Head Start: Graduate School Years 1-3

Your job in your first few years as a graduate student is to take a thoughtfully selected range of seminars and other courses, write full-length seminar papers, learn the tools of the trade from L’Annee Philologique to Pauly-Wissowa to CIL to the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, read as much Latin, Greek, and secondary scholarship as possible, pass exams, learn at least two modern languages to the level of reading fluency, get some teaching experience, and get to know your department faculty and fellow students.  If you possibly can, take a course or at least attend lectures in another department, where you will meet other types of students and possibly learn a great deal from their work and interests.

Above all, you need to take control of your intellectual and professional formation in an active, assertive mode that is likely (and should be) very different from your undergraduate experience. Depending on the culture of your department, you will not necessarily be given a lot of easily digestible information up front about crucial issues like coursework, exams, advising, publishing, teaching, and so on.  In today’s tough academic job market, when getting a year-long visiting assistant professorship (VAP) right after the PhD is considered cause for celebration, faculty in your department may avoid discussing preparing for life post-PhD for fear of depressing or discouraging students in the early stages of study. (Or, ostrich-like, they may simply prefer not to think about it.)

You must accustom yourself to inquiring about all these things.  The expectation is that you are always on the qui vive to figure out how the program works, what the faculty expect of you, and what new paths may be open to you, intellectually and professionally speaking. This habit will prepare you for your first years after graduate school, especially if you find work as an assistant professor, where you may receive minimal spontaneous feedback about your teaching and research.

Part of taking control in this way means reading everything you can get your hands on.  Follow up footnotes. Read non- canonical Greek and Latin texts. Ask departmental faculty what formative texts they read in graduate school.  Read a bit of coverage of the world of higher education in the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed.  If your university is unionized, read your local chapter’s faculty newsletter.  Read comparatively in Chinese or Hebrew studies or anthropology or economics. Read foundational theoretical texts. Read classical scholarship of an earlier era. Form a reading group if you like. Keep it fun.  Don't force yourself to read Foucault when you'd rather read Bundy’s Studia Pindarica. Just keep reading.

Another key part of taking control, though it may seem counter-intuitive at first, is preparing yourself from the start for a career outside the academy. Statistics about the health of the academic job market in the humanities vary in the details, but the overall message seems to be that at most, roughly half to two thirds of humanities PhDs graduating these days will find employment in teaching and research positions.  The instinct to believe that you will snag one of those increasingly rare tenure track assistant professorships is not a bad one when it arises from confidence in yourself and passion for your work.  But that instinct can be self-destructive if it prevents you from learning and thinking about alternatives.  From your first year in graduate school, you will serve yourself best by cultivating acquaintances outside the academy and by keeping an ear out for how your friends from college or around town are making a living. If your department or graduate school holds events or workshops for doctoral students on careers outside academia, make time to attend.  

When it comes to thinking about careers outside the academy, think about your life goals and follow your curiosities.  If digital humanities floats your boat, explore a free webinar on coding, or apply to a summer “boot camp” that will give you portable skills. Interest in the history of law or gender/sexuality studies, for instance, might prompt you to visit a career fair featuring NGOs. Government and media firms are natural fits for PhDs in the humanities, who are typically very skilled at communicating in writing and in person, and who tend to be motivated by desires for social justice and equity rather than profit alone. Consider what you love about academic life and work from there.  If it’s teaching, focus on professions that allow you to mentor others, design strategic plans, and present complex information to groups. If it’s research, learn more about institutional evaluation, management consulting, grant writing, and so forth.  Ask more advanced students, faculty, or your departmental administrator what recent graduates from the department have gone on to do. Your departmental website should list the jobs acquired by all recent graduates, not just those in academia. If it doesn’t, tactfully inquire why.

By virtue of the jobs they hold, department faculty probably have little or no experience outside the academy, so they are usually not the best advisers.  Also, while this attitude is thankfully dissipating, some faculty express suspicion of students who talk openly about preparing themselves for a non-academic future, asking “Are you really committed to a scholarly life?”and the like.  Depending on how important a faculty member who thinks this way is to you, you may be able safely to work around them and ignore their retrograde, unhelpful views.  But if you sense this attitude among a faculty member who is central to your interests or influential in the department, talk to fellow students you trust to learn more.  If they confirm your fears, consider consulting (in confidence) your graduate school administrators, who are much more likely to hold practical attitudes about the need to prepare for a variety of careers post-PhD, and who should be able to work to change faculty attitudes without revealing your identity. 

Meanwhile, websites like https://versatilephd.com/ offer concrete ideas.  And you will find resources on line, such as:



In Years 1-3, it may help to view your job as 95% focused on your academic preparation, with 5% reserved for keeping your eyes open and your attitude flexible. 

A common frustration in these years is course availability. What happens when you're an historian in a literature-heavy department? Or if you're interested in philosophy in a program that concentrates on literature, and the two faculty who share your interests happen to be chairing the department and away on sabbatical in your first two years?  First, make the most of your seminars. Consult your professors early in the term, explain your interests, and ask them for help in crafting a seminar paper that meets their expectations while furthering your interests too.  Be aware that most faculty don't have skins of iron: they may interpret your comments as critical of them or the class or as dismissive of their fields and interests. Go the extra mile in making it clear that you want to learn what they have to teach; you're not trying to challenge their course design or to find a "work-around" on the material. And keep an open mind. Material that strikes you in the first two weeks of class as alien or boring may prove crucially useful in your first years of teaching, when you're serving as department undergraduate adviser, or at the moment when your dissertation leads you in an unexpected direction. Second, consult with the graduate adviser or a trusted faculty member about pursuing independent study.

It’s never too early to start thinking about what you want to contribute to the field. Do you want to write a landmark study of pre-Socratic philosophy? A textbook of prose composition? A commentary? A ground-breaking critical analysis of Roman lyric, or a history of sexuality, or a study of democracy theory, Greek aesthetics, or Homeric epic?  What role does writing for the non-academic public play in your thinking and your aspirations for your future?  Get in the habit of mulling over possible dissertation topics and formats. Consider starting a journal that tracks your interests through various seminars and teaching experiences, as well as files of texts or articles that might come in handy later on. Recording your intellectual development in this way also helps you prepare for exams.

During years 1-3, and certainly by the end of your third year, you should consult with your Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) and other faculty members you feel comfortable talking to about publicly presenting a paper. Regional conferences like CAAS or CAMWS, graduate student-organized colloquia, or in-house brown-bag lunches will accustom you to the lifetime professional practice of lecturing and handling Q&A. Funds are sometimes available from your home institution to cover travel expenses. Be creative and persistent. Ask your graduate Director and/or the larger Graduate School administration for information.

Many students consider trying to publish a seminar paper in their third or fourth year. While not strictly necessary for success in the job market, and while I have personal reservations about the quality of much such material, professionally speaking, this is increasingly common. To avoid the pitfalls of publishing juvenalia, get support and advice from at at least two faculty, who should read and approve the piece before you submit it to journals. Get advice on where to send it: some journals have substantially shorter response times than others and some are simply easier to publish in than others.  Don’t let the article take up time you need to devote to program requirements. Having one or two acceptable (but not ground-shaking) articles on your CV will not help you much on the job market if you’re still ABD ("all but dissertation") in your seventh or eighth year.

Don’t prepare for any exams alone. Read Greek and Latin texts in small groups with other students on the weekends to get ready for any translation exams.  If your department holds field exams or general PhD exams, start asking advanced students, the DGS, and other faculty for advice at least nine months ahead of time. Get hold of old exams if you can.  Make sure you understand the structure and purpose of the exams the year you are taking them: different faculty members have different standards for translation exams, in particular. Find out how exam committees are chosen. Discuss with the DGS which faculty will set the written exams and sit on the orals committee. It’s your responsibility to know the identity and roles of these people -- the faculty are there to consult, but they will almost certainly not reach out to start the conversation: they're waiting for you.  You should meet with them and get a sense of what they expect.

Keep up with seminar papers and language exams. Ask more advanced students how they coped with the workload. Consider the question of a dissertation adviser. Ideally, as you begin serious preparation for your exams, you will start identifying topics and discussing them with faculty members you think might work well as an adviser. Once you finish exams, this is your first priority. Normally faculty don’t fight over students, but in order to avoid confusion and embarrassment, it’s best to clarify whom you would like to work with as your adviser and who will serve as the secondary readers (usually two to three people, but find out your institution’s rules). Don’t announce publicly that X is your adviser until you talk to X, and don’t assume that X will say yes; X may have too many commitments, sabbatical plans, or other issues that lead him/her to recommend a colleague instead.

Reach out to one or two faculty in your research area at other universities in your third or fourth year -- earlier if you feel comfortable and have a good reason. Ask your home faculty for guidance and/or introductions. Don't hassle them with demands for comments on papers or recommendations for basic readings on a theme, but if you have a particular topic you want to discuss, you are free to ask them for a half hour of their time to explore it.  These people may turn out to be crucial in shaping your interests and expertise; they may also end up serving on your dissertation committee and/or writing letters of recommendation for you.

Last but not least, these years are an opportunity for you to learn how to be a good departmental citizen. Classics departments all over the world are usually small groups that thrive most when the burden of institutional work is fairly shared, so this skill is crucial to your future success and happiness in the field. What this involves depends partly on your taste: you may want to organize a graduate reading group in Greek or literary theory, social get-togethers with faculty or students from other departments, or university-wide committee on graduate student issues.

You might not have time for any of that.  However, there are a few “good citizenship” practices that are not optional, no matter how overworked or stressed you feel:

1) If there’s a job search in your department, you must not leave the work to others. Go to the job talks, meet the candidates, talk to your fellow students, think about how to assess intellectual strengths and weaknesses in a constructive way. It won’t be long before you’re in the hot seat of a campus visit, and it’s very helpful to have seen how candidates handle themselves.

2) Try to ensure that your fellow students and at least one faculty member (in addition to the DGS) has a good grasp of your work, your interests, and your dissertation plans, however rough they are. Why is this a matter of good citizenship? It makes you available to others as a colleague: it allows others to draw on your expertise and energy. It’s also crucial to develop sources for reference letters early on.  Many institutions have dissertation fellowship opportunities for which you will apply in your fourth year, and these require at least two and often three or four letters of reference.  If you have discussed your dissertation topic only with your adviser, your other letter-writers will be forced to fall back on their knowledge of you from seminars two to three years in the past: this is not desirable.

3) Attend departmental talks, even if they fall outside your current interests. Attend departmental talks, even if they fall outside your current interests. Attend departmental talks... You get the idea. You never know what might grab your attention: and these events are chances to get to know the field and the people who populate it. Classics is a very small world. When you walk into an interview where one of the interviewers gave a talk in your department a year or two earlier, it’s much nicer to be able to thank him for his lecture than blushingly stammer that you were preparing for class and you couldn't make it and you really regret it and... Aside from the networking, though, much more important is the fact that visiting lectures are important thought-sharing moments: the best of them can radically change your views or interests in one earth-shattering hour. And even if the lecture doesn’t rock your world, it gives you a chance to hone your question-asking skills—experience you’ll be grateful for as a young assistant professor, when asking questions is an unavoidable part of the job.  You will also learn from your fellow students' and your professors' reactions: you will find out what interests them and why, how they tackle questions, what they view as strong and weak arguments. If a departmental talk is boring, it's worth remembering it's probably at least partly your fault.

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