First Year Graduate School Guide: Surviving Semester One

Please allow my brief detour from the Romantic optic of the blog to offer some tips and reflections have grown out of the last few months of semester one of graduate life. I share them in hope others in a graduate program for literary studies or other related fields will learn or perhaps remember how to keep afloat in semester one.

Confession: I have yet to turn in any seminar papers and there’s still 11 days left before I can truthfully call myself a victor, but I’ve made it this far—perhaps there’s something to my method besides madness.

Tip #1- Learn how to “read” again

When making the transition from undergraduate course work to graduate course work the first thing you will notice is the sheer quantity of pages you are assigned each week, not to mention the plentiful information within those pages. The first step of navigating to read is to evaluate how you currently read. Questions to ask after finishing a book chapter or article:

What is the main premise?
How long did that take to read?
Do I understand the main premise?
Who is the author speaking to?
Are my notes (more on this later) reflective of the authors aims? The major argument.
Do I agree? (this is optional, get through the first five questions first).

All the readings I were assigned were met with this criteria and when I found myself unable to answer certain questions I had found the weak spots in my reading skills.

Knowing what to read for is perhaps the most time conservative and savvy skill to master.

To try to remain both responsible to the seminar course work and responsible to my own sanity/sleep schedule I only read 1 book chapter or article per seminar per day. But for novels I’ll read 2-3 chapters. For me this has greatly helped retain information. Before starting the next chapter or essay for the same seminar I’ll review my notes to recall the conversation and topic. I’m not going to disclose in written interest published word that it’s near impossible to read and/or retain everything, but don’t freak out if you are entering the seminar room without Read for quality not quantity.

Tip #2- Seminar Room Behavior

All that being said, if you find yourself totally lost and stuck on the concepts of an assigned reading then put it down, write down your questions and bring them to the corresponding seminar session. The seminar room is the designated place for such questions, and more often than not your fellow grad students are confused over the same reading. Along with the ability to admit confusion (not an easy task for some, myself included at time), as a first year I had to adjust to feeling like a complete idiot sometimes. The state of unknowing always precedes knowing and understanding.

Tip #3- Get comfortable (to work)

I cannot stress how important comfort is to productivity. Within the first few weeks I tried about every possible sitting position at various points in the day to determine when I was most productive and retained information best. Once you find your niche you can organize time around more social and relaxing activities without feeling guilty. For example, between 5-7 pm I’m pretty much useless as a graduate student so I’ll take a walk, run some errands, anything really besides work.

Tip #4- Notes, seriously.

Reading notes: For taking notes while reading I prefer to directly marking up the text and writing longer notes and questions on a separate page and folding it within the book (I’m old fashioned in this regard). This method is of course contingent on a few factors: Do you own the book? Did you cringe when reading “marking up the text”? Are you have a tech-savy/obsession with electronic file organization? Thus, the alternative to paper notes is electronic annotations and comments. There’s so much free to very cheap software and apps to help organize.

I suggest noting the key terms of the text, what the author is aiming to show, and how they go about doing so (method). Underline the parts you have questions on or seem clearest. It might be helpful to design your own system of note taking and stick to it. It could be as simple as highlighting the important bits you understand and underlining the Just be consistent. Utilization of these notes will be a catatrasophe later on if you cannot recognize your own annotations in a timely manner.

Seminar notes: I learned quickly that taking notes during seminar distracts me from the discussion, and even worse I never return to the notes because I absorb the major tenants of the class session. However, everyone is different. Similar to getting comfortable to work, test out methods of note taking that work for you within the first few weeks of the courses. Electronic notes, hand-written, perhaps even some visuals/diagrams for those theory heavy days.

Tip # 5- Theory is your friend 

Full disclaimer: There’s a bias to this tip because part of my attraction for graduate course work in literary studies is the strong application and emphasis on critical theory and philosophy. That being said, it’s not as if I’m interested in all critical theory and still struggle through some less than coherent readings each week. Theory is literally new forms of thought, often brand new, and thus it can’t be easily written, understood, or read. These new forms of thought are yours to build upon and apply, perhaps even critique.

So much of the popular theorists are also only available in translation for us English only speaking graduate students, and thus another level of communicative mediation is imposed (I am laughing thinking about the first time I read Derrida and nearly threw the essay across the room after 20 minutes). 

Move toward and prioritize what interests you, set aside some time and work through the piece. Draw out the key terms and then define them in relation to how the author uses them. Theory, once grasped, even a little bit, opens up those new forms of thought for you to apply, test the limits, and expand upon in literature to other texts.

So yes, theory is your friend but maybe that friend you don’t like to hang around with because they are too honest. Or the person to loves to hear themselves talk, but their so smart you don’t even care sometimes.

Tip #6- Don’t get attached to your fields of interes

I applied to schools as a Romanticist, but left a few other odd bits in my application about studying contemporary art and punk. In short, like most incoming grad students I have a wide range of interests of which I’m attached to for both scholarly and personal reasons. In the first week professors and fellow grads asked my “field” and of course I jumped to my old standby, “Romanticist.” However, I also positioned myself in an intersection between philosophy and queer cultural studies. Halfway through the term I went through a minor crisis over my disinterest in the queer cultural studies texts I read. Before giving up I asked myself basic questions: Why did I decide to come to graduate school? What were my hopes for the experience? The short answer to both of these are as followed: To learn and develop thought.

Graduate school demands capacity to accept change, even if it steers you into fields and topics you didn’t plan on.

Funny enough, I’ve found myself drawn to queer studies with a philosophical base. Give it time, you just got here (like me).

Tip #7- Writing: Seminar Paper Season

Around early November start thinking about final projects/papers for each course. I started earlier, too early. I regret this decision  because my ideas for each project shifted so dramatically through all the new material introduced each week. Now at week 15 I’m looking back at all the unnecessary footwork I did in early October that distracted me from engaging more thoroughly with the course context each week. Even worse my first rough draft was about seven different working theses in 20 pages. Make an outline, talk it out with another person, professor or fellow grad. Read the primary text as much as you can within limits (remember readings can always be expanded, it’s a 15-20 page paper so work within this frame of mind.) If there’s an on campus writing center or group for paper workshopping use these resources to clarify and expand your project.

Tip #8- Sleep, breathe, eat,… go outside…with people.

One of my professors warned at the start of the first seminar class meeting how easy it can be for grad students to “fall into a black hole” of course work alone in your apartment or the library. Consistent productivity does not equate to social death, and in fact the opposite might be more apt to consider. Social death, abstraction into the black hole, often results in more stress than necessary which inhibits work quality. I’m most productive when I afford time for social interaction. Even if “social” means sitting in silence across from another person, laptops open, fingers typing, books spread out, at the same coffeeshop table. For an fellow Romanticists reading this post think back to how vital exposure to the outside natural world is for productivity and flow of creative thought. (See the complete works of Coleridge and Wordsworth to start.)  Even if you reside in a city environment, miles away from “nature” in the standard sense, there’s a similar creative production afforded through the urban.

I did not hierarchize this list, but if I would were to, self-care would be the first tenant. Actually it might just be the title, “Self Care, then do Graduate School.”

It’s so easy and tempting to throw yourself into course work, read every line, start seminar projects and presentations within the first months. Remember to stop, limit caffeine, exercise 2-3 times a week, eat solid food that does not come from take-out restaurants, go to coffeeshops for reasons besides work, and stop to air.

It’s going to be fine.

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Perhaps I’ll post a part two next semester, assuming I make it through! Feel free to comment with any other tips or comments.