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Best Practices and Habits of a PhD Student in Religion


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After many months of an extremely stressful application season, some of us can rejoice in that we have been accepted and will begin our PhD in Religion in the fall. As I look forward to that, I would be interested in hearing from current candidates (and accepted ones) concerning some of the most helpful and useful practices and habits for a PhD student in Religion. For example, my subfield is New Testament, so I plan on forcing myself to read something from the Greek NT and Hebrew Bible every day. Another example, I knew a professor who had a habit of publishing at least two book reviews a year. It was a fairly easy way to keep up with new literature and stay in publishing. Publishing a book review every semester seems plausible to me, so I am going to try to do that.

What others thoughts do you have? What are important habits and best practices for PhD students in Religion?

Edited by RiskyNT
Grammer
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Number 1 best practice: Find time for yourself.

Seriously, it cannot be overstated. All of us could theoretically read and write 24 hours a day, 7 days a week if our bodies allowed it. First year PhD students often feel like they're not doing enough, not reading enough, not attending enough talks and lectures, not in enough reading groups, not writing enough, not presenting enough, not publishing enough (though this last one is a fair concern for all PhD students if we're talking peer reviewed journal articles.) I'm not saying don't try to publish one book review a term. If you feel that's manageable for you given all other requirements of your program, then go for it.** Most people have no problem figuring out how to fill their days with academic work. It's not hard for us because it's the only thing that we can see ourselves doing professionally, so we're just drawn to doing it. Yes, it's good to practice languages regularly, to read regularly, etc. All of that is definitely important--but I think those are the things that come naturally to us (more or less.)

What doesn't come naturally to some of us is finding time to just go see a movie. Get a beer with colleagues and don't talk about your work. Explore your new city. Take a day and just binge watch something on Netflix. 

It's easy for us to feel guilty about doing these things, but we shouldn't. Honestly, they're healthy, and they'll help you be more productive when you need to be because you're able to take regular breaks without feeling crushed by stress and guilt. Cultivating that early on is really helpful once you no longer have the structure of a course schedule to help manage your time.

**Quick note on book reviews: They're great practice for the process of publishing something because they're easy to do relative to publishing a peer reviewed article in a major journal. They give you a small window into the editing process, etc. However, they're not going to help you get a job. Even if you had more than two or three reviews published, you wouldn't load up your CV with book reviews. All that to say, once you get a couple under your belt, you might consider taking a break from them to focus on exams, prospectus, etc.

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I endorse @marXian's comments a thousand times over and then some! Do the readings you need and then some, setup a schedule where you read X-number of journal articles a week (prepare for comprehensive exams throughout the 2-3 years rather than cramming it all), get access (or subscription) to the top journals in your field and read the articles and especially book reviews in them. Take the journey that you're embarking on seriously.

That said, find time to do something not related to your studies! Take up homebrewing and share your production with colleagues, take up running or cycling, read a Stephen King novel (even if it's only a dozen pages a night before bed!), spend time volunteering or being an activist for a cause that moves you, etc. Do something not directly related to your studies.

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Very much agreed on all the above. Before any piling on of extra things to do, do this. I make it a habit to take one entire day off a week, except in the direst of straits. Go to a museum, watch a movie, wander around a park, sleep, work on a puzzle, anything. Sabbath was commanded for a reason, and it's a commendable practice.

Academically, make sure to explore outside of your area of study, even if your program doesn't require it. I don't just mean occasionally looking at something closely related but by someone in a slightly different field. I mean totally different. Take a whole class that has (apparently) little to do with what you think you want to do. The deeper you get into a PhD, the greater the pressure to nano-specialize in your field. While this can be good for rigor, I can see my colleagues increasingly incapable of thinking or talking (even casually, socially) outside of their narrow scope. This runs in the face of humanities/liberal arts scholarship, and can actually really make your scholarship suffer by closing yourself off. Coursework is likely the freest you'll be for years to come in being able to do your own exploration, and by the time you're at the dissertation, it could be too late. 

A final word: work on your writing. The state of academic writing is truly terrible. Prose can be impenetrable. Conference papers bore to tears. Read really great writers, starting with fiction writers especially. And write regularly yourself. Do creative writing exercises. Keep a writing journal. Not for academic writing, but for experiments in writing. I promise, despite the weirdness, it does wonders. And if you're able to communicate your thoughts more beautifully, persuasively, artfully, all the better for your scholarship.

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Healthwise:

One that I've heard from my professor is to find time to read something for leisure that you would enjoy like a novel, especially in between assignments. Another advice I've heard is to really take advantage of the summers as an opportunity to take a vacation and travel. Given the job market, a lot of PhD students feel the need to fill their schedules with resume-building activities. While this certainly helps them in the long-run, it's often at the expense of their personal health and relationships. I've heard some instances where over-activity has led to burnout and eventually frustration with their programs.

Job Marketwise:

So as an aspiring American Religious History scholar, I've also been taking classes in history departments/American Studies departments and one trend that's coming from that field is mastering the art of public speaking and presentation. If you have time, maybe check out toastmasters or attend local TedTalks/public speaking engagements to get a feel for proper public speaking. If other departments are exploring these fields (and my potential advisor and I have also discussed the importance of building this skill), then it would be good to adopt this skillset not just for teaching, but for conference presentations as well, which have historically been hit or miss with people still reading off of their papers (a criticism garnered from both historians and religious scholars I've met).

Another one might be to find a creative outlet for the things you're learning. Some helpful ones include creating your own YouTube channel and create content material for the general public or writing your own blog. Part of finding creative outlets for the skills we pickup in our respective programs is that it will help us think in an entrepreneurial manner about our degrees. I'm anticipating a horrible job market but I'm constantly brainstorming ideas for alternative means of generating value for the general public that I could monetize.

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