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 CIL to the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, pass exams, learn at least two modern languages to the level of reading fluency, garner some teaching experience, get to know your department faculty and fellow students, and learn as much as you can about how your institution works. You should take a class or at least regularly attend lectures in another department, where you will meet other types of students and likely learn a great deal from their work and interests.

Above all, starting in your first semester, 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, how teaching appointments are made, the shape of a typical academic career, the university’s infrastructure, 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. This habit will prepare you for the initial years after graduate school, whether you find work as an assistant professor, where you may receive minimal spontaneous feedback about your teaching and research, or you move outside academia.

Part of taking control in this way means reading everything you can get your hands on. Follow up footnotes. Read non-canonical texts. Ask departmental faculty what formative texts they read in graduate school. Read about 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.

An equally key part of taking control, though it may seem counter-intuitive at first, is preparing yourself from the start for a rewarding career beyond the classroom and library. Statistics about the health of the academic job market in the humanities vary in the details, but the overall message is that at most, roughly half of humanities PhDs graduating these days will find long-term full-time 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 terribly 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. Either your department or your graduate dean’s office is likely to hold events or workshops for doctoral students on careers beyond the classroom. Make time to attend.  Your final year of graduate school, when you’re deep into finishing the dissertation and stressed about the future, is the worst possible moment to start thinking about other options. Get in the habit of thinking calmly and curiously about multiple possible career paths from your first year in graduate school. You are smart, enterprising, and hard-working, or you wouldn’t be in a PhD program: you have a lot to offer both academe and the world outside it.

When it comes to thinking about careers outside the academy, think about your life goals and follow your interests. 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, media firms, and non-profits are good 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. Consider a master’s degree or certificate in data visualization, organizational psychology, translation studies, or professional writing. Some public universities offer summer or online options that you may be able to fit (with effort) into your later years in graduate school.

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 on this topic. Also, while this attitude is thankfully dissipating, some faculty continue to 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 to work around them and ignore their unhelpful retrograde views.  But if you sense this attitude in 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 behind the scenes to change faculty attitudes without revealing your identity. 

Also, talk to your department administrator or manager: typically under-tapped resources, they often know a lot about students from the past and about opportunities for work inside the university but outside the classroom. Make an appointment with the dean of humanities, the dean of the graduate school, the dean of students, the vice provost for research, or some other administrator: call it an informational interview, and ask the person what they do and how they got on that track. You’ll likely learn a lot and you may create an ally who can offer you advice or help down the road. Colleges and universities offer many interesting job opportunities, from student advising to offices of academic affairs. Ask more advanced students, faculty, and 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 request that the site be updated.

Meanwhile, websites like https://versatilephd.com/ and many graduate school sites offer concrete ideas.  Columbia University provides great advice on how to translate the CV into a resume. You will find inspiration on sites like this:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-getting-hiring-phd-humanities-can-best-business-move-lisa-niles/

https://cheekyscientist.com/career-opportunities-for-humanities-phds/

In Years 1-3, it may help to view your job as 80-90% focused on your academic preparation, with the rest of the time reserved for keeping your eyes and ears open and your attitude flexible. 

A common academic 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 immensely 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 comparative analysis of Latin and Chinese prose fiction, or a history of sexuality, or a study of democracy theory, Greek aesthetics, or Greek and near eastern 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 personal 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 growing more common. To avoid the pitfalls of publishing juvenalia, get support and advice from at least two professors, 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 modern language exams. Ask more advanced students for practical advice on 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. More frequently these days, students are working with more than one adviser: I see this as a very positive development when it comes to intellectual development and overall wellness for everyone, but it requires tact and transparency on all sides. 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 or advisers 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. Faculty merit reviews (and often, faculty morale) are tied to the number of formal advisees they have, and “second reader” and “third reader” roles count for less. Women and scholars of color tend to find themselves relegated to the latter roles, which is another reason to explore working inclusively with two or three advisers rather than the old model of one adviser and multiple readers.

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, do 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 or job interview off campus, 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 and its related fields (classical archaeology, ancient philosophy, etc) make up 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 starting assistant professor or company employee, 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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