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trouble with marks (humanities phd)

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I am a first year student in a humanities phd program at a Canadian university. So to be clear, I am especially interested in the insights of those with knowledge of graduate studies in the humanities in North America. 


I am concerned that I should regard the somewhat less-than-stellar feedback that I have been receiving as a red flag. Now, I realize that there are other threads on this topic, but I still feel perplexed, particularly about how much I should attend to the marks that I receive on assignments vs. focusing solely on those that will appear on my transcript. 


Details (and please forgive excessive length here, specificity seems appropriate): In my first term I received a B+ on a paper proposal for a class taught by my supervisor; and a B+ on a final paper in another course. In the first case I changed my topic for the paper and received an A in the course, while in the latter this resulted in a final mark of A-. I discussed this with my advisor, but she was quite dismissive of the B+ on the final paper and assured me that I had performed well on my paper for her class and should not have trouble proceeding with the program. But now I have received an A- on proposal assignments for each of my two current classes. Both of my instructors essentially criticized the formatting of these proposals but spoke encouragingly about the potential of my topics and the quality of my writing. I ought to mention that we have been specifically informed by our department that we should be receiving exclusively As, and A-s at the least. On top of this, I am meant to be developing a bibliography as beginning preparation for comps, but I am having trouble articulating a specific research topic. That is, I sent a statement and a preliminary bibliography to my advisor, but she responded that my intended topic was unclear and that I ought to work on that before proceeding to the bibliography. This is a definite reversal to the progress that I expected to be making at this stage.


Individually these incidents seem as if they should not raise too much concern, but I am wondering whether taken collectively (and given the stipulations of our program director) they ought to be taken as indication that I am significantly under-performing and should consider the possibility that I am not fit for further graduate study. Of course it does seem as if my problem specifically has something to do with proposal-writing, which could be corrected if I learn to intuit the different expectations in different situations. Nevertheless, I find myself struggling to determine whether my professors are trying to send me a message or I simply have a severe case of something like 'imposter syndrome'. This is all, of course, very distressing to me, and though I had discussed it with my advisor previously and have attempted since to broach it with my peers, I have no clearer a sense of how to gauge my standing. My classmates are shocked, really, when I confide the marks that I have received. 


What do you folks think!? Do I need to grow a thicker skin, seek out better strategies for stress relief, and simply work on improving my proposals; or am I right to be concerned!? 



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I'm not sure how different Canadian programs are from US programs, but based on my understanding of how the grad system works, most first years are focused much more on coursework than their dissertation topic and comps.  From what I've gathered, the theory is that you gain background and focus BEFORE you jump headlong into your research.   It sounds like your profs might just be sensing that you're rushing the research process (i.e. submitting a bibliography before really getting a chance to define a compelling question you want answered through your research).  


Were you required to submit a proposal/bibliography this early in your program?   Granted, I don't know whether you have an MA already or even what specific area of humanities you are in.  However, in my field (English), every program I researched places comps in the third year (which I assume means that the second year is used to seriously prepare for it / decide on a focus).  Unless your program requirements clearly indicate that you are expected to have a clear focus by now, I wouldn't call anything you described a "red flag."  I would just say that you probably need to have a little more faith in the research process.  Just relax and let your curiosities define your interests, then the biibliography and proposals will organically flow from that.


As a note: I've not yet started my program, but I have decent research experience in my field, so much of what you describe resonates with my own experience.  In undergrad, I thought my professors hated my thesis because they didn't like the organization (but were very encouraging about the content/writing).   It turned out that they were actually very pleased with my work, but were just pushing me to the next level with their critique.  It sounds like yours may be a similar situation.

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Thanks for your feedback, Sadie. In most Canadian phd programs (mine included) a master's degree is an admission requirement and one is only required to complete one year of coursework. In my particular program we are expected to take only two courses in our second term because we begin to work on our bibliographies at this time. So I am not getting ahead of myself on that front. 


What concerns me more though are the erratic marks that I am getting. I understand that one is generally expected to get only As at this level in the humanities, and we were explicitly told as much in our department's orientation. But does rule only apply to final grades?

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This sounds to me like something you should discuss with your supervisor, as every institution regardless of country does things slightly differently. In my program for example we are basically told grades don't mean anything anymore and are often only given actual letter grades on the final paper and for the class in general. For courses within our subfield(I'm in art history which has many different branches of study much like regular history) we are expected to perform at the A level but B+s and even Bs are perfectly acceptable for courses which are completely unrelated to our specialization.

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