Grad School Survival Guide: The Mental Health Taboo

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s taken me longer to produce the next post in the grad school survival guide, and there’s a rather simple explanation that I posted about on Twitter.

So, there it is. A couple of weeks ago I realized I wasn’t okay, in the grand scheme of things, and that it was more than just me being bored.

What didn’t surprise me was the number of “Me too” responses I got. In fact, I was prompted to make this admission when a friend, Ian Morris, discussed his own bout with depression on a recent episode of the Abbasid History Podcast (it’s in the last three or four minutes of the episode). I figured if someone as brilliant as Ian could do it, I could too, and maybe if more of us say something, we can begin to normalize discussion about it.

Enough patting myself on the back.

The point, dear readers, is that mental health problems often present themselves in graduate school, and there is nowhere near enough discussion about it nor about what one should do. It’s time to change that.

The following post is not even close to a comprehensive listing of dos and don’ts, but random thoughts based on my own experience.

While mental health issues can hit at pretty much any time, they seem to cluster:

  1. At the beginning of your program
  2. Between the end of coursework and comprehensives
  3. After comprehensives
  4. After the dissertation defense.

What all four of these have in common is that they’re all major changes to the way your life is structured. The first usually involves trying to adjust to the change (especially if you’re returning to academia); the last three involve that feeling of drifting–when you’re going from a very structured, high pressure environment to having very little structure, pressure, or deadlines.

When you get to graduate school, assess the mental health services available to you.

It probably goes without saying that this is best done before you need such services, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not that prepared. If you have the opportunity to assess these before you accept an offer of admission, even better (but, again, I’m not that on top of it. I actually thought my institution had a medical school when I enrolled. It doesn’t. Oops.)

Is there a student health center, and does it include mental health services? If there is not, what arrangements exist to address student needs?

Is there a student disabilities office, and if so, are mental disabilities included? (They should be, but policies differ from place to place). As an instructor, I have sent a number of students to the one on my campus because anxiety, depression, and test anxiety were all conditions that “counted,” so to speak.

If you’re a teaching assistant or assistant instructor, are you eligible to use your campus’s employee assistance program? This is a service that students often overlook because they don’t know that they’re eligible. If you’re employed by the university, an EAP can often help you find a counselor who accepts your insurance, which saves you a lot of extra research.

Avoiding Drift

There’s probably a better name for this, but it’s what I call that feeling when you’re suddenly on your own to read for comprehensives, or researching, or writing, and you’ve gone from meeting friends and colleagues on a regular basis with very little effort to being on your own, sometimes in a completely different city, without a support network.

During comprehensives and writing, if you’re stationed in your home base, a reading or writing group can help. Set up a regular meeting with friends or colleagues and discuss what you’ve been up to.

The caveat here is that this is likely to be most helpful if it’s more of a check-in with other people; if the way you’ve structured your group becomes something that requires you to do additional work above and beyond what you’re already doing, it quickly becomes an annoyance that you or your colleagues will start trying to avoid.

For that reason, I was pretty resistant to doing this during the writing stage–I work best on my own, and the idea of adding to my workload by agreeing to read others’ work and offer feedback on a regular basis was just a non-starter for me. If it works for you great, but, again, knowing your own working style will help a lot here.

And, if all else fails, a regular lunch or happy hour date once a week will get you out of your head for a bit. All work and no play only ever boosted Jack Nicholson’s career, and let’s face it: we ain’t Jack.

Self-care on the research year

I’ll discuss the details of my own research year in a forthcoming post, but let me offer the tl;dr version here: I had no funding and crammed it all into six weeks, and I absolutely exhausted myself mentally and physically. I had been in London for almost two weeks before I left my rented flat for a purpose other than going to the grocery or to an archive.

I cannot overemphasize this enough: do not do this to yourself.

While having a set schedule on research leave does help (get up at normal time, be at archives when they open, etc.), I did this six days a week–and that only because everything was closed on Sunday, or I would have done it seven days a week–and I failed to see the signs of burnout until I moved from London to Geneva and just couldn’t deal. I was only in Geneva for eight days … eight miserable days … but the change in routine, operating language (to French, which I can read but not speak), and the massive increase in the cost of everything caused a mental shock that I could barely deal with.

Part of the mistake here was the eight day bit. I wasn’t in Geneva long enough to really have the motivation to do much other than power through. Had I been there longer, I could have put in more effort to meeting people and getting out more. I’m an introvert, so that can be a bit difficult for me.

As it is, I have a very funny (to me) story about the Museum of the Reformation that I may share someday. (“The presentation on predestination is beginning. You don’t want to miss it!”)

If you’re on a fellowship provided by a local institution, you may well find yourself with a cohort of other fish out of water to form a social group with.

Don’t forget the existence of Meetup.org — need to find other expats? There’s probably a group for that.

But again, all work and no play … makes for a very lonely research experience. If you’re in a new place, remember to take time and smell the roses.

Be open and honest

This brings me around to the reason I posted about dealing with depression on Twitter in the first place: a lot of these battles happen behind closed doors, and there is a taboo around speaking about them.

Mental health resources were not discussed at my own graduate student orientation (either of them). It came up in conversation, and I only knew the answer because I was also a full time staff member.

Be open with yourself–this seems kind of self-explanatory, but, honestly, I didn’t really figure out what was going on until a few weeks ago. I’ve been in a funk since May; it’s now July. And, honestly, part of the issue is that my mental issues usually involve anxiety–depression is new, different, and weird to me.

Be open with those who need to know–your adviser (dissertation supervisor, if you’re at that level) should be in the loop.

If you’re still in coursework and don’t feel like having this conversation with multiple instructors, student disability services may be able to help–again, your situation may be different, but at the campus I’ve taught at, part of SDS’s job was to notify instructors formally of these things and we got a lot of training on confidentiality (‘Please do not approach the student in class and say, “SO! I hear you’re suffering from an STI!”‘)

And I’m pushing my own agenda here, but I really do feel like the more we talk about this, the more normalized it’ll become, and we can start moving away from the issue of mental health in graduate school being such a taboo subject.

 

The Research Year: Planning a Workflow

Welcome back to the Grad School Survival Guide!

I have several posts envisioned detailed how to plan your research year, and I’ve decided to start with a couple of posts about what to do before you even leave home or set foot in your first archive.

(Full disclosure: This series will primarily discuss doing archival research; although what I say will be somewhat useful if you do oral history or other kinds of fieldwork, I won’t be targeting those specifically because I have pretty much no experience with them myself).

I’m writing these in no particular order and, in fact, I’m starting with workflow because a couple of friends are already working through this and I thought it would be most useful to them if I started here.

So.

What is a workflow, and why do you need to plan one?

Simply put, a workflow is how you go from this:

file1

to this:

Capture

It’s a bit difficult to see, but the PDF of the document in the top photo with the blue cover is digitally attached to the entry highlighted in the screenshot on the bottom.

(For the record, the top photo was taken at the British National Archives in Kew).

Now, you may be asking yourself: yes, but why do I have to figure this out in advance?

The most important reason to have a workflow figured out is this: you need to determine how you’re going to get those thousands of pages you find in an archive into a usable format and bring them home with you.

1. Photocopying is expensive. Even if it’s just 7 cents a page, if you wind up photocopying a thousand pages (which is *incredibly easy to do*), you’re going to spend some serious bank. Photocopies are also heavy and take up space in your luggage. And then, of course, there’s the question of what happens if they get wet, dropped, spilled, stolen (along with the rest of your luggage), torn, burnt, etc.

2. Photocopying takes time. A number of archives do not have self-service photocopy machines; they have copying services which will do it for you. This comes at both a monetary cost and a time cost, because unless the copyist is literally sitting around with nothing to do, you may not get the copies back the same day.

3. Okay, I’ll scan them. Sure thing! Except that scanning and photocopying are usually two halves of the same coin, performed by the same person at the same copy service that charges per page and probably won’t get to it as fast as you’d like or need.

I’ve been in a couple of dozen archival collections and I’ve seen exactly one with a self-scanner. It was located outside of the special collections room where the material I wanted to scan was kept, and I wasn’t allowed to take the material outside of the room.

4. Scanning has its own challenges. Also … even self-service scanning may not be free. There is a flatbed scanner at the Wellcome Collection in London, which is a research collection that I adore for its cheerful atmosphere, friendly and helpful staff, decently priced cafe with surprisingly good food, and bookstore that I can never get out of without dropping at least £20. In fact, I recommend that anyone passing through London whose research pertains in any way to science or medicine take a look (their catalog is online so you can see in advance what they have).

It is, in fact, the same flatbed scanner that my home university library has, with the same little port to plug in a USB device, and I was delighted to find this out became it meant I wouldn’t have to mess around and figure out how the machine works. I laid out my book, hit “scan” … and nothing happened.

That’s when I saw the little sign saying that there was a cost of £0.10 per scan.

In one of my few moments of actual frustration at Wellcome, I discovered that the cost of the scan has to be paid with a copy card, which can only be purchased in cash. American readers may not see the issue here, so let me clarify that the UK is well on its way to being an entirely cashless society. I had literally not been presented with a cash-only situation during my entire stay in the UK, save for the weekly food market behind Birkbeck College, which had huge signs at the entrance warning people and pointing them to the nearest cashpoint.

I had no cash on me, and as far as I was able to tell there wasn’t an ATM anywhere within the same block as the library. So … yeah.

So, how do I plan a workflow?

What it comes down to is this: you need to have a plan as to how you are going to capture the documents you want, store them securely, and annotate them (this is so, so important), and you need to be comfortable with both the hardware and software that you’ll be using before you leave the house for the first time.

Learning this all in the field wastes your time and money. Most of us are on some sort of research funds (I actually wasn’t–more about that in a future post), meaning that we need to produce while we’re there. Losing a day’s work because you took all of your photos at the wrong ISO and they came out so pixelated as to be unreadable is a risk you don’t want to run (even more if you don’t understand what I just said).

Plan your workflow by working backwards.

Start by asking yourself this question: when you are sitting at your computer writing your dissertation, how do you want to consult your documents? Are you envisioning them as multi-page PDFs with searchable text? As paper copies in front of you (as much as I just pooh-poohed the idea of photocopying, if that’s your thing and you have the funds to support it, go for it)? As something else?

I’ll stop asking you these questions and tell you my personal answer, but I want to emphasize again and again, as I have throughout this entire guide to grad school, that the most important thing is that you devise a system that feels natural to you and that you’re comfortable with. You don’t have to do it the way I did.

I wanted to have PDFs of the documents. I have to admit that I didn’t really think much more through it than that, which became something of an issue when I got to the British Archives and discovered that a file number could refer to a single piece of paper in a folio, or to two massive boxes bound together with twine. This is where creating bookmarks within PDFs became important.

The question for me then became how to capture the documents as digital images and get them into PDF form.

file
Camera, laptop, documents, iPad … check! Turns out this was a bad idea.

I originally did this using my digital camera–the British National Archives has camera mounts for stability–to capture images, which I then transferred to my laptop using Adobe Lightroom where I … you know what, I don’t even remember. I did this on a short research trip and the workflow of getting the images off my camera into Lightroom and thence into a PDF was so utterly cumbersome and time consuming that it literally took me three years to get everything processed.

See, I like to take photos and I know how to use Lightroom … for photos. As it turns out, I did not know the first thing about using Lightroom to create documents from photos.

This is why I insist that you try your workflow at home. Pull that copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire off the shelf and act like it’s a book you need to copy.

I wound up regrouping using a capture device I hadn’t taken seriously: my phone.

A friend pointed me in the direction of a scanner app — Scanner Pro (no, I don’t have this monetized) — that works on the iPhone. There are similar apps for Android and other platforms, and Office365 and I believe Google Docs are jumping into the fray with their own entries.

Scanner Pro isn’t free, but I realized it would pay for itself after about three archival boxes so what the heck.

What I like about it is this: it does a terrific job of capturing print documents, of deskewing them (meaning: if you take a photo of the document at an angle, or the document is crooked in some way, as it might be if it’s bound together, as the British documents are, you can draw a box and it kind of straightens it out; enough for government work anyway), of creating multi-page PDFs, of running OCR (optical character recognition, meaning that it looks for recognizable text within the image–this is what makes the document searchable), and–extremely importantly from my point of view–it uploads the documents to the cloud (Dropbox, Google Docs, and Box are all covered at least).

Hence, by the time I left the archive I would have already uploaded that day’s work into the cloud. Even if my phone got lifted on the tube ride home, I wouldn’t have lost my work.

Now, as I said–I have no vested financial interest in Scanner Pro and could not care less if that’s the app you choose to work with. The important thing is that you pick an app and work with it a bit so that you know how to use it pretty well before you set foot in an archive.

I would suggest that you try out a number of different types of documents in different formats–Goblet of Fire is a big, fat book, so you can see how your program deals with curvy pages. Also try single documents, big type, small type, and if your work is likely to involve images, try those too.

I do not find that Scanner Pro works great with images, but I didn’t have many to contend with and was just as likely to use the actual camera function on my phone for those.

Dealing with the files

Okay, so you now have a system to digitize images into files. Great!

Hey, where are you going? Our work here isn’t done.

In fact, what comes next is VITALLY important.

It’s also incredibly tedious and easy to let slip. Try not to let it.

So, now you have a bunch of digital files … now what?

If you’re like me, your hard drive starts to look like this after a while.

Annotation 2019-06-21 101657

In case you were wondering, there are six hundred files in this folder.

Also in case you were wondering … those are not the original file names that I gave these. I retro-organized this folder almost a year after I collected these articles because I realized that I had no idea what any of them contained. (The format is YYYY-MM-DD because Windows keeps it in order by date that way).

So, first up: two other tools I used.

Annotation 2019-06-21 102218

One is a PDF editor. Scanner Pro does a lot, but sometimes I need a little more boost. Or I needed to OCR a language other than English. Or I wanted to insert bookmarks, as I did with this copy (left) of the testimony to the Milner Commission in 1919, because the file I generated was over two hundred pages long.

Sometimes I leave little digital sticky notes in the documents. As long as it took me to learn how to work paperless, I did eventually master the skill because … did I mention there were six hundred files in that one folder alone?

For this task, I lit on PDF XChange Editor. I’m not linking to it here because they’ve changed the way they sell the software–when I first found it, the PDF Viewer and the PDF Editor were sold together for about half the cost of what they’re selling each individually for now.

If you’re with a university and have access to student pricing, compare with Adobe Acrobat or see if your university offers another solution.

When it came to putting it all together, I am a huge fan and devotee of Zotero, which I will link to because it’s free and fucking fantastic.

Zotero is your digital librarian. There’s a lot of training available online (free), and a lot of universities support it pretty well–it can take a bit to unlock all of the things it can do, but here is why I like it a lot.

Here, for example, is what the Zotero version of the folder I posted above looks like:

Annotation 2019-06-21 103350

I did have to go in and enter the title of each article, the author (if it had one), and date — this is something I would highly recommend that you get into the habit of doing daily. When I would come back to the flat I rented in London for my research stay, I would pour a glass of wine and sit in front of the TV and pick away at this on my laptop. If you let it go, it becomes unwieldy.

But here’s why this is useful. First off, you can include tags on each entry:

Annotation 2019-06-21 103649

Now, if I want to find all of the articles from the Egyptian Gazette that have to do with unemployment demonstrations, I can find them.

Second … if you double click on the entry, it opens the PDF. (I use Box storage as my Zotero storage). It’s all linked right there.

Third, Zotero has plugins for Microsoft Office and OpenOffice (and other things–as it’s open source, people are constantly developing plugins) so that you can generate footnotes and endnotes without having to retype everything.

You can also import records into Zotero directly from your university library’s catalog — again, you don’t have to retype everything.

Seriously, given the number of people I know who had to spend days “fixing” their footnotes prior to submitting the dissertation, I cannot recommend Zotero enough.

But again, it has a learning curve.

Practice, Practice, Practice

This is my last piece of advice here, and it’s one I’ve said over and over: make sure you know how to use your tools. Make sure you’re comfortable with them. If something is a bit squidgy (academic term), google and see if there’s a workaround or how others have dealt with it.

You’ll have enough unanticipated issues to deal with on the road as it is. Having a solid plan as to how you’re going to work with the material you can collect from the beginning will take a lot of the stress off of your shoulders, so that when you get to the archives you can be productive right away.

In future columns on the research year, I’ll discuss how to plan out what you’ll be doing, and how to try to keep sane while you’re on the road. Stay tuned!

Someone else is doing my topic. Is my academic career over??

Another query from a friend – hopefully they won’t mind me using our discussion as the springboard for a post, because they are not the only person I’ve had this conversation with. Not only that, but I, myself, have been talked off this very same ledge more than once.

It goes something like this. You’re past prospectus, you’re getting reading to embark on research–or perhaps you’re mid research, or even writing your dissertation.

At some point, someone mentions to you–or you see an article, or somehow it is brought to your attention that there is another scholar working on a topic similar to yours.

And you go see what they’re doing.

And you realize their topic sounds familiar.

Very familiar.

And you start to feel like you’re having an out of body experience.

And, at some point, you realize it’s been about twenty seconds since you last inhaled.

Because … they’re doing your topic.

And your palms sweat.

If someone else is doing your topic … then your work isn’t original any more! It’s too late to start over now! I can’t start over! Am I doomed? Is it the apocalypse?

No. No, it isn’t. (Okay, in full disclosure: it may be the apocalypse, but this isn’t why.)

Your work is still original, and so is theirs.

Let’s counter the irrationality of panic and insecurity with some cold hard facts.

You have your sources, your framework, and your theory. No one else has this. Even if the other scholar is looking at the exact same topic as you, the two of you are not going to write the same thesis. It’s just not going to happen. (And if it does, this isn’t the column for you. You need to be looking at pieces on plagiarism and academic dishonesty because that just doesn’t happen).

We put such a premium on the doctoral process involving An Original Piece of Research to The Field that we miss the fact that we’re supposed to be entering a conversation with other scholars. Other people are going to comment on your work. You’re building off of a cadre of scholars who are adjacent to your subfield. And, yes, maybe one of them will know something about your topic too. It’s okay! That’s what academia is all about (or it’s supposed to be, anyway).

But this is a hard lesson to come to. For years, whenever I read anything that came a little too close to my own research my face would start to burn and I’d feel like a fraud. My work isn’t new, I’d tell myself. Everyone knows this. I’m just rehashing old territory.

You’ll feel like this a lot when you’re in the midst of research and writing because you’ve spent so long with the material that it feels like common knowledge. Trust me, it isn’t.

I guarantee the other scholar isn’t using your sources. They have stuff you don’t have. You have stuff they don’t have. And even if you come to the exact same conclusion, you’ll have taken different routes to get there, and both of your works will benefit. Don’t see this as a threat to your own work.

Edit: when I posted this on Facebook, a colleague commented that:

A graduate student emailed me freaking out that I had “beat him” to the topic. Since then, we’ve submitted grant applications together to conduct an expansive oral history project.

Think of the opportunities: conference panels, grants, etc. You’re starting to find your tribe!

Do, however, take steps to protect your own work. I never posted anything dissertation-related online, except for some public history pieces and a very short (10 page) paper I gave at a conference. I’m happy to share my work with interested scholars, but until I’m ready to publish it and put it out there for the world to see, I’m not broad-banding the draft versions. This is just common sense, and I’d recommend it to everyone. You can’t be too careful.

In my next posts in the Grad School Survival Guide, I’ll discuss the process of planning a research year, and how to try to get through it in one piece. Stay tuned!

 

Grad School Survival Guide: Oral Examinations

For this entry in the Grad School Survival Guide, I begin with a story.

In the fall of each year, my department had meetings with the students in their first, second, and third year (individually) to discuss benchmarks in the program, student concerns, etc., sort of as a coaching meeting at the beginning of the year.

I was not in my third year when this story took place (in fact, I was in my eighth, and final year), and I had absolutely no intention of attending the third year meeting. I was just looking for a place to drink my coffee before meeting with a new visiting research fellow who also worked on Egypt, and I figured that the fourth floor common area outside the research fellows’ offices would be empty.

I was wrong.

Off I walked from the elevator in my best “I’m not teaching today and don’t have to look pretty” clothes (which is to say, the ones that didn’t have visible stains on them or had been co-opted by the cats as a nest on the floor of the closet) with my headphones in, carrying a paper mug from the ‘bucks and I don’t know what else … and discovered that twenty sets of eyes were watching me do so.

Had I but been naked it would have been a scene from a nightmare.

“Oh, hi.” I said over whatever Scandinavian pop-rock I was into that day blasting into my ears. “Um, can I sit here quietly? I’m meeting someone in twenty minutes.”

And that was when the invitation was offered. “The students are a bit nervous about comps,” said the graduate advisor. “Come offer words of wisdom.”

Trying to wrap my head around the need to be social–I am an introvert. I have learned to be an extroverted introvert, but I still, in my mid-40s, do not react well to discovering that I need to be social when I was not expecting to be–I came and took a seat at the table and asked the assembled group, “So, what about comps is stressing you out?”

It transpired that the students were nervous about the oral component of the comprehensive exams. And herein I said something that made our normally unflappable graduate advisor flinch:

“Oh, orals stressed me out. I was way more stressed about my oral comprehensives than I am about my dissertation defense.”

And, for the record, having now been through my dissertation defense (successfully), let me say definitively: yes, I was much more stressed about my oral comprehensive exams than I was about the defense.

If you are feeling as though this might be the case for you, let me offer this piece of sage wisdom: it’s not just you. And also, relax.

man in white shirt using macbook pro
Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

Why you’re stressed

You probably don’t need me to delineate the causes of your stress, but let me boil it down to one simple thing that, for me, fed into all the rest of my comps-related stress: I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

You see, oral comprehensive exams aren’t open to the public. I think they do that so that there’s no additional pressure on the examinee, but I’m not sure that’s actually the end result. By the time I started my doctoral program I had attended a handful of dissertation defenses. I knew what sorts of questions were asked, and I knew what they sounded like when they went well.

Later, I would discover what it sounded like when they did not go well (disclaimer: it wasn’t mine). One defense went so poorly that one of the committee members later apologized to me in her office because she said that “you poor students all looked pretty traumatized, and I want you to know that’s not how things normally go.” There were a lot of extenuating circumstances. I won’t go into it here, as it’s not my tale to tell, but it also served to demonstrate that for things to go that badly at a defense you have to put some effort into it. If your advisor and committee tell you you’re ready to defend, there’s absolutely no reason to lose sleep over the defense.

But … what about comprehensives? I’ve heard of people who don’t pass their comprehensives. What sorts of questions are asked? What does the right answer look like? I mean, this one time at a defense I saw a candidate deflect a question by coolly responding, “That’s an excellent question, but I would have to argue that it’s outside the scope of this project.” And the committee accepted that! Can I do that in comps? (Note: I wouldn’t advise it).

For a long time there was even a prohibition on sharing the written examination questions and essays with colleagues. I don’t know if it’s still in place, but I do know a couple of colleagues who posted their comps portfolios online. In my day, I didn’t even have a sample of what the stupid things were supposed to look like.

adult blur business close up
Photo by Nguyen Nguyen on Pexels.com

A note on the written examinations

You’ll notice that I haven’t written a separate entry about the written comprehensive essays. And this is because they are not one-size-fits-all. Some universities put you in a room and give you x amount of time to do a brain dump of everything you’ve learned. Some give you a couple of days per essay. Mine gives you a month to do all of them. In short: advice that worked for me probably won’t work for you.

I had all my sources and materials at my beck and call. The “short” essay–at 24 pages–had hundreds of footnotes. If you’re locked in a room for eight hours and doing a stream of consciousness data dump of the previous year’s reading based solely on your memory, my advice will be completely useless.

For the written: Paint with big strokes, identify large themes, and write until you’re done. The purpose of the essay is to demonstrate the wide breadth of knowledge you’ve accumulated. The best advice I can give here is to suggest that you treat your written examination as a preparation of the orals. This is a document you’ll be coming back to in that session. Lay out your argument and explanation here.

trial

So. Orals.

There are two very helpful pieces of advice that were given to me about comps.

The first is that the oral exam is that it’s like an Oral Proficiency Interview in a foreign language. Now, if you’re in one of those lucky fields where you don’t have to do these (or you specialize in dead languages), let me explain how these work. The test is designed to determine how high your language ability goes. The key–and often missing–piece of information for the testee is that in order to determine how high your ability goes, the test has to exceed your ability to communicate in that language–in other words, for the test to work, you have to fail.

The conversation will begin with “hello, what is your name?” and proceed through “order this at the grocery story” to “please explain the macroeconomic impacts of Prince Feisal’s plan to develop the natural gas sector of the economy” gradually and slowly over the course of the session. At some point, your vocabulary and/or grammar will run out, and your ability to communicate will break. It’s supposed to, unless you’re a native speaker (in which case, why the hell are you taking a proficiency interview in a language you speak natively?).

Your language aptitude is then measured at the highest level where you were able to perform competently. Some mistakes, but you were able to plow through and make yourself understood despite them.

The comprehensive oral examination is a bit like this. The questions will be probing. You’ll be asked about areas that the committee feels you deviated away from, or didn’t address as fully as they wanted. They’ll push you to defend certain points you made. You might have been wrong once or twice. (These are all things that happened in mine). The idea is to see how much knowledge you built up over the past year and determine that it is Satisfactory.

You will not be asked names, dates, and places. More likely you’ll be asked about authors and arguments.

What I find helpful about the OPI analogy is this: you’re not expected to be able to answer everything. Not all questions are for answering. Some are to make you think. Knowing this makes a huge difference in how you react.

The other piece of advice I got, which I fear is also true, is that the comprehensive oral examination is academic hazing.

In my case…the committee decided before I even entered the room that I had passed the exam and spent the next ninety minutes putting me through the wringer mainly to get me to think about the things I hadn’t addressed fully in the written portion, so that I could be aware of them as I moved into the dissertation phase.

Why they couldn’t just tell me this I don’t know. There is an element of “we went through it, so you will also go through it” to all of this.

The Bottom Line

If you’ve done well in your reading for the exams, if you feel like you’ve done competently on the written essays (no one feels like they aced them, except for that one friend of mine who will message me the moment he reads this to tell me that he did … I see you, CMB), you should be well prepared for the orals.

If, on the other hand, you just skipped an entire section of your reading list because you found the material boring and uninteresting, then you probably have reason to be worried.

I know people who feel the need to “cram” for their orals. If this makes you feel better prepared, I won’t discourage it, but by all means don’t pull an all-nighter. You’ve had a year (or longer). You’re not going to shovel it into your brain at the last second. Re-read your written essays and get some sleep.

You’ve made it this far. It’s in no one’s interest to see you fail now!

Grad School Survival Guide: How to Study

If you missed it, the first installment of my Grad School Survival Guide described how to read (or, why everyone seems to have something to say about this week’s readings but you.)

So, now you know how to read in the way your professor expects you to. But you’re taking three seminars, and maybe also a foreign language class, and somehow you’re supposed to read four books a week and do two hours of homework a night. Is your social life over? Will you ever see daylight again?

Let me say that I am no stranger to this question. Halfway through my first year in the doctoral program, my first long-term relationship (11 years) ended. Trying not to commit academic suicide by negotiating a move while working full time and enrolled in two classes, I remained co-habitating with my ex through the end of the spring semester (this was probably a bad idea). A few years later, I got married (also in the middle of a semester), but I was reading for comps that year. We’ll cover comps soon.

For the first six years of my graduate program, I worked a full time, 40-hour a week job. I was fortunate in that said 40-hour a week job was at the same university in which I was enrolled as a student, so it was both a source of financial aid (staff education benefit), and lenient enough that I could swap out a 3-hour block of time during business hours for shortened lunch breaks other days to make up for it. (I also took a reduced course load, averaging 6 hours per semester instead of the usual 9).

So, what I’m saying is that you can have it all! Or you can have enough. And part of this is accomplished by developing study habits that give you what you need to be successful, but don’t take over the rest of your life.

One of the things I see lots of graduate students doing is acting as though their career as graduate students is temporary and “normal life” will resume when it’s done. Considering it takes an average of 7 years to get through a doctoral program, that’s a lot of “putting life on hold,” and, more to the point, John Lennon was right: life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

You need to be able to maintain a work/life balance. Everyone knows that one apocryphal student who only studies and never goes out because there’s a lecture on something on a Friday night or there’s an exam in three weeks — whatever happened to that guy, anyway? (It does seem to always be a guy, for some reason).

Don’t be that guy. Here are some things I’ve learned about organizing your studying and reading life.

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1. Your professor doesn’t expect you to have the book memorized.

First off, buy nothing before you get the syllabus on the first day (unless it’s otherwise requested). Look at the syllabus. If there’s a different book every week, that means that you’ll literally be reading each book to discuss in class once.

If you buy them all, that’s a lot of money you’re pretty much wasting on books that will be read once, put back on the shelf, and resold at the end of the semester for a fraction of what you paid for them. Just don’t.

In all likelihood, the copy that your professor put on reserve in the library is going to suit you just fine. Don’t run out and buy every book listed — if you think something is going to be useful for your research later on, then you can buy it from the used listings on Amazon or at the local used bookstore.

Okay! So, you went to the library and got your course reserved book, and it has to be back in two hours. Now what?

Remember the four questions I posed in my previous post?

  1. What is the argument that the author is making?
  2. How is the author’s argument new and different?
  3. Does the author’s argument make sense?
  4. Does the author successfully prove his/her argument?

Prioritize the two hours you have with the book to answer those four questions.

I’m going to repeat the importance of these four questions over and over again. Get used to answering those four questions. You’ll need them every week in seminar, and they’ll be doubly important when reading for your qualifying/comprehensive examinations.

As you progress, you’ll notice that seminar discussion really doesn’t stray far outside of these questions. Anecdotes that either the professor or other students share from the book’s content will mostly be presented in the context of addressing these.

I pretty much guarantee that your professor will never give you a pop quiz and ask what happened on November 10, 1789 (Ronan, that was for you!) unless what happened on that date was important to the author’s argument, in which case that’s probably what the question is really about. And there will almost certainly never be a pop quiz.

Take detailed notes and bring them to seminar with you. Personally, I liked handwriting my notes because I felt like I retained the information better. Some people do this just fine with typing. Try both, see what works for you.

You probably won’t need the book in front of you (notice that students who bring the book to class don’t open their copy that much, if at all). I would wager that half of the students who bring the book to class are trying to look prepared primarily in order to impress other people. Ignore this.

If you don’t trust yourself to be able to carry the conversation without paper backup, scan or photocopy parts of the book that you think are important to back you up–the intro and/or conclusion are the obvious suspects, or a section where you feel that questions 3 and 4 are being illustrated well (or poorly, depending on how you answer the questions).

In short order, you’ll learn to extract what you need from a book — and what you won’t need. This will give you a good sense of how long you need to spend with a book to get what you need — and that’s key for maintaining a good work/life balance.

2. There will be weeks you don’t have all the reading done.

It happens. Hopefully it won’t be the same week that everyone else in your seminar had a massive research assignment due for someone else. At the very least, plot out two hours to spend some quality time with the book so that you have something to say, and focus on the four questions above (it’s always about the four questions).

I focus on getting it done in two hours because that happens to be how long you can borrow course reserves at my university’s library, but also because I learned how to get through a book in two hours and answer these questions. It may take you a while to learn the mechanics of it, but you can spend just a couple of hours with the book and arrive at seminar with things to contribute to the discussion!

If you have one of those weeks where it just all went to hell and you didn’t even look at the book … well, speaking personally: If class participation is part of the seminar grade, your professor would probably rather you didn’t come at all than have you sit there for three hours not contributing. You’ll notice early on that you can always tell who’s trying to BS their way through the conversation without having read the material. Just because no one said anything doesn’t mean they didn’t notice.

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“Dad, isn’t this usually the time of day you pull out a book, and I help you read by rubbing my face all over it?”

3. Schedule study time, and make it sacrosanct.

This is really important for the work/life balance. If you have people in your life (partners, children, parents, friends) who aren’t also in graduate school, it’s very easy to treat your workload as an inconvenience or secondary in importance. Don’t.

I set out certain blocks of time that were Study Time. In my case, they were more procedural blocks of time (i.e., Saturday after the grocery store run, Sunday after breakfast) than, say, a firm “I will study from 3-4 on Wednesdays”–but that also works. The important thing is that you have a mental time slot when you “should” be studying and to get both body and mind to expect it, and to signal that something is off if you’re not doing it.

The firmer you are about this, the easier it is on everyone else. I liked to read in the mornings because my brain was fresher, and because it was less intrusive: usually if we were going to leave the house for something it would be an afternoon movie or to go out to dinner. It also made it much less stressful for me to schedule plans with friends with confidence; otherwise they become sources of tension and angst on your part.

That said, I did have to put my foot down a few times and ask my fiancé (later husband) not to schedule things on the weekend without consulting me first, especially toward the end of the semester when I also needed to be doing research and writing.

However, on the flip side, once I had developed a set schedule and knew what I could accomplish within it, I also had more confidence about scheduling leisure activities in my free time.

4. Environment is important.

Where you study is just as important as when you study. Find a place where you can study successfully. I highly recommend that it not be the same place you do other kinds of reading (leisure reading) or watch TV. It should “feel” like the place where you go to get things done.

For me, it was the dining table. We don’t use it much, so I could leave books there. Books went flat on the table, my feet were flat on the floor, I was sitting upright. It’s also quiet, although occasionally I did have some unexpected help.

“Your thesis was not valid, so we deleted it. You’re welcome.”

A lot of people like to go to coffee shops or the library to study – if that’s your thing, great. It doesn’t work for me. The popular campus coffee shop where everyone at my university likes to hang out is loud and boisterous and the chairs were clearly designed by a devotee of the late Marquis de Sade, and I just don’t understand why people think it’s all that (and the coffee tastes burnt).

In addition to my well-documented hatred of That Place, I also always felt like that I was putting too much pressure on myself to be productive once I arrived, got situated, and opened a book. I felt like I would spend more time evaluating whether I had “done enough” to justify the trip than I did paying attention to the material. I also discovered that if I drank coffee after noon I would have problems sleeping.

The idea is that you should feel like you’re in a place that merits serious attention. When you’re here, your brain is primed, and your body reacts accordingly. This is why I don’t recommend mixing the physical locations where you enjoy leisure time with the location where you’re being studious. (This is an actual thing, psychologically speaking, and it can lead to both anxiety–which there’s enough of in grad school as it is–and insomnia.)

5. Know your limits.

I worked full time for 11 years before starting my doctoral program. During that time, I got used to the concept that when I got home from work at 5:30, the rest of the day was mine. It was a very hard habit to break myself of–in fact, I never successfully did so.

When I first started my graduate program, I tried my best to come home and be productive, but I was usually tired (because I was in the office at 7:30 am), and my brain was uncooperative. The most productive time I was able to eke out on a weeknight was about an hour. I could get through an article (singular), but it wasn’t enough time to get through a book, and I realized that my ability to retain any information about a book was diminished if I split it up over multiple days. I also noticed that I was looking at the clock a lot more than I did on weekend mornings.

Eventually, once I realized this, I shifted most of my productive time to the weekends (this was why I had to be more militant about ensuring that I had some control over weekend scheduling).

I also noticed that I was better at working through books with longer stretches of time (like two hours), and that I was at my best if I didn’t try to get through them right before the seminar where they would be discussed.

Your mileage may vary, and you’ll realize your own quirks and how you work best. Pay attention to the mental and physical cues your body and mind give you, and don’t struggle against them.

6. The first five are a lot. Speak up if you’re struggling.

Your professor is probably teaching at least two other classes, and in all likelihood the other two classes are undergraduate lecture courses that require a lot of work. Most of us operate under the assumption that if a student needs help, they’ll say something. And, whether by hook or by crook, graduate students tend to get less attention because it’s assumed that they’re more mature and capable of speaking up if they need something.

Unfair, but true.

Graduate students often experience depression and anxiety, and it can be bewildering if you’ve never experienced it before. And as difficult as it can be, often times it is incumbent upon the student to make the first move.

But please do.

If you’re struggling with the workload, talk to your professor. Speaking personally, I will bend over backwards to help a student who is struggling (and reward the effort come grading time.) I can’t help if I don’t know.

If you’re struggling with your mental health talk to … someone. Your professor. Your advisor. Friends.

Look up the student disability services office (because mental conditions count) and see what services they offer.

Find a yoga class.

Work out.

Take a mental health break.

Take care of your mind. After all, graduate school is about training your brain, so keep it in tip-top shape!

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This post has gone on long enough at this point, so I’ll wrap up and promise that, in the next installment, we’ll discuss what happens when the reading becomes your entire life: how to prep for your qualifying/comprehensive exams!

What else do you want to know about grad school? Post questions in the comments section!