Category Archives: Advice

Graduate School Problems: The Impossible Reading Load

I’m often baffled by the quantity of reading assigned for many of my classes. I’m used to it after attending a rigorous high school and then a big research university for undergrad, but the standard seems to be to assign more reading than reasonably achievable for class each week. And by “achievable” I mean reading for full understanding – as in you could sit down and critique/wield the writer’s argument in a research paper.

I fluctuate between the belief that the other English graduate students are super-human readers who can devour written content at unthinkable rates and the more realistic notion that no one actually does the assigned reading in its entirety. For example, last week I was expected to read about 700-800 pages. This was an especially heavy load page-wise, but at least it didn’t involve the Middle English dialect of the Pearl poet, or the philosophy of Hegel, Kant, and Kierkegaard (previous weeks’ readings). So, here’s my confession: I didn’t read it all – not even close.

What I do is read with a “research lens.” Yes, for all you literary purists out there, this is significantly different than if I were to read for enjoyment or even full understanding. First, I hedge my bets on which pieces the professor is going to want to focus on class. More often than not, many of the secondary articles were assigned to give some historical background or some other tidbit of criticism that will not be central to the class discussion. Therefore, it’s important to know the take-away of each article, but not necessarily the subtleties of the all the references, dates, historical facts, etc. the article might mention.

You might ask – as I often have myself – why would the professor assign articles that she does not deem important enough to thoroughly parse out in class? The answers I have theorized are 1. the professor actually is a superhuman reading robot who underestimates her students’ abilities to read and discuss efficiently in the time allotted or 2. many of the secondary articles assigned are there to give the students a sense of the criticism out there on the topic, and to have a reference point to look back at if they decide to write a research paper on that text.

Theory is a little trickier. Some of it is so esoteric that you will probably not understand all its nuances the first time you read it. However, often the theory will be a focus of the class discussion, and the professor will expect you to be able to apply it to the text during discussion. So, when dealing with theory I usually take this approach:

1. Read any headings/subtitles. These help to situate your reading and keep you on track if there are any weird digressions.
2. If there are any identifiable introductions/conclusions, read those.
3. Then, I skim for passages in which the theorist takes a step back from examples and structuring his or her argument and attempts to summarize his/her position.

This I hope will at least give me a sense of what is going on in the theory and will help me know what to ask when the professor (usually) begins class by asking whether there were any questions about the theory or parts you struggled with.

Near the end of the semester, I am often working on papers concurrently with my readings for class. This means two things: 1. I already know what I am writing about for my semester projects and 2. my time is even more limited. When this happens, I usually have to resort to skimming primary texts and even quicker skimming on the secondary articles. Is this the trademark of a lazy student? Possibly. But I like to think it’s also the trademark of a student that puts an emphasis on research – which may pay off in the long run.

In the end, I am always prioritizing research. If I think any article or a primary text fits into my research interests, I read it all the more carefully. The rest of the game is keeping a mental (and perhaps a written) inventory on which readings have been suggested by the professor and what was discussed about them in class. That way, if I end up writing on a particular text, I can go back and read those articles and notes in more depth. Not doing all the readings in a given week also allows me more time to work on my semester projects – especially since it is easy to get bogged down in day-to-day work and forget about final papers until late in the game.

So, I think it is safe to say that regardless of what program you are in you will likely be assigned an insane amount of reading and will likely feel like you are reading at a slower pace than your fellow students. I try to keep out of the slog of feeling stressed and overworked by always reading with the lens of my research interests and, most importantly, prioritizing my readings based on relevance.

Choosing Graduate School Programs

When it comes to choosing graduate program, I like to believe there are three important categories to consider.


While there is no foolproof way of boiling down the multitude of factors that go into choosing a graduate program into a science, if a school fails in any one of the above categories, chances are it is not worth applying to.

First, let’s have “the talk” about FIT. When I first came up with a list of graduate programs, I’ll admit I didn’t have a clear idea of how to approach the idea of program fit.  If you haven’t had the talk, then someone needs to sit you down fast and explain that getting into a funded PhD program is not like getting into your undergraduate institution. You can have a 4.0 college GPA, graduate with honors and a 90th percentile and still not get into a program if the admissions committee does not see your interests as a proper fit for your program. Getting into a funded PhD program is subjective, like getting a scholarship. Even if you have top credentials, there’s no doubt that fit is one of the most important things to consider when considering graduate programs.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get down to the reality about fit. The tricky thing about program fit is that it is not always something that you can riddle out at the time you are applying. You could find a school that, based on your internet research, is the perfect fit for you, but unbeknownst to you the faculty member you are interested in working with is looking to leave the university to pursue another position. You could also be entirely convinced that you are going to write your dissertation on [very specific and scholarly subject] and think it is only worthwhile to apply to a short list of programs that you believe are your “perfect academic fit.” In reality, you don’t know your interests quite as well as you thought you did and you just missed out on the opportunity to increase your odds by applying to a broader range of programs in your field.

Ultimately, you are not the arbitrator of “fit.” The admissions committees are – and you cannot always predict what they are thinking to a degree of accuracy. Here’s what you CAN do:

– If you can, get in contact with faculty and graduate students. Worst case scenario, they do not respond or give you a lukewarm response. Best case scenario, they can give you a better idea if you would like the atmosphere at the school and whether your faculty member of interest is taking on new students.

– Realize that your personal statement and writing sample are not meant to pigeonhole you into a narrow topic within your concentration, but rather to serve as an exercise in your ability to articulate a set of interests appropriate to study at the graduate level and execute that type of thinking in an academic writing sample.

– Use internet research to make broad assumptions, but not very specific ones. For examples, if you are interested in American literature and a school has very few Americanists, chances are it’s not the best fit for you. On the other hand, I wouldn’t try and read the minds of the admissions committees and then figuratively put all your of your eggs in the basket of a few schools.

Next, you have to consider FUNDING. There’s a sheet in which people report their funding offers from various school on The Grad Cafe, but I can’t find it right now. However, it’s important to consider before you go spending the money on applications: how much money are you will to spend (or go into debt) for your degree? If you don’t get into a PhD program, are you willing to pay for an MA? Does the school offer competitive funding packages that are reasonable for the cost of living? If you are an international student, it is even more important to look into what funding is available for international students. It’s also possible that applying to more schools that that offer good funding package could put you in a position to barter for more funding if yo get into more than one program. Even if you get accepted to your top program, you won’t have any room to ask for more money if you get no other offers with higher funding packages.

Finally, there is FEASIBILITY. Feasibility is twofold: can you reasonably get accepted to this school? and if you were accepted, would you be willing to live and study there for the duration of the program? If you have a B- GPA and a 65th percentile GRE score, rejections aren’t guaranteed, but it might be advisable to seriously consider whether spending the money and time on applications is a worthwhile endeavor. If you would be unhappy moving to the location of the school, maybe that $100 application fee would be better spent elsewhere. If you have a spouse or family to consider, take their opinions into consideration if the relationships are important to you. Applying to “top programs” that really aren’t feasible is a waste of your time and money. You wouldn’t apply to a job that comes with a 5-7 year contract at a place where you would not want to live, won’t offer you enough money, and doesn’t fit your credentials. Consider the same with graduate schools!

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.

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!

Advice from a Writing Consultant: How to Write a Personal Statement

I worked at the Writer’s Workshop at my undergraduate institution, and we saw a LOT of personal statements for everything from scholarships to job applications. The personal statement, although intended to be a chance to express yourself through writing, is actually a very a formulaic piece of writing.  Although there are a few instances where an admissions committee might be interested in a creative statement (for example, the undergraduate essay prompts from the University of Chicago), most personal statements are merely exercises in which an applicant demonstrates that he or she knows what the admissions committee is looking for.

One of the biggest pitfalls of the personal statement is that students think they know what an admissions committee wants to hear, but they really waste precious space discussing things that won’t earn them an acceptance.

Here is some general advice on what to include (and what not to include) in your personal statement:

1. You do not need a “hook” like you may have been taught in middle school. No quotations, no “I loved to read since childhood.”

2. The only exception to the “no personal stories” rule is if you have a specific instance of something that got you interested in your field of concentration (i.e. after reading X piece of theory, I began to think about Y, which lead to the topic of my undergrad thesis etc.)

3. If you mention something on your CV, your personal statement must answer a question that is not evident just by reading the CV. Your CV gives the AdCom a laundry list of your experience, publications, relevant course work etc, but it requires the AdCom to interpret why a particular experience is important. For example, your CV says “taught Writing 101,” your personal statement should say “Writing 101 prepared me to balance teaching with my graduate studies by…”

4. The hardest part: finding a balance between being too specific and too broad. Use your research experience and interests as examples of the type of work you can do, not as the only topic you love and want to research, or are capable of researching.

5. As much as you may think that blaming your undergraduate institution for not handling your transfer credits as you hoped might help compensate for a less-than-stellar GPA, expressing any negativity is one of the worst things you can do. I once had a student come to me with an application for an education program in which she spent most of her statement berating the institutions she attended and their educational systems. Every institution has its organizational issues. These are things you challenge after you’re in, not when you are vying for one of just a few spots in the club.

6. Answer the question that is on their minds directly: are you a good fit for this program? You can talk about how special you are until you are blue in the face, but the reality is what one AdCom member finds relevant and interesting may not impress the next. But program fit is the question they are all trying to answer. If you can answer that effectively enough to convince them and you have the grades and letters of rec to back up your claims, you may have just earned yourself an acceptance.

Further Reading:

I can’t post this article because the link I have to it is through my student subscription, but if you can access it, check out “The statement of purpose in graduate program applications: Genre structure and disciplinary variation” Samraj & Monk, 2008. They bring up a very interesting point – that the success of specific content strategies in personal statements is a “semi-occluded” genre (i.e. there is little to no numerical data, and most of it is confidential). It is worth a read if only for the testimonies of Admission Committee members, since these serve as a good reminder of your audience.

How to Succeed as a PhD Student: Wisdom from the DGS

I had graduate school orientation yesterday (can’t believe I’m finally here!), during which the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) for the English Department gave us some advice that was altogether sobering, practical, and inspirational.  I’m pleased to say I was very happy with how cooperative and friendly everyone in the department seemed; I couldn’t have asked for a better fit in that respect. Here is some of the things I’ve “learned” from my initial days in my PhD program.

The expected advice (that it may behoove you to hear if you are applying for graduate school):

The availability of tenure-track jobs crashed during the recession and is yet to fully rebound. They showed us the statistics. Hiring reached a high point in 2008 with a steep plummet the following year. Since then, the job market has been creeping back up, but is no where near where it was pre-2008. Right now, only about 1/3 of people with a graduating with a PhD are able to find a tenure-track job the year after they graduate. I imagine this was especially dire news for those graduating in 2009, who entered their programs thinking that they would likely get a job as a tenured professor. It should be no surprise to anyone that there is a lot of negativity about the academic job market these days, just take a lot on the internet and you’ll find TONS of embittered bloggers and writers. The good news: it is on the upward trend now. And when you look at statistics based on percentage of recent grads who get tenure track jobs, having an article already published greatly increases your changes of being one of the ones who gets a tenure track job. This reinforces the point that in order to get a good academic job, you need to get your degree from a research institution with an influential department, because this is the type of school that will have the connections and resources to get you published.

Avoid graduate drift. It’s no secret that the retention rate for graduate students is far from 100%.  Getting your PhD is truly a marathon, not a sprint. My fear in applying for and attending some of the programs with more cutthroat reputations – where students are cut or have to compete among each other even after they are admitted into the program – was that it would inspire a sort of “sprint” atmosphere that would cause students to burn out early on in the program. Our DGS admitted that at her graduate institution, they cut half the class after the first year! Students would actually horde library books to keep them from other students in the program. Luckily, not the case here. They are actively trying to help students avoid that slump in the first place. The hard truth though? There’s no point in staying if you have done some soul searching and no longer want to be a graduate student – then it’s in the best interests of both the student and the program that you pick yourself up and move on.

Stay visible and don’t sequester yourself. I’m not in the introverted/loner camp, even though that is the stereotype of graduate students, but it is still good advice and something I’ve heard repeated over an over again. Just like most people need a life outside of their 9-5 job to be happy, graduate students need a life outside of graduate school. It’s best to take the approach that graduate school is your job, and teaching, writing, and taking classes is the work that you do. When work becomes your life, every inevitable failure, every criticism, and every unmet goal is a life crisis. Knowing you have friends and other reasons you are a valuable person with a fulfilling life is essential to staying afloat in graduate school.

The unexpected advice (stuff that I wasn’t necessarily expecting):

Don’t pour all your time into teaching. Most graduate students pay for their degrees by also teaching undergraduate classes. I’ve heard the criticism of both professors and graduate student instructors that they care more about their own research than their students. Unfortunately, that is the truth of successful academics. Our DGS warned us that it is easy to get carried away with teaching – perfecting PowerPoints and pouring tons of time and energy into making sure everything is perfect for class. However, she came out and said that successful graduate students prioritize their research above teaching. Those are the ones that get ahead and eventually get the jobs. She also said that if teaching is what you really love, you would be far better off leaving with your MA and teaching at a private school or community college. Graduate studies at a research university is about just that: research.

Curb your enthusiasm (but not too much). The “creative type” are often particular likely to get big ideas and bite off more than they can chew (I have been guilty of this from time to time). We have been advised not to get ahead of ourselves. Getting some big, outlandish idea has lead to many graduate students mulling over their dissertation for years beyond the expected time frame as they try to ponder out these ideas and synthesize them. In order to prevent this, our DGS recommended always seeking the advise of peers and advisors before embarking on some wild goose chase.

Get work published, but not too many of your dissertation chapters. Publications prior to graduating with the PhD definitely put people ahead in this filed (the statistics don’t lie), however, those who publish too many of their dissertation chapters often find trouble finding a university that is willing to publish the work as a whole. The lesson: always be thinking of how you can get papers written for seminars published, attend conferences, and don’t waste opportunities!

What is the difference between applying to MA and PhD programs?

This is a good question to ask yourself before you look into programs. Some programs offer direct-entry to the PhD program; this does not mean you will not have to complete the equivalent coursework of a master’s degree, but given satisfactory completion of master’s work, you’ll be allowed to progress to the PhD level with that department.

If you have a bachelor’s degree and you are deciding whether to apply to MA programs or directly to PhD programs, here are a few important things to consider:

  • Most PhD programs offer funding along with acceptance; this is not true of most MA programs.
  • Acceptance is more competitive for PhD programs. It is more comparable to the competition to get a scholarship than it is to admissions for undergraduate programs.
  • MA programs usually take 1-2 years to complete. PhD programs usually require 5-7 years past undergraduate (but actually completing the dissertation can take even longer than this statistic suggests).
  • Just because a school offers you acceptance to their MA program does not mean that you will have an “in” to progress to the PhD. In fact, many competitive schools do not feed their PhD programs from their own terminal MA programs.
  • If you are applying directly to the PhD with a BA, it is important to look carefully into each school’s directions for the application. Some will want to you choose the MA program on the application, but then indicate your intention to continue through the PhD in your personal statement. Others will have a specific option for direct-entry to the PhD.
  • Some schools will still consider you for their MA programs even if you don’t get into the PhD directly. While this can be a fall back, if you are not confident that you are qualified for the PhD program, there is no guarantee that your application will get referred to the MA program unless you apply for it.
  • While MA programs (in general) improve your pay scale and your qualifications for jobs, a PhD can actually over-qualify you for many jobs. Earning more money and/or improving your qualifications for any job that does not specifically require a PhD are not good reasons to apply to PhD programs.
  • Unless you eventually hope to get into a top-tier PhD program with your MA, where your degree came from matters more with the PhD than is does with the MA. If you’re a high school teacher and you go back to get an Masters in Education, in the end, the degree matters more than where it came from. This is unfortunately not the case with PhD programs; it is generally not worthwhile to pursue a PhD from a program that does not have the resources available for you to do research in your specific field and has limited success in finding tenure-track jobs for its recent graduates.

More than anything, I wish someone would have stressed this point to me before I applied. I mentioned before that the competitiveness of top PhD program is akin to the competition for a scholarship. You can imagine when you are applying to a prestigious scholarship, there may be many applicants who are qualified to receive the scholarship, but the selection committee only has so much money to offer to the applicants. Once the applicant pool has been whittled down to its most competitive applicants, it is the subjective process of judging personal statements and/or samples of the students’ work that ultimately determines who gets the scholarship. Admissions to a PhD program is exactly this: there are too many qualified applicants and not enough funding to go around. Therefore, “fit” is everything when it comes to getting accepted to a PhD program – not necessarily your GPA or GRE scores.

When I first sent one of my recommenders a list of the schools I was applying to, he sent me back an email commenting on how my list didn’t have any “back up schools.” At first I was offended – if he was writing my letters of recommendation, did he really think I didn’t have a chance at getting into any of the “top” programs? However, he ended up being completely right. Admissions to those programs was far more competitive than I originally thought, and getting into an MA program helped me keep my sanity knowing I still had the option to go to graduate school if I didn’t get into any PhD programs.




10 Things to do before you ask for Letters of Recommendation

photo credit: photo

While these can definitely make or break your application, most people won’t rank them high on their application to-do list because preparations for your letters of recommendation start far before you pop the question to a potential recommender. Asking for letters of recommendation is the final step in a long process of networking.

The best recommendations will come from professors who know you and who truly support you in your higher-education quest, so while you want them to know you and your interests, it is also to your advantage to get to know them. Are they willing to take the time to give you thoughtful advice? Do they share your interests? What testimony could they offer of your academic ability?

Here are 10 things to do before you ask professors for a recommendations. Incidentally, these also won’t hurt your performance in class, either!

1. Go to their office hours.
2. Stay engaged in their class and make an effort to never be absent.
3. Ask their advice on how to improve your papers even if you are confident you’ll get an A.
4. Make sure you receive feedback from them beyond a letter grade, especially if it is not an advanced class.
5. Involve them in your decision process from “I’m thinking about it” stage to the “I’m ready to apply” stage.
6. Read something written by your professors. If appropriate, ask them about it.
7. Don’t dodge the question: “Do you think graduate school is right for me?” – ask it outright and be willing to accept the answer.
8. Try to get a research position with them or work with them more closely in an independent study.
9. Seek advice on which programs to apply to – and people they know in the field who you might want to work with.
10. Here’s an obvious but important one: always put a good face forward. Complaining about a grade or constantly asking for extensions are things you want to avoid at all costs.

Some of these may seem obvious, but you would be surprised to hear some of the wacky stories people tell about asking for recommendations. I knew someone who once asked a professor who had accused her of academic dishonesty for a recommendation. Really, what? Even if you have stellar grades, that does not mean that you made strong connections with professors. In the end, GPA alone is not enough to get you into graduate school if you have lackluster recommendations.

At best, your recommenders will push for you to get into certain schools where they know the faculty (I honestly believe this helped me get in to my program).

The GRE Verbal Vocabulary: Just Memorize It

memorize_wordsOne of my great frustrations with the Verbal GRE was that there is really no way to truly do well on the vocabulary section without buckling down and memorizing those words.

Vocabulary has always been one of my strengths in both writing and orating. Not only do I read constantly just by virtue of being a literature major, but one of my concentrations in my undergraduate degree was the study and translation of ancient languages. The study of Latin and Old English as well as word etymology generally allows me to figure out the meaning of most English words in context. If I don’t know the meaning of a new word, I make an effort to look it up. I knew I was going to be rusty on the math, but my repeated failure on the vocabulary section of the practice tests baffled and frustrated me.

The reason I did not do as well on the vocabulary section as I had hoped was because the GRE likes to throw out “red-herrings” for people who know the roots of words. For example, if you know “pedantic” has some relation to teaching, but are not aware that this word has a negative connotation, this will hurt you more than help you. The GRE will purposefully tip you off that the correct word will have some relation to teaching, but pedantic will not be the correct answer because it is “the quality of being excessively concerned with minor details and with displaying academic learning” and context deems the word must be a positive quality. The GRE rendered my knowledge of word etymology practically useless.

Moreover, the GRE does not like to use words that you might be acquainted with from reading scholarship or literature, or else they will pick a definition of a more common word you might be less familiar with. The moral of my story is that unless you are a dictionary-memorizing word whiz, a working knowledge of vocabulary will not help you get top scores on the GRE.

Once I deigned to get out the flashcards and start memorizing, I saw immediate improvement on the vocabulary sections. In fact, more often than not I would get perfect scores on the vocabulary parts of the practice tests. Become acquainted with the way that works best for you to memorize. I’m a visual learner with a photographic memory, so I would write the words alongside their definitions in as close proximity as I can. Flashcards were useless to me because it is harder for me to link the words with their definitions in my mind since I couldn’t pair the words visually with their definitions. However, a lot of people find flashcards effective in memorizing mass amounts of words.

A daily routine of memorizing words is the easiest way to do well on the Verbal GRE. Don’t rest on your laurels and assume a good working vocabulary is enough to succeed on the GRE. Set down that Charles Dickens novel you’ve been reading to build your vocabulary and pick up the flashcards.

20/20 Hindsight: What I would have done differently on my applications

They say hindsight is 20/20, but if we could go back and do it all again, would it really turn out perfectly?

road_not_takenAs far as graduate school applications go, it’s perfectly normal to go through multiple rounds of applications before getting into the right school (I just made that sound like dating, but it is kind of a learn-from experience deal). Seniors in high school go into the undergraduate application season armed with their GPA, ACT/SAT scores, and not much else other than a resume of extracurriculars. For graduate school, you truly have to sell yourself on paper. Your statement of purpose could make all the difference in whether you get that acceptance letter – and that leaves a lot of room for improvement on a second go-round.

I will not be participating in the 2014 application season, but looking back I could have made some improvements on my applications. All is well that ends well, but if you are applying this year here are some things I wish I would have known in hindsight.

Things I would have done differently:

  • Done more to research my own fit for a program before I went ahead and applied.  I could have, in some cases, narrowed down my list and in others, broadened it.
  • Contacted persons of interest from the schools I was most interested in before I applied. I didn’t even know this was an option at the time. If the only faculty member who shares your interests isn’t taking on any new students, you have your answer about whether the school would be a good fit. Best case scenario, they are excited to work with you and even push for you during application season.
  • My statements of purpose(s) were in some ways too narrowly focused on a concentration within my discipline. I thought this might be an asset, but it may have closed some doors to me that may have been open to someone more versatile.
  • Finally, I would have looked more into funding opportunities at schools. I’m pleased with the PhD program I will be attending in a month and feel it is an excellent fit, but I can’t help but feel I could have had leverage to ask for a better funding offer if I would have gotten even better funding from other schools.

Things I would not have done differently:

  • Studied more for the Subject GRE. I didn’t crack open a single practice book or read about test strategies and my score was crap. However, less than half my schools required it and the one that gave me the best offer did require it. So go figure.
  • Apply to a “back-up” MA program. Not realizing how competitive the admissions process actually is, I resisted applying to a program that 1) was not in the top 20 and 2) was not direct-entry to the PhD.  I ended up applying and was really glad to have it as an option in the end cause it was a close call with the PhD programs.
  • forkDoing whatever it took to come up with the best writing sample. In the two weeks leading up to my first application deadline I sent my writing sample to a professor for him to read it over. I was expecting a few offhand comments, but he ended up sending me back pages of written advice and working with me on multiple new drafts. It took a lot of time and stress, but his help probably got me into the program I’m currently attending.
  • Make a spreadsheet to organize all my applications. Boy, did things get confusing in the end and I had multiple panic attacks that I had forgotten to send my transcripts. Referring back to my spreadsheet calmed me – and probably saved me from making some more dire mistakes.

If you are a graduate student, what would you have done differently on your applications and do you think the outcome would have been if you had the chance to improve your applications? If you are applying again, how much is “hindsight knowledge” will be an asset in a second round of applications? I’d love to hear other responses.