooner than you expect. Having a laptop will save you on copying expenses and keep you sane.
2. Don’t put any games on your laptop. Its okay to leave solitaire installed, but don’t add anything else on it which might distract you from doing your work.
3. Back up everything. Wear your backup around your neck (thumb drive). Laptops get stolen and hard drives break. People have dropped out of graduate school because all the research they did on their thesis vanished due to some horrible computer accident.
4. Some professors are dicks. Try to avoid them at all costs. If you can’t, don’t get in a pissing match with them – they probably have tenure. Just do your work, act respectful, and keep your head down until the semester is over.
5. Go to any type of career development workshop your departments holds. Things like have to give papers at conferences, how to submit articles to journals, and how to apply for jobs might not seem critical in your first year, but they do provide you with some direction as you think about what your future is going to look like.


Jonathan Dresner said...

My only quibble is with the back-ups suggestion. One back-up is not enough. A USB drive is great for transporting files short distances, but prone to misplacement: keep copies of work on multiple computers, and in multiple locations and in multiple formats.

Most universities have some kind of server space you can use -- it's supposed to be for computational stuff and websites, but there's nothing that says you can't FTP a bunch of Word Docs up there. Make CD-Roms every month or so, and leave one at your parents' when you visit.

Yes, I'm paranoid. But I also deleted my root directory by accident once....

Sherman Dorn said...

All of this advice is good, but there should be another bit about the intellectual goals of a first year: to get a critical mass of literature under one's belt. At the end of classwork, you need to know your fields for comprehensive exams. Having enough of a "sense" of at least one field at the end of the first year is enormously important for historiographical skill development. A well-read graduate students should be able to explain the contribution of a work as well as rip it apart (which was my first instinct as a brash young grad student).

Anonymous said...

This advice also works well for students in other fields like Political Science.

Depending on the work environment and personal tolerance for background noise, I would suggest that students work in their graduate carrel if it is located in the department.

At my graduate institution, students who worked in the library all the time were forgotten. Students who worked in the more visible graduate carrels in the department were seen as diligent, especially if they were there when most of the professors were leaving.

One more piece of advice: maintain the appearance of being upbeat. No one likes to be around a whiner, and professors don't want to work with whiners. If you have a death in your family, share. If you feel depressed, wonder about your life trajectory, or broke up with your girlfriend, this is not something you need to broadcast.

S.J. Redman said...

Great post, thanks!

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