First Year of Graduate Studies: A Reflection

I turned in my final paper for the semester on a Saturday night (technically Sunday morning, I think) a few weeks ago and thus finished up my first year here at Notre Dame. The last year has flown by and I can’t believe it’s already summer. I’m going to be staying in South Bend, tutoring Latin, taking a class this summer (Patristic and Medieval Interpretation of the Psalter with Ann Astell), and preparing for my own class in the Fall (teaching Latin 1).

Here are some bits of advice I’ve come up with from this year:

1) Don’t take everything personally. You are not your work. You could absolutely fail every exam and paper and your worth wouldn’t reduce a single iota. It is extremely easy to get wrapped up in our work, staking out our identities in what we study. You have value beyond your Eco-Feminist reading of Virgil, I swear.

2) Seek out the professors that you wish to influence you. I may be a bit of a pest, but I darken the doors of my favorite professors’ offices at least once a month. Sometimes it’s a quick hello, sometimes it’s arranging for a coffee or lunch meeting in the near future, and sometimes it works itself out into a wonderful conversation. Professors are of course very busy people, so don’t take up their time if it’s obvious they are working on something important. But spending time with the types of scholars that you desire to be has something of a sacramental effect, I think. You will learn from them a lot in casual conversation that may not come out in the classroom. Plus, it’s probably just a good idea to see if you get along with professor types. If you find yourself put off by academics in general, maybe an academic job after you go through graduate school isn’t the best idea.

3) Seek out peers and be collegial. Yes, you should study, but you will be miserable if you never spend any time with like-minded individuals who can edify you. Burn out is real and it will eat up all the determination you had as a senior in college when graduate school looked like the promise land.

4) Enjoy your classes. Yeah, seriously. Take classes that you find interesting and don’t spend the whole time worrying about a grade. I made the mistake last semester dreading every day of my “Cicero, Augustine and Rhetoric” class because it was darn hard (for me). Looking back over notes and readings, I find that the stuff we learned is really interesting, but I spent the whole class dreading that understanding Latin rhetoric did not come naturally for me.

5) Use knowledge from one class as a complement for other classes, particularly in papers. Although I dreaded my rhetoric class, I ended up writing papers in both of my other classes last semester that incorporated elements from my rhetoric class. That incorporation into my other work helped me to assimilate the information.

6) Aim small on your projects. My paper-writing practice goes something like this:

1 Month Away – Come up with huge paper topic. Plan. Read books and articles Begin writing.

3 Weeks Away – Ditch first paper in frustration. What a stupid idea that was. Start reading other books and articles. Come up with even better idea. This is totally manageable, right? Write, write, write.

2 Weeks Away – That paper is crap. Ditch it. Now I have 2 weeks to write this paper. Oh yeah, I have an exam next week too. Looks like I’ll be camping in the library this weekend. Stress about paper topics. Read books. Wish I could write. Start bartering with God about paper topics. Check out 40 books (because with two weeks to write a paper, what’s more practical than trying to read every book on the subject?). Write, write, write.

1 Week Away – Hate paper topic but keep writing anyway. Realize 3 days before it’s due that this one paragraph on page 10 of your paper is actually really good. It’s really really good. Why am I not writing that paper? Can I write that paper? I have 3 days. People write papers in 3 days, right? Write, write, write.

My issue is that I always aim way too huge. WAY too huge. I propose book topics for 20 page papers. I think that my brain thinks there’s safety in really broad statements, but just as in spirituality, the broad path is never the right one. If I only narrowed down my paper topics from the very beginning, I’d have them done in a few weeks with plenty of time to revise. This actually happened last semester in my Ephrem class. I began thinking about the paper by week 2 of class and had plenty of time to read Ephrem over and over as well as some secondary lit. Soon enough, I had what I thought was a good, manageable paper topic. I presented a version to the class and we talked about it. That discussion helped me refine the paper and from the ideas my classmates gave me, I was able to add another 5-6 pages of good material.

7) Stop reading the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed if you value your sanity. If you are a person who is going to graduate school because you just really enjoy the subject you’re studying and would be perfectly happy bagging groceries while thinking about your successfully-defended dissertation, then read up. If you are a person who worries every day about ever finding a job, just forget both publications and enjoy the ride through grad school.

8 ) Eat healthy, rest enough, and take supplements. As a NC native, I was not prepared for the dismal weather of northwestern Indiana winters. Indiana hates you and wants to freeze you. We have what is called the “perma-cloud” here, a gray abyss that hides the sun for about 4-5 months. The lack of sunlight coupled with freezing temperatures can get you down. If you are used to a gorgeous, sunshiney state like North Carolina, be prepared to take melatonin and vitamin D to help make up for the lack of sun. Also, take walks and eat well. Graduate school is taxing on a lot of levels and McD’s dollar burgers aren’t going to fuel you.

9) Establish schedules. I was never a ‘schedule’ person in my undergrad, but I have become very regimented. I set up an Excel sheet and mapped out my whole day. I scheduled when I would read and how much I would read. Although I am not myself a very organized person, I am a slave to something like a list. If the list exists, I just don’t question it and I do whatever the list tells me to. It also provides some level of accountability.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “First Year of Graduate Studies: A Reflection

  1. bgronewoller

    I love your description of birthing a paper. “Organic” is the best term I have ever been able to come up with when describing the process to friends.

    I also can relate to your propensity to aim too high. For a class last Fall on Augustine, I told my professor that I was going to try and write a journal article for my final paper. 80 hours of research later, after reading through his letters in the NCP edition and realizing that I was facing a mountain of secondary literature, I had to go back to her and readjust my goal. Thankfully, she had a bit more perspective than I did from the outset, and at least I was able to produce a conference paper. I think that grad school tends to attract those who, as the saying goes, write checks that their bodies (or brains) can’t cash.

    • Joshua McManaway

      Thanks for the comment! I’m hoping to amend my ways next semester (and forever) and hopefully begin writing the same paper for all 4 (or more) weeks instead of my frazzled race around the history of ideas.

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