Saturday, August 4, 2018
A friend of mind is beginning an MA this month at an American university, and I told him that I'd write a post of this kind. Not all of this is applicable to him at this stage. And more importantly, not all of this is learning from things I did wrong. I also learned from things I did right (though sometimes unintentionally). In most cases, it's not about things I did wrong or right, but things I learned about graduate school from being in it -- and in retrospect, I wouldn't have minded knowing in advance about those things. I'm hoping, perhaps, to start a conversation here among my friends who are former or current graduate students. If you had to pass along some gems of wisdom to incoming graduate students, what would they be? I'll try approaching this in a roughly sequential fashion. 1. THE APPLICATION STAGE: When applying to graduate schools, ideally, you should have a clear idea about what you want to research. Obviously, this is crucial if you're applying for a doctorate, but it's also wise for an MA as well. Better yet, you should have some idea of who you'd like to supervise your research. Are you interested in the history of witchcraft trials in Germany, or the philosophy of Hannah Arendt, or Spanish cinema during the Franco regime? Look for a scholar that has published something in that field, and find out where they're teaching. Is it a university with a graduate programme? If so, contact them, and find out if they'd be willing to supervise you. And if they teach at an undergraduate university, contact them anyways, and tell them that you're interested in their research. Perhaps they might have recommendations as to where you can pursue research along similar lines. Admittedly, I didn't exactly do this for my MA. More or less, I knew that I wanted to do something involving radical reform movements and religion, but I wasn't very specific about the country or the era. Still, it worked out quite well for me. The thing is, if you want to get external funding (i.e., if you're applying for a grant from either a government source or a private source), it's more likely that they'll take your application seriously if you have a clear proposal, and a specific supervisor that has agreed to take you on. It will also help you in terms of internal funding as well. It doesn't hurt, either, if you're building on research that you've already done -- say, a senior-level undergraduate thesis if you're applying for an MA, or your MA research if you're applying for a PhD. Of course, it's not essential. And even if you do begin with the plan of studying X, you can change course. (I began my PhD with the intention of building on research that I had done in the 1990s on the history of postsecondary education in northern Ontario. And I had a specific supervisor in my mind. But then I changed course substantially. And that's okay.) 2. CHOOSING FROM MULTIPLE OFFERS OF ADMISSION: If you've received offers of admission from more than one university, and you have to choose, I'll give you a short, crass, and potentially misleading piece of advice: all things being equal, pick the place that offers you the best funding package. You'll notice the important qualifier there: "all things being equal." But are all things ever equal? Probably not. I will say this: you have a lot more latitude if you're doing an MA. You should be more careful in your choice of a university for a PhD. (On a side note, I got lucky in my choice of both an MA and a PhD. In both cases, they were great departments, with superb colleagues and profs.) In general though, you should decide for yourself what your priorities are, and then do a bit of homework to figure out which school best suits your priorities. If a campus visit is possible before you decide, so much the better. 3. BEFORE THE SCHOOL YEAR BEGINS: Visit the school in advance. And if you're coming from out of town, visit well enough in advance to secure decent accommodations. Before beginning my MA, I took a summer course in Kingston at the Faculty of Education. This allowed me to tuck away an AQ course just in case I returned to school teaching -- which I did. And it allowed me an entire month to orient myself to the city & university, find an apartment for the fall, find a church choir to join, and figure out where to buy groceries, do laundry, etc... Obviously, you might not have that luxury. But at the very least, set aside a few days for a visit. And the sooner you snag an apartment, the better. (At least a month or more in advance if you're looking for off-campus housing, and perhaps several months in advance if you're looking for campus housing.) Also, if possible, contact the department and find out if they have reading lists available for the courses that you've selected (even if you've only tentatively selected your courses). Any head start you get on the reading will be helpful. And that leads me to the next point... 4. IN GRAD SCHOOL: YOUR FIRST BIG SHOCK...: Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm guessing that for 90% of graduate students, the first big shock is the reading load. For my MA in history, it wasn't uncommon to be assigned a book or two a week, and maybe an article or two as well -- and that would be for just one of your courses. For my PhD, it was more like four or five books a week (and sometimes more). Equally important, you'll be expected to engage critically with the author's arguments, key concepts and theoretical frameworks. Yes, I know, that's supposed to happen at the undergraduate level. But graduate school really takes it to the next level. At the graduate level, your professors will be less hesitant about throwing you stuff that will make your brain hurt. (Quite literally. Migraine medication was my friend while I was doing my doctoral-level coursework.) I know that not everybody out there is a Bible scholar, but Ecclesiastes 12:12 deserved to be framed up on my wall. (Look it up and you'll know it's true.) And nobody will tell you this, but you should know it: you CANNOT read everything. You can't read every word, every sentence, every page. Heck, sometimes, you won't be able to read every book. (That's not ideal, but let's be honest, it happens.) Learn how to "gut" a book. I still recommend allowing yourself the pleasure of reading one of the books on your weekly list more deeply than others. (You'll do that anyways. You'll find one that really grabs you.) But otherwise, you'll discover that it's important to read introductions and conclusions most carefully, to discern the author's argument, theoretical framework, and where they situate themselves in the broader body of literature about a topic. So read the intro, read the conclusion, look over the table of contents and the index, and then read as much of the text itself as time permits. There are other useful strategies too. You might work out an arrangement with your fellow students to divvy up responsibility for reading and making notes on the books. Sometimes, professors actually encourage this by assigning particular books in a week's seminar to particular students. But if you are capable of reading extraordinarily quickly AND thoroughly, and you can actually keep up with the reading load, well, kudos to you. But you are an exception to the rule. For everybody else, don't feel guilty. (Heck, THAT should up on your wall at all times, in big, bold, friendly letters: DON'T FEEL GUILTY. Easier said than done. Guilt is the most widely consumed party drug among grad students.) 5. DON'T BUY BOOKS: Okay, there will be some books that you'll want to buy. But in most cases, it's just not financially feasible to buy all the books on your assigned reading list. It might actually be possible, if some of the books are out of print. Basically, get to know the library systems (plural). For my doctoral course work, I signed books out from the multiple libraries of York University, the University of Toronto library systems, AND the Toronto Public Library system. (The North York branch of TPL is surprisingly good, actually.) If you can access everything from the library for your course work, do it. Then, after you've got through that stage, if you think a particular book will be useful enough in the long term to secure your own copy, then do so. Aside from libraries, it might be a good idea to inquire among colleagues (particularly upper-year colleagues who have taken the courses before) if they wish to loan or re-sell their books. Oh, that brings me to my next point... 6. YOUR COLLEAGUES ARE YOUR FRIENDS: Your colleagues are in the same boat as you. Like you, they feel stupid (more on that shortly), swamped, cash-strapped, sleep-deprived, and mentally under-the-weather (more on that later too). If you're feeling these things, you are not alone. And ideally, you shouldn't try to make it through this alone. Even if you are an introvert by nature, take advantage of opportunities to connect with your colleagues in the same courses and the same program. Also connect with colleagues that are a year or two (or more) ahead of you in the program. In general, many departments will have some sort of graduate students' association, which organizes workshops for new grad students, social events, and forums for your to share your academic research with each other. The department itself will offer such things for graduate students and professors. You might think, "I don't have the time for any of these things," but making the time for some of them is part of the graduate school experience, and it's a good way to escape from the sense that you're trapped in some sort of private hell. (It's not a private hell. It's a shared hell, and sometimes, you know, that can be kind of fun.) 7. IMPOSTOR SYNDROME: If you don't find yourself sitting in a seminar thinking, "I'm the dumbest one in this room," then you're probably not a graduate student. If you don't find yourself thinking "they offered me admission by mistake, because obviously I don't belong here," then you're probably not a graduate student. Either that, or you just have a heck of a lot of confidence, in which case, well, kudos to you, but you're the exception to the rule. Basically, get used to feeling like you're not up to the task. It's okay, because 90% of your colleagues feel that way. And for what it's worth, many of your profs went through the exact same thing when they were in graduate school. (Current professors...am I wrong about that?) 8. TAKE CARE OF YOUR MENTAL HEALTH (BECAUSE YOUR PROGRAM OF STUDY WON'T): You might find that aspects of the graduate school experience can exacerbate pre-existing conditions such as depression and/or anxiety. (That's true of undergraduate-level studies too, but you probably already figured that out.) Even if you are taking my advice in #6 above, you'll still find that graduate school may involve lengthy periods of isolation -- reading, researching, writing, and so on. You'll also be faced with the pressure to succeed (mostly self-imposed pressure, but the graduate-level self is a cruel taskmaster and that's hard to escape), the pressure to meet deadlines, to pressure to sound intelligent in front of your peers and class and hide the fact that you really don't belong there (see #7 above), and the realities of teetering on the edge of poverty (see #9 below). If none of that makes you feel overwhelmed, well, kudos to you, but you're probably the exception to the rule. You are NOT alone. If you think you might not be coping, generally, there are support systems available through your school. Find out about them and make use of them. Don't try to tough it out on your own. 9. MONEY WILL BE AN ISSUE: Even if you have an excellent funding package, you will discover that graduate school is like pouring money out of a wide-mouthed mason jar. Plan for that. Be realistic in your financial projections, and leave a margin for the unexpected. Economize where possible. And prioritize. Even so, you might find it useful to have an additional stream of income. While graduate schools discourage you from working off-campus, the reality for many graduate students is that it's the way to make ends meet. I don't mean a full-time job -- that's pretty much impossible for most mortals, even if you're incredibly organized and don't actually sleep. But it might mean some part-time or seasonal work. (My own experience: I didn't require any additional income for my MA, but I lived with the austerity of a monk. For the seven years of my PhD, I began with substantial savings following several years of school-teaching, I had a generous financial package from the university, and I made a bit of additional income on the side as a church musician. But I still ended up broke at the end of seven years, but I wasn't exactly the most austere in those years either. And no huge regrets about that.) 10. THERE WILL NEVER BE ENOUGH TIME, SO MAKE TIME: There will never be enough time to keep on top of the reading, writing your assignments, working as a teaching assistant or research assistant, and actually having a life. But you have to make time for the latter: having some sort of off-campus life. Now, obviously, there are limitations. But it's important to make time -- to cultivate your friendships, or your relationship with your significant other, or your hobbies, or all of the above. Heck, even if it's just taking some time away for downtime, that's okay. But make it quality downtime. During my MA year in Kingston, downtime meant going for long walks or bike rides, cooking, browsing in the library for things not related to coursework, and a bit of time on the unbelievably slow internet of the late 1990s. I also got involved in one of the campus political party chapters. And of course, I joined a church choir, because music keeps me sane and brings the kind of beauty into my life that can't be found in footnotes. (And that's saying something, because I do love footnotes.) As I said, there are limits. You need to make some time for this stuff, even when you don't have the time, but the reality is that there will be many things that you just can't do. And this will be frustrating if you're living in (or near) a big city with a vibrant cultural life and a whole host of things to explore and do. For most of the school year, you might not have to time (nor the money -- see #9) to do those things. That's one of the frustrations of grad school. Get used to feeling some ongoing combination of guilt and frustration all about your use of time. It's normal. Just do your best to find some sort of balance between school, a modest but essential extracurricular life, and sleep. (The latter is important too.) 11. DON'T FORGET ABOUT DELIGHT: I think what I've failed to do thus far is to address the joys of graduate school. And there ARE joys, or you wouldn't be doing this. You will have time to immerse yourself in a world of ideas, and to research things that you find utterly fascinating. (By the way, most normal people will get a glazed look in their eyes when you explain your research. That's okay. There's nothing wrong with you, nor is there anything wrong with them. Just get used to it.) You'll also meet some extraordinary people. From my experience, most professors and many graduate students bring a wealth of life experience to the table, and so most everybody has fascinating stories to tell. Graduate schools, very often, are miniature global villages. (The same is true at most undergraduate universities, but it's probably much more evident at the graduate level.) So, all told, you can expect that your world will expand -- through what you read and research and write, through the people that you meet, through exploring the broader community, and so on. You might not always feel the joy. That's okay too. But leave room in your life for joy to happen -- both in your school life and your extra-curricular life (and in the places where the two overlap, because THAT can be especially rewarding). One of my favourite songwriters, Bruce Cockburn, has a song entitled "Don't Forget About Delight." I think that's good advice for the graduate school experience. So that's my two cents. And in Canada, we've done away with pennies, so you can either round that up to a nickel or down to zero. Perhaps there's some horrible advice in here. That goes with speaking from a limited perspective. (I'll admit that my experience doing graduate work in the humanities at two Ontario universities might not translate well for those in the STEM fields, or studying in the USA or abroad.) Perhaps it's unavoidable that you'll learn as you go. But you can do that, because you got into grad school, so you're a smart person. You can meet the challenges as they come, and figure out the best strategies. But if any of this can help, and prevent you from reinventing the wheel, so much the better. Cheers, Bruce
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Here are some pictures I took this morning of Sault Ste. Marie's Cenotaph. The cenotaph in front of the courthouse was unveiled in 1924. It was designed by Alfred Howell, a prominent sculptor in the decade following the Great War, who designed war memorials for Guelph and Pembroke, as well as Saint John, New Brunswick. The monument also includes a four-line poem by Rudyard Kipling, commissioned specially for this memorial. For more information, additional information can be found here.