In my first year of graduate school, I remember having to overcome a feeling of disorientation. I was perfectly oriented with my institution (a lifelong MSU fan) and quickly developed a circle of friends in my cohort. However, I felt a profound sense of uncertainty with the how and why of graduate study. I knew that I should read, come to seminar with something interesting to say, and that my relationship with my adviser was important. The nuanced breakdown of tasks and the motivation to complete them was another matter entirely. I did not stumble upon Greg Colón Semenza’s Graduate Study for the 21st Century until my second year, but his advice has proven invaluable for my own professional development and mental health.
Graduate Study is a how-to guide on professional development for graduate students in the humanities. It differs from other popular PhD guides like Getting What You Came For in its freshness, cogency, and frankness. Semenza attacks the perception that graduate students are ‘apprentices’, arguing that professionalism is demanded from day one in our teaching and research. A successful academic career (a tenure track professorship for many of us) demands that we reach a high degree of professionalism as quickly as possible. The book’s strength lies in Semenza’s ability to balance a realistic and demanding tone with a more encouraging and inspirational one. He is most fiery when confronting the political aspects of graduate study, forcefully arguing the necessity of graduate unionization and explaining the industrialization of the university and its consequences. This is a refreshing refusal to separate the everyday challenges of graduate study with the realities of the political and economic pressures that surround us.
Semenza also includes practical advice on personal issues, such as the challenges of having kids or getting married while pursuing a PhD. I found Semenza’s advice on family demands particularly helpful: educate them on your goals and timeframe, learn to compromise, create a workspace in your family’s home, and ask them to come to you. He also stresses the importance of making time for you; all work and no play makes Jack a directionless and disillusioned grad student. I found myself nodding my head when reading Semenza’s take on department staff: “few relationships will be more important to you than the ones you develop with the department secretaries in the main and graduate offices.” Make friends, remember birthdays, and always be appreciative of their help.
Graduate Study is comprehensive. It contains whole chapters on graduate seminars, teaching, publishing, conferences, writing papers, and the job market. The appendix has a heap of valuable sample documents that includes CV’s, syllabi, a teaching portfolio, conference abstracts, even a book prospectus for the day that seems so distant to many grads. Semenza’s chapter on publishing as a graduate student is perhaps the most important in the book. He breaks down the process into producing content, selecting a journal, and getting your piece accepted. Since reading his book and attending a seminar on graduate publishing, I have been able to set goals with my adviser and publish my first two book reviews.
Semenza is an English PhD, and his book draws heavily on examples from his own experience in the discipline. Coming from a historian’s perspective, I never found myself thinking that his advice did not apply to my program as well. Semenza urges “greater transparency about the structure and goals of our programs”, and his book goes a long way towards making this process clearer.
[Image by Flickr user Lethaargic and used under the Creative Commons license.]
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