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thedig13

How Hard is Graduate School?

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But there's also usually plenty of time (summers, terms with no courses, etc.) when one can concentrate on the material without the burden of three or four courses, each with heavy reading loads, possibly TAing which means its own reading loads and prep time, other program duties, general getting accustomed to a new situation (especially in one's first grad term), and so on. Thoughts? I'm just putting this out for consideration. When I did my MA, I never found the reading load to be excessive or burdensome, but I also didn't TA my first semester, which had the most reading, and I didn't have to prepare for exams.

i wish.

in my program, students do 3 years of coursework and complete their comps and their overview by the end of that 3rd year. every summer is filled with archival research trips, so you're either prepping for the trip, on the trip, or processing the data when you get back. unfortunately, comps prep seems to happen almost entirely during coursework semesters in my program. students are also definitely teaching at the same time unless they secure a fellowship like the FLAS or some outside award that funds coursework years (which are few and far between). while preparing for comps and reading 3+ full books a week is definitely stressful, so are job searches, so is tenure review, so is trying to get your dissertation published, etc.

the average tenure-track prof in the US works 65 hours a week. that means some work more and others work less. if i can't handle 65 hours as a grad student, i won't be able to handle it as a professor either. as profs, we will all be juggling research/writing with teaching, advising, service duties, and real life. i don't think the amount of work we're faced with as professors lessens compared to the heavier grad school loads, i just think we learn to cope with it better and work more efficiently because of our grad school experience. growing pains.

Edited by StrangeLight

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My professors have consistently told me to skim. Let's be realistic.I was going to do it anyway.

Also, yeah. Grad school is work. Right now, I'm taking 15 credits and TAing, which is better than next year when I will be teaching, taking classes, and reading for comps. I think the total amount of reading I have this semester is 45 or 50 books. About 250-300 pages of writing. Counting is kind-of pointless.

Last summer I backpacked through Europe and visited friends across the country. I drank and ate and had fun. Why? Because from now on, my summers are pretty much gone. Research trips abroad, preparing for class, reading for comps. I need to take credits during the summer so I keep getting paid, too.

Then there's the non-school elements of being a first year graduate student. You should be devoting some time, in my opinion, to being social. We're not hermits 24/7. That takes energy too. Making connections in the community and with your colleagues is really important for your development and well-being. I have been on both ends of it.

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You'd be surprised at how much info you can still retain by skimming. At first it will be tough because you're not used to skimming, but over time you will become an expert at being able to pinpoint the important bits while glossing over all the other stuff you don't need. Between skimming texts and scholarly articles, and of course writing, you'll still be able to retain what you need to know.

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No question about it that grad school in general is tougher than undergraduate. I personally didn't feel a HUGE burden as a MA student even though I went through a shock because I really enjoyed the material and challenge. The only courses I really struggled were of subjects that I didn't really enjoy or have much connection to.

My professors had different opinions of how closely we needed to read our materials. Blackboard was great. Just about every course I took utilized Blackboard. Each professor did read our weekly responses. The question was: Just how much of our comments would they use to set up the discussion agenda? Some actively used our comments and used them to guide the discussion. In such a case, I'd go back to sections of our readings that other students really wanted to talk about. Others reacted to our responses in such as a way that s/he thought, "Interesting... but, nah I don't want to talk about this or that... I want to stick to my agenda." Then those are more challenging and it's just one of those things you'll have to learn along the way in terms of figuring out how closely you should read.

Professors do expect a foundation of general knowledge. They don't expect everyone to be experts like themselves but they do expect students to connect ideas and events correctly during an analysis. Details are "for examples."

The hardest thing for me as a graduate student was that I couldn't settle on a topic early enough to give me time to do the research, ILL-ordering (my university's library wasn't the best in my subfield...), write up the draft, and edit.

The most important thing that I learned about doing well in courses is to have a conversation with the professor early. Ask them about their expectations. You'll find that their syllabi tend to be quite vague (as opposed to undergraduate ones). They do all have similar expectations but it's the small details that sets them apart. Some professors are more interested in the content of the paper. Others are stickler for grammar and don't care so much about the content. A few will give extra points if you cite their work... Don't be afraid to ask for specifics and feedback. And ask previous students too.

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A bit of a tangent, but I wonder if this discussion suggests that the heavy reading loads some profs and some fields require are counterproductive in the end. Nobody with 'ordinary' abilities, i.e., Without eidetic memory or some such thing, is going to be able to read and retain the contents of however many dense and sometimes convoluted books consumed in such a compressed time, especially when a sizable portion isn't within one's interests so that it's harder to contextualize or situate the information. Perhaps it would be better to assign smaller, more manageable chunks which can be read completely and carefully, and lessen the strain that the OP and others have brought up.

My MA program was very much a book a week program. My PhD program is not quite like that. They assign fewer pages because they expect us to carefully read all of them. That said, a few profs in my PhD program still assign a book a week *and* expect it to be read in detail. That really sucks.

On the other hand, I know one of the main functions of courses is as prep for comps, so being familiar with the literature is important. But there's also usually plenty of time (summers, terms with no courses, etc.) when one can concentrate on the material without the burden of three or four courses, each with heavy reading loads, possibly TAing which means its own reading loads and prep time, other program duties, general getting accustomed to a new situation (especially in one's first grad term), and so on.

I did my comps during my third year. Because I took extra courses during my first year, I was able to have a reduced course load during my comps semester though I was still TAing for a huge course. I know lots of people say you just read in the summer but, as others have mentioned, that implies that you aren't in the field. I spent my summers in the field, prepping for summer fieldwork and applying for grants to pay for it during the spring semesters.

At any rate, for those of you skimming books, I'd like to point out the usefulness of reading book reviews. They can give you a clear picture of what the main arguments in the book are and the criticisms other scholars have of the book. You can read 2-3 of those and then use those to guide your skimming and help you figure out where you should pay more attention when reading.

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Nah, I understand why you view the question that way. I'm definitely looking to excel and work hard, and pull a few seriously late nights if that's what it takes. I usually won't be satisfied with my comprehension unless I feel like I have a decent-enough grasp of the ideas and concepts behind the reading. I don't really view it as "dodging work," per se -- I hate missing lectures, and I never blow off written assignments (ever). At the same time, I try to recognize my limitations (i.e.: ADD) and pick and choose my battles accordingly, and if that means I'll have to skim over a reading so that I can devote more time to something else (say, a research paper), I'll do it.

Okay, that makes a LOT more sense :) Thanks for the clarification. I get it... I know a lot of people with ADD so I know exactly what you mean.

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My MA program was very much a book a week program. My PhD program is not quite like that. They assign fewer pages because they expect us to carefully read all of them. That said, a few profs in my PhD program still assign a book a week *and* expect it to be read in detail. That really sucks.

I did my comps during my third year. Because I took extra courses during my first year, I was able to have a reduced course load during my comps semester though I was still TAing for a huge course. I know lots of people say you just read in the summer but, as others have mentioned, that implies that you aren't in the field. I spent my summers in the field, prepping for summer fieldwork and applying for grants to pay for it during the spring semesters.

At any rate, for those of you skimming books, I'd like to point out the usefulness of reading book reviews. They can give you a clear picture of what the main arguments in the book are and the criticisms other scholars have of the book. You can read 2-3 of those and then use those to guide your skimming and help you figure out where you should pay more attention when reading.

It seems like in general history courses require more reading than in my field, political science. I'm actually taking a course in the history department in my first semester at my new school, and the syllabus indicates that it will indeed be a book a week, which is not only something new for me, but also darn expensive. Do you guys in history actually buy all the required books? Adding up the book list comes to $354; I actually already have a couple of the books, thankfully. With those, it would be upwards of $400. That's... a lot.

Edited by wtncffts

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It seems like in general history courses require more reading than in my field, political science. I'm actually taking a course in the history department in my first semester at my new school, and the syllabus indicates that it will indeed be a book a week, which is not only something new for me, but also darn expensive. Do you guys in history actually buy all the required books? Adding up the book list comes to $354; I actually already have a couple of the books, thankfully. With those, it would be upwards of $400. That's... a lot.

History seems to be the reading-heaviest discipline at my school, that's for sure! My history workload has been roughly comparable to what StrangeLight described upthread.

As for buying all the books--heavens, no. If I can tell something is going to be critically important to my research, I'll usually spring for it; also often If I think it will end up on my comps list and I can find a cheap, unmarked (that's key) copy on Abebooks/Amazon Marketplace. Otherwise I use ILL or take advantage of copies on reserve in the library (this was done only rarely at my MA school, but is standard practice here).

People here tend to diverge wildly in whether or not they straight-up buy every book. I see a lot of ILL slipcovers, but also a lot of barely-creased paperbacks.

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wtncffts,

Take a closer look at the syllabus. Just how much of the book are you actually expected to read? Can you swing it by requesting a couple of chapters through ILL?

Also, you may want to buy books just for the first three weeks and attend your class on the first day. The professor may actually say something about the books or other students may speak up about all the books and the total cost. Reasonable professors actually empathize and offer alternative suggestions. If your new professor isn't one of those, then I feel for you.

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It seems like in general history courses require more reading than in my field, political science. I'm actually taking a course in the history department in my first semester at my new school, and the syllabus indicates that it will indeed be a book a week, which is not only something new for me, but also darn expensive. Do you guys in history actually buy all the required books? Adding up the book list comes to $354; I actually already have a couple of the books, thankfully. With those, it would be upwards of $400. That's... a lot.

Pro tip: used books save you mad amounts of money if you do want to buy stuff. And for anything that's commonly read in academic settings, it should be no problem to find used books sans previous people's highlighting/underlining (if you object to that) for not too much money. I just bought all the books for one of my book a week classes for more like $160, which is still a lot, but way, way better than $354.

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I was hoping for some insight on your own experiences in graduate school, particularly in terms of how hard it was compared to your undergraduate experience.

One of the harder, more valuable lessons my professors/mentors had to beat into my thick skull was that there is no comparison between one's undergraduate coursework and the work one does in graduate school.

If you approach graduate coursework with an undergraduate's mindset and if you look at studying history in graduate school as a more rigorous iteration of majoring in history as an undergraduate., the you may find the work amazingly easy. At first, second, and third blush, this view is understandable--you're performing many of the same tasks albeit with greater frequency.

However, despite the apparent similarities, you're working toward an entirely different goal as a graduate student. That goal is the creation of new knowledge in your field of expertise. To achieve that goal, you will have to develop a different set of tools that include (but are not limited to) the ability: to define fields of specialization, to develop and to demonstrate a sufficient level of knowledge in those fields to pass qualifying exams, and also the ability to research and to write about a narrowly defined topic with a level of understanding that only thirty or forty people alive will really understand your dissertation.

So however you pick and choose the methods that will get you through your course work, I respectfully urge you to keep in mind that you're striving for goals that your expected to fulfill even though you may receive much less guidance on defining those goals and how to achieve them than you'd like. (To paraphrase, it is graduate school, not historians' school.)

I also recommend that what ever choices you make in terms of method, if you study history, you will be responsible to meet all of your professors' explicit and implicit expectations. If you end up with even tempered, experienced professionals, the process of defining the expectations will be excruciatingly difficult. If you end up with professors who are less so, you will be in for one of the most daunting intellectual, emotional, and psychological challenges of your life. (But I'm not bitter.)

Now, in terms of studying assigned works, I recommend that you first figure out where a book or article fits within the historiography of the field. This task can be done by reading the acknowledgements, the introduction, recently published historiographical essays on the field, and a handful of shorter reviews. The process of reading the historiographical essays and the shorter reviews can be especially beneficial if you do background research on this historian who wrote the work you're reading and also those who wrote the reviews.

If you perform this set of tasks often enough, you will get to the point where you will be able to talk about where a work fits not only within the historiography, but also in the trajectory of a historian's professional and intellectual development. (Or, at the very least, you'll get some phone numbers and email addresses to use if you have questions, comments, or concerns.)

Then, I suggest you read the bibliography backwards (i.e. secondary works first, primary sources last). If your understanding of the historical facts (who, what, when, where, why, and how) within the book is less than what you would like, you may want to read the book very carefully--including every footnote/end note. If you think you're good to go on the basic facts, you can probably get by studying the book for its argument.

In any case, I do suggest that if a professor articulates an expectation (such as to read every word of every book), do all you can to meet that goal. You never know when a professor is going to be grumpy (or playful) and decide to pull your card. (If you find yourself getting pummeled by your professors during a semester, you may be doing things very right.)

I also suggest that while you build relationships with fellow graduate students, please consider the possibility that regardless of how highly you think of them (or they of you), your peer group is actually the professors in your department and that your primary competitor is your own limitations (whether real, imagined, or self imposed). When you're talking about history, demonstrate (with the appropriate amount of civility, intellectual generosity, and good cheer) that you are more than capable of eating everyone's lunch--including the person who wrote the book under discussion, if she happens to be in the room.

HTH.

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