You Ask, I Answer: Advice for a Prospective Graduate Student
From time to time I will get a note from a former student who is contemplating graduate school in the humanities. They want to know what to expect. I always direct them to a blog post I wrote waaaay back when Cosmic America was a thing. This post got quite a bit of traction...it was retweeted a zillion times (give or take a few) and it even made the AHA website. So I offer it to you, again, but here at Keith Harris history. For those of you who are my former students or who just stumble on this...enjoy. It may offer some insights. And remember...the original post is from July, 2011. Some things may have changed since then. But they probably haven't.
The other day, I got an email from a prospective graduate student who is in the process of applying to schools, including my alma mater - the University of Virginia. He wanted to know what to expect once he hit the ground (the prospective student shall remain anonymous...so that my colleagues - one of whom recently described the idea as a suicide mission - don't try and contact him and talk him out of his rather ambitious endeavor).
I answer here in the hope that others might think a little more about what they are getting themselves in to. I will take on - in my own colloquial style - his questions one at a time. Keep in mind that these are my personal experiences and may not necessarily reflect the experiences of all students in grad school. At any rate, the questions are in italics. And best of luck to you, my anonymous friend.
Why did you decide to pursue your Ph. D. in history?
In the abstract, I have been a history guy my entire life...I wanted to talk about it all the time, and so college seemed the logical course to take. For a more tangible reason...I had a lot of questions that were unanswered but did not have the tools necessary to answer them - at least I didn't think so. There is an enormous amount of information out there - both primary and secondary - in libraries, repositories, and on the Internet. This is, of course, both a blessing and a curse. What on earth was I going to do with it all? How was I going to sort through everything and make sense of it? So I came up with the crazy notion that professional training was the answer.
Can you describe a typical week when school is in session?
I am going to go with year one here - because I found that to be the most challenging. Not to say that things got any easier as I went through the program...there are all sorts of hurdles to cross that will put you through changes (specifically....qualifying examinations). Let's just say that my first year was a sobering one. I like to describe it as an effort to take a sip of water from a fire hose. At UVA, first year Americanists (and this is typical for many programs) take a mandatory series of courses that bury students deep deep deep in the literature. Contextualization is the goal - making historiography make sense, I suppose. But a week goes something like this: you read, then you read, then you read some more, then you get in some reading, and when you are all done - you read some. I was assigned thousands of pages each week. So guess what - prepare to get some reading in. Don't take this lightly. It can be (and was for many of my classmates) overwhelming. Keep in mind also, you will be attending classes, writing papers for this primary course load as well as two other classes each semester. Maybe, if you get a minute, you can meet some of your mates for a beer - so you can talk about the week's reading assignments. Did I mention that you will do a lot of reading? Oh, and one other thing. If you do not have one already, first year graduate students at UVA also write their Master's Thesis.
Do you have an extra job besides your full-time commitment to school?
HAHAHAHAHA - but sadly, yes. Most students are assigned graderships in their first year and then teach sections from then on. I also picked up a little gig at the special collections library to fill my "spare" time and make some extra money (turns out, this was a good thing. I managed to simultaneously do on-the-job research for my MA). The University places limits on how many hours one can work each week - the logic being: you will not get distracted by work and will be able to focus on your studies. The reality is that the few hours permitted to prepare for section discussions or even grade a stack of 120 mid-term essays is entirely unrealistic. Do not expect to get much sleep.
Are you pursuing any research-related opportunities this summer? Is this typical?
Dude, my advice to you is to go to Cabo. But since you are a glutton for punishment - as evidenced by your desire to actually pursue an advanced degree in the humanities given the current state of affairs - you won't. Yes, many students, myself included, seek research opportunities during the summer (and holidays breaks as well). There are plenty of them out there depending on your topic, many are funded...some generously (check out Gilder-Lerhman - they made my life very easy when I was researching for my dissertation).
How did you fulfill the foreign language requirement?
At UVA, Americanists are required to "master" one language, Europeanists need two, and the Classics Department insists that you speak and read everything. You will take a proficiency exam your first year, and a mastery exam your second. I dug deep in to the recesses of my mind to recall high school Spanish and the many conversations I had with Latino friends in Los Angeles. Then I studied my ass off to get verb conjugations right (the Spanish Department lets you use a dictionary, so vocabulary is not really an issue).
How much is intellectual diversity explicitly encouraged in the academic community in general and your class in particular? In what ways are certain points of view discouraged within the academic community?
I am going after you on these questions - I give them a C-. Don't take it personally. After all, you are going to have to develop a thick skin. Criticism in grad school can be brutal - from all sides - your advisor (if he or she is any good) will hold you accountable for every word you write, your professors will humble you in ways you cannot yet imagine, and your peers will (or rather, will probably) delight in tearing you a new one, so to speak. In short, your questions make grand assumptions. One, that intellectual diversity is explicitly encouraged and two, certain points of view are discouraged in the academic community. My answer to these problematic questions is concise: you will encounter both, neither, or any combination of the two. All of this depends of any variety of factors...egos, personalities, background, politics...you name it. My experience, overall, was very good. My professors encouraged me to follow lines of inquiry as I saw fit - but, and here is the real nugget, they insisted I produce the goods. Not a single professor (some of the most prominent historians in my chosen and outside fields, mind you) ever tolerated sloppy research. Even what I thought was on the money was challenged, criticized, and punched squarely in the face. My advisor once made me cry. It was pathetic. Let's just say I went back to the drawing board more than once. But it made me a better historian. For that I am grateful.
Any general advice you wish someone would have told you when you were applying for admission to this program that you would want prospective students to know?
Yes - everything in your life will suffer for this. Your relationships, your finances, maybe even your physical and mental health. On the other hand, you will meet some smart people, develop lasting friendships, and most importantly, you will come out the other end (hopefully) prepared to place your own stamp on the literature - what some smart-ass grad student will come along and destroy in ten years or so.
Best of luck my friend, and always feel free to seek me out if you need further advice!