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!

Tips for Your First Visit to the Archives

I offered some unsolicited advice on Twitter (he says, as if there is any other kind of advice to be found there) about the first trip to the archives which was, for my not all that popular account, kind of a popular post. So, I’m going to expand on it here!

Believe it or don’t, this was the best piece of advice I got before my first trip to the archives.

A lot of the advice I got was practical: dress comfortably, make sure you read the rules and regulations of the archive before you get there (especially the documentation you need to gain access), check what you can actually bring in with you so that you don’t bring too much.

This was the one I heard and thought, Oh yeah, right.

It’s also the one that I remember the best now. Because it’s true. That first day never goes quite as expected. If you don’t believe me, take it from Randy:

You’ve compiled a massive list of documents you want to see, files you want to read — it never goes quite the way you expected.

Especially if you’re working with material that was generated in the pre-typewriter era.

Or it’s in a foreign language, and you discover that your ability to speak rapid, native sounding Spanish is not matched by your ability to skim Spanish.

Or you discover that your productivity is interrupted by mandatory tea time. Or that you have to leave the reading room for an hour.

Or maybe they will let you handle one document at a time.

Or, in my case, you weren’t thinking literally enough when you discovered a series of files called “Summary of Intelligence Reports Received,” and sat down, expecting to find a treasure trove and instead finding a ledger detailed how many intelligence reports were received every day.

Womp womp.

There’s always setbacks.

But somehow, the first day is always the worst. It’s the day your expectations and hopes collide head-on with reality. If you know that’s part of the process, and you’re prepared for it, it really makes a difference.

I thought about this a lot my first few days in the archive. It’s not a race. You’ll find what you need, and you’ll get there.

And if it doesn’t lead where you were hoping, you’ll adapt. Very, very few people actually come out of the archives with the same project they had when they went into the archives.

When I posted this, Melissa Johnson (@Lady_Historian) offered a tip in response:

Here’s some more that came up in response:

I would add to this, photocopy (or photograph) things you’re not sure you’ll want to use later. Your project will evolve over time, and you never know …

Definitely true. Especially if you’re far away from home, in a country where you’re working in a second language you’re almost-but-not-quite fluent in. The excitement wears off and suddenly you realize you don’t know anyone, and you’re going to be here for how long?

Check out Paula’s blog post for more advice!

And @pearcele is quite the optimist:

Keep them coming!

What are the tips for archival work you’d offer your past self? Let me know in the comments below!