Monthly Archives: September 2013

Tips on Writing a Thesis or a Writing Sample

Writing a sample for graduate admissions or thesis can be a daunting task and much of what you do learn, you figure out in hindsight.  At what point do you graduate from writing a “good paper for your grade level” to the expectation that you will contribute something insightful and original to your field? Moreover, when do you stop writing to the preferences of one particular professor and start writing for an admissions committee, a conference session, a publication?

These questions are not easy to answer and part of the experience is figuring it out as you move forward. However, submitting a paper for graduate admissions or your department’s honors committee makes the stakes pretty high the first time around. Although things worked out in the sense that I got into a good English PhD program and have Distinction on my diploma, the process has humbled me with the realization of all the things I could have done better – and that others did do better than I did.

Here are a few nuggets of advice that I learned from writing a writing sample and honors thesis.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

A subject of inquiry that is too general starts as an open door for research and quickly turns into a thesis tidal wave that knocks you off your feet. Unless you are a leading scholar in the field, chances are that your knowledge of existing scholarship is not sufficient to tackle a big, philosophical question that has stumped your field for decades. Even if you are a brilliant super-genius prodigy, you still have to consider what you will have time accomplish AND what you can make a case for in the page limited allotted.  More likely, you would end up 1) with a “middle ground” thesis that is more contemplative than a direct, focused claim or 2) leave wide gaps in your research and your rationale. Think small scale, think specific, and think achievable based on time constraints.

Avoid the dreaded “compare/contrast” thesis.

I like to think my attraction to this type of paper was borne out of being compelled to pull multiple texts into one paper for literature survey courses just because they were written in the same time period. One thing that I really never realized until graduate school is that it’s hard to move beyond “useful observations” and into real criticism when you structure papers this way. Not only do you have to give a convincing context for comparing multiple primary texts, but you also have to come up with a more substantial claim than “hey look, I noticed this historical pattern.” Again, does the scope of your research really encompass enough to make that claim? Stay away from this by coming up with a specific argument that you can illustrate clearly – and choose texts based on their relevance to your argument, not because they might have once been a good combination for a survey course paper.

Peer review is your friend.

I’ve fallen prey to this logic many times: advice from your advisor is superior to that of your peers because your advisor > your peers. Well, for one, your advisor may be more a experienced researcher, but that does not mean her opinion is the only one that matters. Professors get busy during the semester and while many of them genuinely want to help their students, sometimes they do not have as much time to put into critiquing your work as you would hope. There are two very good reasons why you should peer review. 1) Getting a second opinion can never hurt, but too often writers tend to accept the advice of their academic superiors without question. Peer review allows for a more open discussion and equal exchange of ideas.  2) Reading your peer’s work offers perspective on your own. What are you doing less effectively than your peer? What are you doing more effectively? Answering these questions will help you as much as it will help your friend.

Ask critical questions.

Your advisor could give you anything from super-detailed criticism to general words of wisdom. To get the most out of working with your advisor, you have to come to meetings with her prepared. Comb your paper with a critical lens and come up with some direct and specific questions to ask. Stay away from, “is this section good?” or “do I need to revise my this part?”. Instead, come up with questions like, “I’m concerned that my reading of X doesn’t fit with my later interpretation of Y, do you think that point is effective?”. You are more likely to have a productive conversation with your advisor if you come in prepared.

Don’t become too attached to your writing at the expense of expanding your ideas.

Maybe it’s just me, but as soon as I’ve put the effort into writing a full paragraph or section out in complete, well-phrased sentences, I get lazy when it comes to revising them. And I don’t mean checking spelling and grammar – I mean revising at the structural and analytical levels. This can lead to what I call “Frankenpaper:” a paper that includes patches and fragments of writing and ideas that were part of an earlier draft but don’t flow with later, more developed ideas. The best way to avoid “Frankenpaper” from the start is to free-write by hand or make a detailed outline to get your ideas out before you starting actually parsing out a full draft. You’ll be more likely to amend your writing if it isn’t all typed up in neat little paragraphs. If you get a brilliant idea after you’ve done the bulk of your writing, don’t hesitate to annex entire paragraphs and sections and rewrite them. Rewriting is never as difficult as it seems and it may even save you time in the long run struggling to make a paragraph work that, in the end, just doesn’t fit.

My New Graduate School Roommate

So, in my post “To Live Alone or with Roommates?” I expounded on the new-found joys of living alone. You can clean, cook, shower, and sleep on your own time with no one to distract you or inconvenience you. After three weeks of living alone in my one bedroom apartment, I’m already looking into finding roommates for next year. It’s not just the fact that sharing a space can lower costs by over $100 easily. It’s that living along can be, well, lonely.

I currently have a bipolar relationship with living alone now. Sometimes, I’m loving leaving my painting supplies out and knowing that I am the sole arbitrator of the air conditioning/heat temperature. The next I’m desperate for some interaction with anyone or anything.

I’ve made an effort to schedule the occasional study date with a friend or to invite people over for wine nights or accept invitations to meet out for a drink. Yet I miss the laid back interactions of having roommates. I miss having someone to talk to without having to call them on the phone or drive/walk across town. So, while I’m going to enjoy whatever benefit there are of living alone for the rest of the year, I’m definitely looking for roommates for next year.

This is also why I made the big decision to get a pet to cohabit my one-bedroom apartment with me. A lot of thought went into this, but it was still a difficult decision. My roommates and I had an adorable panda bear hamster last year in our apartment and even though he was small, nocturnal, and not very cognizant of himself as a social being, I loved having him around.

This time around I had a strict criteria for what I was looking for in a pet and I had a good idea of what would or wouldn’t work:

A favorable work to rewards ratio.
By “work” I mean the amount of effort, training, and cleaning the pet requires, and by “rewards” I mean how social, loving, and friendly the pet is. A dog for example requires a lot of training, attention, and effort, but once the work is accomplished a dog is one of the most (if not the most) attentive, loyal, and rewarding pets. Conversely, a fish requires little to no work, but also provides little in the way of rewards. Both a good and a fish would have a good work to reward ratio, however, because both animals give as much as you put into them.

In my opinion, most exotic pets have an unfavorable work to rewards ratio. Your boa constrictor might require a ton of space, a lot of money, and gruesome live feeding requirements, but that animal will never love you and appreciate you like a dog or a cat. Some people get a lot out of the act of caring for animals like this – if you do, good for you. But I wanted an animal that was social and pretty well-domesticated.

There are certain types of animals that know when you are sad and purposefully try to comfort you. They respond to you coming in the door and, given the choice, they would run to you rather than away from you. While I liked to hold our little hamster last year, I had no delusions that the animal was cognizant of my presence and preferred being out to being in his cage running on his wheel. I could get another pet just to be a little source of responsibility and enjoyment, but that type of pet wouldn’t fill the void that being alone all the time creates.

Not particularly noisy.
I am easily annoyed by repetitive noises that I cannot turn off. I don’t mind the occasionally woof, meow, or other noise, but I’ve learned that I have a low threshold of patience with little dogs that yap at every sound or birds that squawk incessantly.

Appropriate for my living conditions.
Unfortunately, this one ruled out a dog. Not only does my apartment not allow dogs, but even if I could find a place that allowed dogs, I would be seriously limited as far as future rental places are concerned. Plus, a large to medium sized dog would probably not be happy in a one bedroom apartment with no yard. So even though I’ve been a “dog person” all my life, I felt a dog was better saved for when I get my first house.

This also meant that the pet could move with me into another living condition with roommates. The landlord would have to allow it, but also my future roommates would have to be willing to live with it.

The Verdict:
I decided to get a cat from the local shelter. Now, this flew in the face of years of dog-loving, but I’d seen and interacted with friends’ cats and found that they could be loving and social creatures as well. And frankly – a cat’s reputation to be more independent and aloof is not a bad thing when it comes to fitting into the graduate school lifestyle. I have a bit of an irregular schedule, which might mess with a dog’s feeding times or being able to establish a routine.

So far, my kitty has been getting along wonderfully in my apartment. I had to do a bit of problem solving on issues like where to place the litter box in a one-bedroom apartment, but so far the challenges have not been insurmountable and the rewards have been great! (More on this to come later…)

5 Ways to Relieve Stress in Graduate School

So, I’ve talked about being overwhelmed in graduate school and feeling stressed, but not exactly about how I attempt to cope with it. The problem that graduate students have that those in the working world do not (unless you own your own business) is that the bulk of work is expected to be done outside of typical working hours. Moreover, the nature of the work is that it is never truly done until the deadline has passed. This is not unique to graduate students, as designers, artists, and journalists will know, but it is an element of graduate school that makes the work more stressful.

If you are in graduate school, you were probably always a “good student.” Good students usually experience an existential crises when we find ourselves with more work than can reasonably be accomplished in the time allotted. We are troubled by the irony that doing better actually means not accomplishing all of our work, but rather prioritizing some projects over others.

While these are life skills that need to be learned, graduate students at times still struggle with the second crisis. When to put down the book, when to go to bed… The art of setting work aside is at times more important to success in graduate school than studying that extra hour or adding that extra paragraph on your paper. We have proven we know how to be “good students” simply by virtue of getting into graduate school, but we have not proven we know when to put academic work aside.

It is one thing to say PUT YOUR WORK DOWN. It is another to actually go and do it. However, I truly believe in order be a happy person (and not an frustrated, stressed, unhappy graduate student), you need to learn when to set your work down and come back to it tomorrow.

Here are just a few things that I’ve taken to doing whenever I am super stressed and bogged down with work:

1) Cooking
The best part about cooking as a hobby is that you need to eat anyways. Cooking your own meals can be fun, sometimes challenging, but always rewarding in the sense that you get to eat what you create. It is also less expensive and more healthy than eating out. Before you go to the grocery store, plan your meals and choose some fun and tasty recipes to try. Once you have the food purchased, you’ll be more likely to set aside that paper you’re working on come dinner time and relax while learning a valuable life skill. Even better? Invite friends over for dinner!

2) Exercise.
“Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy, happy people don’t [abandon their graduate studies in a fit of frustration].” It’s true; moderate exercise gives you more energy, keeps your body healthy, and puts you in a good mood. You could go for a run, or if that’s not your cup of tea, you could see what your institution’s student gym has to offer in the way of group classes and equipment. Another reason to be happy: being a graduate student often comes with a free gym membership 🙂

3) Decorative artwork.
I’ve recently become obsessed with decorating my apartment. Now, art has been a talent and hobby of mine for a while, but you do not have to be a good artist to enjoy some DIY crafting projects. Look at Pinterest. There are tons of crafts that are fun and produce awesome decorations for your place. I’ve posted some examples from my apartment to get your juices flowing.






4) Changing locations.
There will be times when unfortunately, you will not have the luxury of taking an extended break from your work. We all try not to get to this point, yet it is an inevitable part of the equation of academic work. These are often the most stressful times: when we feel trapped into a marathon of work with no breaks. If you can’t put down your work even for a quick run or to cook a meal, try moving locations periodically. If you’re getting frustrated in your apartment, try moving to a more public place like a coffee shop, where the buzz of activity around you can help you calm down and realize that yes, life does go on outside of your current research paper. Conversely, if you are in a public spot and you find yourself getting increasingly tired and distracted by that laughing group of freshmen in the corner, trying moving back to your private place of residence where you can put on your most comfortable pair of sweatpants and grab a snack to rejuvenate yourself. The key is not where you study, but the act of switching it up throughout the time you’re working.

5) Make friends outside of graduate school.
Graduate school friends are great for having partners to study with and chances are you’ll have ample opportunity to interact with them in and outside of class. However, any group of people going through a stressful time together (i.e. the final weeks of class) tends to commiserate. I find that having friends who have nothing to do with my graduate studies help me remind me of my long-term goals (not just immediate goals) and provide helpful distractions from the world of graduate studies. They can be friends from college you can call or Skype with – or new friends in town that you meet through a swing dancing club or a volunteer group. However you see fit – make these friends and make an effort to stay in touch with them!

Feeling Overwhelmed in Graduate School

I’m writing this post because I have had 2 weeks of graduate school (one week of registration/orientation and one week of class) and this is the first time I am feeling truly overwhelmed. I went to my family’s lake house for Labor Day weekend to relax and enjoy some time with my family and my boyfriend, and am now en route back to school. The drive is only partly done (I’ve made a pit stop), but in all it should amount to over 6 hours of driving.

I knew which readings I had to do for class based on our syllabi and I made an effort to get these done at various points before I left or during my trip. In total, I had to read one novel, three scholarly articles, one 62 page “theory book” (as I’m going to call it), and a 646 line medieval poem. And that doesn’t count the two articles we were supposed to discuss last week but are really going to discuss this week, so I might have to refresh my memory on what they said. I approached all my readings and – I must admit – understood them to varying degrees. The poem I’ve studied before and know well. The novel was understandable if boring, the “theory book” was comprehensible, but some of the articles pretty much baffled me at first reading.

Now, during my pit stop I happened to check my email – out of habit more so that for any practical reason – and found two emails from professors I received some time during the last couple hours I was driving. They’ve asked us to “prepare questions” on the readings. Ok, so no papers to turn in, but something I arguably should arguably take the time to sit down and prepare – maybe come up with quotations that point to places in the text I want to discuss. Moreover, for some of the more flowery and theoretical texts (this was most of them, actually) the “questions” actually just alerted me to how little I understood the finer points of the theory.

So now I am faced with another 4 hours of driving in which I can think about the fact that I have these “preparations” I probably should put some time and effort into, but I can’t because I’ll be driving. Oh – and there’s a freaking time change. So an hour will be lost in limbo and I have a 9:30am class tomorrow. Also, my computer decided now was a good time to “forget” all of my passwords.

*Cue feelings of despair, desperation, and overwhelmed-ness*

This is a feeling we all experience whether it is when starting a new job or going to a new school for the first time. The company I used to work for had a saying, “Fake it till you Make it” that we used whenever requests from clients started piling in and we did not know where to begin. In the academic world this amounts to taking a step back, realizing that not everyone understands these highly theoretical articles the first time they read them or knows how to approach them, and then doing the best you can.

The first thing I always want to do is blame. My instructors weren’t thinking about the fact that sending an email less than 24 hours before class would screw people over who were working through very busy schedules the night before class. But then again, they were probably enjoying their weekends as well and my situation is probably not the norm.

I know I won’t have time to prepare beautifully crafted answers to these questions and it is a bummer that my instructors sent those emails so late in day because as a first year student I would have liked more time to prepare. I may not even have time to come up with any clear answers at all. However, reviewing the questions and at least thinking about them will prepare me to consider responses from other more seasoned graduate students in my classes when we discuss it.

Take a deep breath, maybe write down some of your frustrations, and fake it ’till you make it. For me, writing is cathartic, but do whatever works for you.