Well, I have officially finished my first year of the PhD History program at UC Davis. To be more precise, I finished my first year a couple of months ago, when I turned in the last of my final exams for Spring Quarter around the second week of June. I meant to write these reflections immediately after finishing the school year, but then I got caught up with other obligations and I was, frankly, pretty tired of writing. I took a job right after school ended, teaching another course at Solano Community College. The new dean of the college called me up and offered me the opportunity to teach a summer course before Davis had ended. Because Davis is on the quarter system, and SCC is on the semester system, that summer class began only one week after my graduate classes finished. In fact, I was planning the summer course at SCC before I had finished my classes at Davis.
Anyway, here I am at the end of July. The summer is already almost half way over and I am just now sitting down to write my reflections. Originally, I intended to write more of these reflections, publishing them periodically throughout the school year. However, I do not think I anticipated exactly how busy I was going to be in the program. It’s hard to convince myself to sit down and reflect on my graduate school experiences when there is always another deadline (or two or three) fast approaching. For the past year, I felt like I was driving on full speed, constantly moving from one thing to the next. There was never a time when I did not have an assignment or two that I was supposed to be working on. More importantly, I had forgotten how tough the quarter system is (as opposed to the semester system). Also, I was trying to take on too much career work on the side of my classes. I was reviewing books on Florida History for H-Net, teaching a course at SCC in the Fall, working on a presentation for the First Annual Graduate History Conference, and preparing articles to submit for publication (I submitted another one to Tequesta, which is still under review, and I submitted one to the Journal of African American History, which was rejected). I was trying to keep up with all of this work while posting regularly to TZR.
All things considered, I guess my first year at Davis was supposed to be the easiest. After all, I had a fellowship from the Provost’s Office that prohibited me from working as a teacher’s assistant, and so I was supposed to have more free time. Of course, I am very thankful for this fellowship because it is what allowed me to start teaching at SCC, and I believe that I have learned more from my teaching experience there than my experience in the graduate program. But, all things considered, my first year at Davis was not very easy. I considered many times throughout the year (and I still consider every so often) dropping out of the program. By now, I can truly say that I have been unburdened of many illusions I began the year with. I do not want to dwell on anything specific here because I do not want to strengthen bitter feelings or discuss personal issues. However, I do want to draw on my observations to say a few notes that I imagine pertain to graduate school in general, and not to this History program in particular or to any other specific History programs.
The first thing I have noticed is that graduate school is very hard, though not necessarily for the reasons I thought it would be. The difficulty is not in the expectations of the work, whether it’s the reading or the writing. There is a tremendous (and frankly unrealistic) expectation of reading placed upon students; however, each student is only expected to keep up with the rest of the pack, and not to excel beyond them. This means that you often get a benefit of being caught not knowing something and it being okay because no one else does either. Many times I did not read either as much or as well as I was supposed to. Even though I was not pleased with myself on these occasions, I was often saved by the fact that I had still read more–or at least just as much–as others in the room. I guess one of the realities of graduate school is that no one is really doing all of the work (though the group seems to have come to some agreement that they will pretend they are when inside the classroom).Generally speaking, most teachers have the philosophy that if they give you more work than one human being can reasonably handle, then of course you won’t do all of it, but at least you will be challenged to try and, therefore, do more than you otherwise would. There were a few times when it was clear my professors were not satisfied with my work. In these instances, however, it was not just my work that brought dissatisfaction, but the work of the class as a whole, that was disappointing.
So why is graduate school so hard? It’s not because you can’t do all of the reading and the writing. People find their different strategies for coping with the burden of an unrealistic workload. Some students pick their moments, reading a lot some weeks and contributing heavily and then taking breaks during others. Some students concentrate more on writing and others more on reading. Some students develop reading habits (and their professors encourage them to do so) that allow them to get the most out of a book in the shortest amount of reading time. People often call this “gutting” a book, a violent analogy that hints at the coldness and competition of the graduate school environment). Finally, some students cope with the excessive burden of homework by just not doing it. Essentially, they complete only the material that is graded and they stay silent through most of the class or they offer comments that have nothing directly to do with the material we read. I was quite amazed, time and again, by what some students were able to get away with.
Also, graduate school is not hard because the best grades are hard to get. I received all A’s this year and I ended the year with a 4.0, even though I produced work that was not always consistent. Moreover, it was clear in the comments my professors left that some of them did not think my work was very good–or, at the very least, that it had significant problems. Nonetheless, they gave me the highest final grade on every single occasion. After this first year, I can honestly say that the master’s program at Loyola was much harder on grading than the program at Davis. I received two A-‘s in my first year at Loyola. (For those who don’t know, an A- is not a good grade in most graduate school programs. There are usually only three grades: a B+, A-, and an A.)
So good grades were easy to come by. Professors seem to have the general philosophy that they will critique you in their comments and not in their choice of your grade. This is set up partly by the grading system, which stipulates that anything lower than an A- is the equivalent of saying that someone does not belong in the program or needs to reconsider their commitment. Teachers do not seem very willing to stamp a student with this kind of a grade because it not only damages their future prospects, but it also draws into question the decisions of the administration, which had accepted the student to begin with and has a desire to maintain a certain retention and graduation rate. There are one or two teachers that (as I have been told) have a reputation for handing out low final grades. But they seem to be spoken of as if they are exceptions in the program.
But grades are also pretty subjective on the professor’s part. Several times throughout the year, my colleagues and myself would get together and share the comments and grades we received from our professors. We were often astonished by how someone could receive comments about their participation that we thought did not accurately reflect their performance. Often times two students with vary different performances would both get the highest grade in the class, and we would wonder how that was possible. Or a student would get a lower grade despite the fact that we agreed their performance did not warrant it. On the one hand, grades are not that big of a deal in graduate school. This is especially true if you are on your last stop (that is, you are getting your PhD). When I was in the master’s program, for example, I wanted to get the best grades I could to improve my application to PhD programs. Now, I guess I am trying to get the best grades that I can just to satisfy myself. I want to be in good standing with the University; but, more importantly, I want to look back and say that I did the best that I could because I wanted to become the best scholar that I could, not because I was driven by a set of practical incentives.
Now, after all this delaying, here is my final answer. Graduate school is so hard because of the different personalities of your professors, advisers, and administrators. As a student, you are expected to engage with a lot of different professionals, and there is very little in the way of formal standardization or rules. You can refer to the graduate handbook, but most people are unfamiliar with what it actually says. I have heard no shortage of stories about advisers misquoting the handbook on a particular issue or saying something to the effect that, “Yes, the handbook says that, but that’s not really how things work.” On another note, you can ask for an accommodation, but there appears to be a randomness about whether it will be approved. During my first year, I was baffled by some of the things administrators allowed and others they denied for what appeared to be no other reason than who had asked the request. Occasionally, I saw students ask for what I thought was a minor accommodation and they were denied. Other times, I was positive there was no way administrators would approve a request and then it was accepted. In general, there seems to be either a lacking of reliable standards or a flexibility about how they are enforced.
One of the problems is that an academic department is essentially nothing more than a collection of individuals. Each individual has a unique personality and a peculiar way of doing things. As a student, your career depends on developing alliances with professors. You need professors to agree to serve on your comps committee; you need professors you sign off on your progress in the program each year; you need professors to agree to give you independent studies; you need them to be on your dissertation committee, write you references, give you acceptable grades, and even help you get funding or take advantage of other opportunities. And there is nothing that obligates a professor to ever say yes to your requests. They have every reason to deny you in they want. All of this creates a situation where students are eagerly trying to please many different people with vastly different personalities. This problem doesn’t exist (for the most part) in undergraduate school, because the student-teacher relationship stops with your course grade. Most students don’t want anything else from their teacher other than a final grade.
In the doctoral program, students quickly find out that the personalities of their teachers run a very wide spectrum and that there is little oversight to standardize operations. Some teachers, for example, are very particular about the weekly reading assignments. They expect their students to read extremely closely, and they devote class time to going through each chapter of the book in order and discussing the specific paragraphs and lines they happened to like. Other teachers do not expect you to read closely at all. In fact, they never even open the book during class discussion. They refer to the book’s contents only vaguely and talk mostly about its context in the scholarship and in today’s society.
The reality is that every time students enter a new classroom, they are faced with the task of reading the instructor and getting an understanding of what kind of professor he or she is. Some professors grade very closely, and they will offer you paragraphs of comments in response to your work. Others will write small check marks in the margins of your papers and nothing else. And some teachers do not even read your assignments, no matter how hard you worked on them. There were a few papers that I wrote throughout the year that I never received back. To mention just a few more ways that classes can vary, two professors might ask you to lead class discussion but that could mean two completely different things depending on who is asking. Sometimes students prepared questions for class discussion and the teacher never allowed them to discuss those questions. Other times teachers held students pretty closely to what they had written. Lastly, classes can vary by the amount of participation that a teacher is willing to take in the discussion, or the ability to which they feel they must control the conversation. Some teachers allow students to discuss among themselves with little interference. Others get involved in heated discussions as if they are one of the students themselves. And still others are micro-managers, and they feel the need to respond after every comment offered by a student.
Overall, each class in graduate school is something like a teacher’s feudal kingdom. There is little oversight and the teacher knows that they hold most of the power in the situation. They are going to run their classroom the way that they want–taking as much or as little interest in it as they please–and no one is going to oversee them. They will grade papers if they want, they will read the books they assign if they want, they will ignore a request to discuss something if they want, and they will change the syllabus during the class if they want. While I am sure this arrangement does not bother many students, and that many students probably even like it this way, it often gives me anxiety. I never really know what to expect from a classroom because each teacher seems to operate on personal standards. At the same time, I feel like the only way to succeed in graduate school is to make teachers like you, and this often encourages obsequiousness and mimicry while stifling creativity.
One of the biggest variables I observed in the classroom is the degree to which a teacher is willing to address controversial subjects and accept opposing viewpoints. Personally, I believe strongly in at least two principles of higher education: 1) that one of the points of being in the classroom is to have your opinions and your believes challenged and 2) no one should be held or judged according to the views they express in the classroom. Everyone should have the freedom to experiment with any kind of argument that they want in the classroom setting. This is what I mean when I talk about a “safe space.” A “safe space” needs to be place that is safe for students to experiment with new lines of reasoning and controversial arguments without feeling like they are being judged or that they are held to those ideas thereafter. Throughout the course of my first year in graduate student, I saw that teachers (as well as students) ran the gamete on this point as well. Some of them will allow controversial arguments to develop and will even encourage them. Others have a tendency to jump into the conversation whenever they feel like that it threatens the way they interpret the subject. In a sense, some people want to protect students from being critiqued. They seem to believe that a “safe space” is a place where no one is challenged.
All that being said, the hardest thing about graduate school is navigating the personalities in the department. It means coming to an understanding that what one teacher says they want is not always what they actually want, or that what they are saying is often subtle or implied rather than direct. The reason that this arrangement can create anxiety is that the graduate program is very rigid and linear in its expectations. There are many tidy boxes that need to be checked each year in order to stay on track for completion of your degree and advance to the next year. Students like myself want to know that they will be able to plan their graduate career, and they cannot plan with confidence unless they understand all of the personalities at play. I, for one, am an obsessive planner. My plan for graduation has already changed often throughout the first year. This has generally happened when it became apparent that a professor or administrator had a quite different plan for me than I had for myself. I could not predict their plans simply by reading the handbook.
Now that this blog post has become a quite proper rant, I should probably end on a positive note. Many students more senior than myself–as well as many teachers–gave me advice throughout the school year. Most of them assured me that the first year is the hardest. It is the hardest because students are thrown into a brand new environment and they feel an enormous pressure to prove themselves. They are desperate to make an impression and anxious to hear the ground running; however, yet are stuck in this awkward phase where they are de-prioritized relative to other students and slowed by mandatory requirements.
In the first year, many advisers and teachers are busy working closely with their second and third-year students. Also, students in their first year can be a little depressed that they are taking general courses rather than working on the specific subjects they applied to the school to work on. Similarly, those students who prefer working with primary-source material may be upset to find out that there is no almost no original research done in the first year. The focus is placed almost entirely upon secondary-source material and historiography, often for sub-fields that they care little about. Nonetheless, as I have been told, things get much better in the second year. Students start working more closely with their advisers, and they take courses almost exclusively in the particular subjects that they love–the subjects that inspired them to apply to the program in the first place. After the first year, many of the most-arbitrary requirements have gone away, and students are now free to begin mastering their particular field and conducting original, primary-source research that will eventually set the groundwork for their career as a scholar.
Finally, by the end of the first year, many of those initial pressures about proving oneself have also gone away. There student has earned the reassurance that, whatever happens in the second and third years, he or she will not be kicked out of the program or told they do not belong there. It is for all of these reasons that I could not be more excited to put this first year of the program behind me and start looking forward to the second.