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Some Retrospective Tips for Graduate School

With most universities entering their first week of classes, I’ve been spending some time reflecting on my own experience as a graduate student.  This is something I do every year, but is in part a reflection of my own anxieties with my new position as ABD.  I thoroughly enjoyed classes and I will miss the experiences.  Since I was already thinking back on my first year of grad school, I thought I’d write out four simple tips for starting graduate school.  This could also be subtitled: “Things I wish I did when I started school.”  So without further ado:

1: Start preparing for your comprehensive exams from day 1

I don’t mean you need to walk into your first graduate class knowing exactly which fields you will take your exams in, or even that you have reading lists.  Your exam fields and lists will evolve over your first few years of graduate school and will reflect your maturing interests as a scholar.  However, there are some steps you can take from your first class that will make things much easier for you come time to prep for your exams.  In my first few classes, I’d read the text, take notes, discuss the material in class, then file the notes away in a cabinet as I moved on from the course.  That was a bad idea.  Once I finalized my reading lists, I realized that many of the books had appeared on course syllabi from previous classes.  But because I didn’t make a point to keep those notes handy, I ended up rereading many of the books and articles.

Don’t fall into this trap!  Instead, there’s an easy way to begin your preparation from day one.  The best place to start is by downloading zotero or some other program that saves the bibliographic information for your text.  I prefer zotero because it is free and easy to use.  In addition to collecting all your readings in one place, the note feature makes exam prep easy.  For each book or article you read in class, make an entry in zotero.  Then, in the notes for each text, write out the reading’s thesis and several key points from the text.  Once you are studying for exams, you already have the key points from each reading saved right there in zotero.  While you’ll most likely need to review many texts, this will give you a tremendous head start.

2: Embrace the graduate school community

You will meet a disparate group of people in graduate school.  Some students will be straight out of undergrad, others coming back after work in “the real world.”  Some students are single, others with long-term partners.  You may live next to campus while others have long commutes.  Despite the challenges you might face, do your best to get involved in the graduate school community.  Take advantage of department organizations.  Getting involved has many benefits.  For starters, it helps you develop a support network among your colleagues.  Many an evening can be spent engaging in lively discussion (both academic and non-academic) over a drink or two.  You can commiserate about classes, discuss papers, sports, anything.  Graduate school, especially in a discipline like history, can be a solitary experience.  Far too many hours are spent reading alone in an apartment/archive/library.  So those times you go out and enjoy time with your classmates can be a great break from the rigors of work.

In addition to the social network, getting involved with your university’s graduate programs helps give you a sense of ownership over your graduate education.  While a graduate student’s influence is limited, many organizations can make an important impact in terms of influencing policy, programs, and other aspects of graduate life.

3: Take advantage of every opportunity

That’s not to say I didn’t, but I certainly could have done more to maximize my first few years of graduate school.  Make sure you present your research papers at conferences.  Graduate student conferences are great ways to get your work out there, gain experience in a conference setting, and network with fellow graduate students.  Attend job talks at your university.  Go to workshops, social events, sporting events, and anything else that catches your eye.  This is just one more way to build connections within the graduate school community.  Additionally, a lot of these opportunities are great ways to learn about the profession.  One of the easiest ways to learn about your field is by watching how others navigate the many challenges you’ll face.

4: Don’t neglect your life outside the library

Grad school is a lot of work, there’s no denying that.  I found it remarkably easy my first year to get so bogged down in my studies that I forgot about the world outside my seminars and library doors.  While you certainly need to cultivate your graduate student mind, you can’t forget about other things. For me, my outlet has been running (which admittedly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea) and intramural basketball.  Yes, our graduate department has an intramural team.  We’re awful, but we play every week.  It’s a blast and it gets my mind off my classes even if it’s only for an hour or two a week.  Remember, you’re allowed to have fun sometimes.

There are countless other suggestions and recommendations, but I think these are four simple things to help ease the transition into grad school.  What do you guys tell first-year students about acclimating themselves to grad school?

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