What I Wish I’d Known About Graduate School: Surviving the Workload

Before joining ESN as a writer/editor in 2014, Hannah Eagleson wrote her series What I Wish I’d Known About Graduate School just after finishing her PhD in 2011. 

Little known fact: the Wicked Witch of the East was actually crushed by her graduate school workload, not Dorothy's house.

Little known fact: the Wicked Witch of the East was actually crushed by her graduate school workload, not Dorothy’s house. What Grad School Feels Like by kimncris on Flickr.

Managing coursework is definitely a challenge. Here are a few things I wish I’d realized at the beginning of coursework. All of them eventually helped me both to get more out of my studies and to have a life outside of study.

You can’t do it all. Learn to prioritize different academic responsibilities

Most people arrive in graduate school with an impressive record of scholastic diligence. Grad students are usually the people who turned in extra credit assignments, attended optional events, and engaged in academic correspondence with their professors during summer breaks. All of those habits will help you in graduate school, but they also have an unfortunate tendency: they give the illusion that every single assignment can be accomplished as well as one would like to accomplish it. For many people, this is simply not true in graduate school. If you are taking 2-3 graduate courses which expect you to read one book-length primary source per week and critical articles, and you are also carrying a one or two course teaching load, you probably will not be able to read every word of every assignment and also sleep. I found it depressing to realize this, but graduate school in the humanities is probably going to entail some skimming. It’s crucial to decide on a few central priorities for a semester and focus on them. It’s still important to work hard in courses that aren’t central to your interests, but you probably will have to skim some readings.

You can still do it well. Pursue your interests diligently.

When I started my Ph.D., I was frustrated because it seemed that I didn’t have time to do anything well. I felt guilty when I didn’t get every word of every assignment read, and I wanted more time to process everything. Over time I did discover a few tips for giving long-term thoughtful attention to things while still being a productive member of each seminar. Here are a few things I learned:

1. Choose a few works and critical frameworks to pursue intently over time

It helps to identify a few primary sources and critical frameworks that really interest you and to pursue them over the long haul. That way, you can deepen your knowledge of them over breaks, when you have more time to reflect and follow up on your own interests. You can also keep thinking about them in various contexts over time. If you know that you love Jane Austen’s Persuasion, for instance, you can return to it over breaks and spend much more time with it than the one week you would ordinarily spend in a seminar on the nineteenth-century novel. If you discover that the two critical frameworks that most interest you are eco-criticism and feminism, or book history and reader-response theory, you may be able to incorporate them into your papers in a wide variety of courses. That way, you have a chance to continue studying frameworks that interest you even in courses that are far from your main focus. Which brings me to the next thought . . .

2. Find ways to intertwine your interests with general requirements

Perhaps your specialty is twentieth-century poetry, and you’re currently taking a course on Renaissance drama to satisfy department requirements. Even if you aren’t interested in Renaissance drama for its own sake, you might be able to weave your interests and the requirement together. For instance, T. S. Eliot actually draws on several Renaissance plays in The Waste Land, so you might be able to write your final paper on Eliot’s use of John Webster’s plays. That way, you are learning more about the Renaissance, but you’re also pursuing an interest in a writer closer to your own specialty. If you can’t find a connection between a primary text you’re interested in and the course you’re taking, you might still be able to explore a critical framework that interests you. If you want to incorporate book history in your work on the 20th century, you may be able to learn a lot about a book history scholar by applying his or her work to your required Renaissance course.

3. Look for ways to make your interests helpful to others

I’ve found the approach of weaving my interests into the requirements to be really helpful, but it does have certain risks. For instance, I used to worry that all my comments in seminar would start to revolve around my final paper. One way to counteract this tendency is to try to find ways in which your interests can be helpful to others. For instance, you can tailor graduate report presentations and handouts so that someone else could easily teach a class segment based on them. For example, if you’re doing a graduate report on how a George Bernard Shaw play was originally staged, design the handout so that your colleagues could pull it out during a busy week, review it, and hand it out to an undergraduate class. Of course, if it’s set up so that it’s easy for your colleagues to do this, it will also be easy for you to reuse the handout for an undergraduate course.

4. Figure out how to use overlapping research work creatively for different audiences

As the previous suggestions hint, it’s often possible to create several presentations of overlapping research work for different audiences. This lets you do the research more thoroughly because you have fewer individual projects to think about, and it lets you continue interacting with the same work or ideas over time and in different settings, which is almost always helpful in understanding it better. This doesn’t mean that you constantly recycle and never learn anything new, but that in crafting similar material for several different audiences, you come to understand it more fully. For instance, you might be able to do a graduate report on costumes for productions of Macbeth through the years, write a seminar paper on the same topic and send it off for publication, and also present some of the same material differently for an undergraduate literature class. Each task will require somewhat different phrasing and content, but the overlap will give you a chance to really explore the topic in depth.

 5.  When you find an aspect of graduate school that seems challenging, ask yourself, “Is there any way to make this more satisfying?”

This last thought is a bit more generic, but I’ve found it helpful. For me, an example would be graduate reports. I used to dread them, because they took a very long time to prepare, and I often felt that I didn’t have anything helpful to say. Then I did a report on musical settings of poetry, and I really enjoyed it. Since I happen to have experience in music, I finally felt that I had something to say which might be useful to my colleagues. We were also able to listen to the songs together, and that helped to generate interesting seminar conversations. After that, I usually incorporated music in some way into my graduate reports. I enjoyed them more, and so did my colleagues. Also, the other seminar members and I left the class with a stock of music which we could play for undergraduate classes. Graduate reports became less something I dreaded and more what they were intended to be, the opportunity to increase one’s expertise and share it with an audience of one’s peers.

In addition to managing coursework, there are some more general time management strategies that helped me, and I’ll describe them in the next post.

Next Week: What I Wish I’d Known About Graduate School: Managing Your Time

From Mike: How have you managed your workload in graduate school? Any suggestions from other disciplines? 

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Hannah Eagleson

Hannah Eagleson is a writer/editor on staff with InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). She edits ESN's collaboratively written devotional for academics. Hannah also crafts other community-building events and materials for ESN. She holds a PhD in English literature, and she’s working on a novel about a dragon who gave up fending off knights to become a tea importer in eighteenth-century England.

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  • jsire@prodigy.net'
    James Sire commented on August 24, 2011 Reply

    Great advice, Ms. Eagleson.

    Nos. 1, 2 and 4 I discovered for myself, thank the Lord. I wrote many papers on Neoplatonism in ______, preparing to write my dissertation on Neoplatonism in the poetry of George Herbert. I was ready to go.

    Then I discovered–what I should have known before–that to do a proper dissertation I would have to learn medieval Latin. I did not easily pass my exams in either the German or French languages. So, what to do?

    I combined, not my interest in Platonism through the ages with my interest in literature, but my interest in theology and literary criticism with my interest in Milton. I may have written one of the first papers using reader response: Miltonic Criticism and the Problem of the Reader’s Belief. Fortunately, Stanley Fish’s first (I think) book on Milton had yet to be published; so I did not need to wrestle with what became a major element of literary criticism for the next few years. (God is good!)
    In any case, the more you can pull your own private interests together with your approach to your discipline, the more likely you will find your work worth the massive time and effort it takes to please both yourself, your colleagues and your chief professors.

  • hannaheag@comcast.net'
    Hannah commented on August 27, 2011 Reply

    Thank you very much for your thoughts, Dr. Sire. I actually ended up writing on Herbert in my dissertation. If you have time, I’d love to talk about his verse by email: hannaheag@comcast.net.

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