I’ve received a significant enough number of questions about what to expect from graduate school, and requests for general graduate school advice that I decided to just throw it all into a post. This post will be geared specifically to those pursuing an advanced degree in history, but a lot of it can be applied to the graduate school experience in general.
This post is based on my experiences, the experiences of people I’ve spoken with, and some of the literature written on graduate school and mental health. If you’ve had different experiences, want to add to this post, or feel that I’ve forgotten something, feel free to add to it/let me know.
-Learn how to read a book for argument. Professors generally won’t care how much you learned from the book; they care about your ability to grasp the thesis, main arguments, and construction of those arguments. The best way to do this is to read the introduction very closely, read the first and last sentences of every paragraph in a chapter, and read the conclusion very closely.
-Learn how to skim effectively. I said to learn how to read for argument; what I didn’t say is that you will often find yourself facing a 300 page book that you have to have read for 3:00 seminar tomorrow. No point stressing out or crying about it—you just have to do it. So start practicing early using the advice in the above bullet point.
-If you have enough time to plan, and if you study non-American or Anglo-related history, then learn a language. Now. Otherwise you’ll end up like me: freaking out over the fact that I don’t have enough time to learn Hebrew, Yiddish, and German. If you plan to pursue a PhD, then you’ll have a bit more time for languages. But still. Start ASAP.
-Understand that graduate school is not about learning; it’s about understanding. Don’t go to a seminar expecting to learn about the history of kittens; go to seminar expecting to understand the history of kittens. That means that your professors will care about your grasp of framework, historiography, and major theoretical underpinnings; they kind of assume that you know the facts.
-If you’re planning on pursuing a PhD, start learning the historiography now.
-Accept that you are not special anymore. Accept that this will be difficult to accept. You were probably a big fish in a small pond as an undergrad. That experience may have been what drove you to continue your education. In grad school, you will be surrounded by former big fishes. Some of them will be smarter than you. You will struggle with feeling average and stupid. You are neither average nor stupid, but you will feel like you are. I struggled with this so much that my step-dad had to take me aside and say “Look. You know how hard your program was to get into. You know that fewer students get into your program than into the PhD program. Frankly, you’re pretty stupid if you think you’re stupid after getting in and successfully finishing your first year.” I think that that’s a pretty good way to look at it.
-Understand that you will find it really hard to cope the stuff outlined above. You will find it hard to cope with the work load. You might feel lonely and isolated. You may feel depressed. The experience may trigger the return of mental and/or emotional health issues which you thought you had already dealt with, or which you thought you were effectively handling. Up to 60% of graduate students have reported struggling with depression and related mental health problems at various points in their education. A sizeable percentage has struggled with suicidal thoughts. If this happens to you, understand that you are not alone. Your university’s counseling center may be one of your best resources. They offer group and one on one therapy. The university level graduate student association may offer meetings and conferences about how to cope with mental and emotional issues. Take advantage of these.
-When it comes to your fellow graduate students, if your department gives the students a special place to hang out and hold office hours, spend time there. Attend social activities if your department has organized stuff. Make connections with people because often these people WILL be your support group (especially if you are so frenzied that the idea of going to counseling stresses you out even more). But also remember that those people are your colleagues and will always be your colleagues, so don’t make enemies. You never know who might turn up as an interviewer 20 years down the line.
-To make clear a concept from the above bullet point: don’t make enemies. Now that you are in graduate school, your peers and professors can, do, and will exercise great power over your career, inside and outside of academia.
-If you will be pursuing an MA in any capacity, understand that you are not inferior or less intelligent than your doctorate pursuing peers. The fifth year PhD’s will know more than you, but never allow yourself to think that you are less intelligent on the basis of the degree you are pursuing,
-Even if you don’t find yourself struggling with your mental health, you will still probably find yourself crying over something at least twice a semester. So you need a healthy coping mechanism. Mine is shopping (although ngl I may need an intervention soon…)
-If you are pursuing planning on pursuing a PhD and you’re not in a ~*~top four department~*~, don’t lie to yourself about job prospects and the state of the job market in the humanities. No matter how brilliant you are, how influential your adviser is, and how fabulous your dissertation is, it’s going to be really fucking hard to get an interview if you don’t a certain name on your diploma. Have a Plan B.
-Learn how to do simple math. This will come up after you embrace social drinking (unless you abstain on religious or health related grounds). Trust me on this one. You will end up in a situation when you and 5+ other history nerds will have to tipsily split a check and calculate tips.
-You’ll probably gain ten pounds and not understand where they came from. If this is a thing that matters to you (not to imply that it should, only that it might), then you should probably start eating quinoa; that stuff keeps you full for a long time after meals and reduces your cravings. It has all of the nutrients and vitamins and things AND it is seriously low maintenance. And take advantage of your institution’s gym; you’re paying for it in some way anyway so you may as well check it out.
-Don’t let this post scare you away from graduate school. I just want you to be prepared for the stuff they don’t tell you about on the website. In my second semester, I posted as my facebook status “Is it normal to feel like graduate school is ruining your life?” and I got a chorus of resounding affirmations. And you know what?-knowing that I wasn’t alone cheered me up way more than anything else could have.