Creating Structure in a Formless Summer

This may be the greatest challenge thrown your way since you started graduate school…it threatens to take you down roads of untold temptation and laziness…it could undo everything for which you have fought so hard…

What is this horror?   A structure-free summer! [Gasp!]

If you are anything like me, you (grudgingly) crave structure. You require a tidy schedule to keep you on track. In fact, a little deadline-related pressure helps you to focus and, in turn, makes you more productive. And since a positive, productive day results in a happier you, this is good! So what do you do when that externally-imposed structure is temporarily absent? And, to make matters more frightening, you actually do have a deadline of sorts, but it feels oh so far away.  You…

Read. A lot. And, in my case, come up with a solid dissertation plan. In your case, it might be to explore possible research topics. Regardless, there is no defined finish line in terms of the quantity of readings. You have three months. Go!  How much is “a lot” and how will you know when you have “enough?”  In lieu of answers to those impossible questions, you can at least make a plan for some self-imposed structure:

1. Create structure by engaging in activities at appointed times, on specific days (e.g., Exercise regularly, cook dinner on Tuesdays and Thursdays, clean the bathroom every Friday afternoon, etc.)

2. Set a goal to read a certain number of hours per day, articles per day, books per week.

3. Set aside an hour or two per week to do further research online, print out articles, etc.

4. Vary your location. Go to the library, coffee shop, park – someplace where you will not have the weight of household chores and “other things” pulling you away from your work.

5. Put the computer to sleep while you are reading. It is so tempting to look something up while you are reading or to answer an email if the computer is on. Make a note to do that online work later.

6. Figure out what time of the day you are most mentally productive. I do well in the late morning and early afternoon. After about 7pm, all I want to do is cook dinner and watch The Twilight Zone.

7. Make time for friends. Plan dates in advance or allow for down time when you can call someone up to have dinner or go to the park. You evolved to be social! Don’t lock yourself into your own head and avoid the world. It’s not healthy.

Of course this advice is all perfectly rational, but frankly, the temptation to be lazy on a sunny, summer afternoon when you are able to live off of grant or loan money for three months and don’t actually need to work a “normal” job, is incredibly strong! So, allow yourself those times now and then. But force yourself to create the schedule so that even your lazy time is somewhat structured. This is advice to myself as much as to anyone else. I am fighting this temptation as I write. Good luck to us all!

From Letter Seeker to Letter Writer

One academic skill that many folks first experience as graduate students, which I suppose goes hand-in-hand with teaching for the first time, is writing letters of recommendation.  Up until now, we’ve always been the letter seekers, asking teachers, professors, coaches, and others for their written support.  But many of us reverse roles at some point in graduate school, often after having served as a TA or mentor for undergraduates.  Now we become the voice of experience, having to evaluate a candidate for a job, graduate school, or some other type of program.

Of course, like many grad school skills, this one is not explicitly taught.  Faculty at least can draw upon their experiences serving on committees that actually review such letters, but graduate students usually haven’t yet been in that position.  How are we supposed to know the properties of a well-written letter?

Having written several letters myself now, I have developed a few habits that I hope are good.  I always include certain details that I think will be important to the reader, such as who I am and how I know the student.  I try to discuss my experiences with the student in a way that is relevant to the goal of the particular application (e.g., medical school, a summer research program, etc.), sticking to specific examples and realistic assessments — I’m sure evaluation committees tire of reading generalities and effusive but meaningless praise.

However, so far this has all been based on my intuition, not on any real knowledge or experience regarding what makes a good letter.  I would be very interested to hear the perspectives of both other graduate students as well as faculty members on this issue, for the benefit of all who write and read letters of recommendation.

Balancing Being a TA with Your Coursework

Keeping with the theme of being a TA, which I agree has been a valuable experience, I am going to expand on Alexandra’s second point: Time Management. Being a TA at Rutgers commits you to 15 hours of work per week. For my course, this includes 3 hours a week of actual teaching, several hours of planning classes and reading (or re-reading) course material, 1-2 hours of office hours, and a great deal of time spent reading and grading student work and responding to their emails. Generally, this is very manageable. However, there always comes that moment at the end of the semester when you wonder if you will ever get all of your work and grading done. I can tell you that you will; it just takes some careful planning throughout the semester.

My first piece of advice is to work ahead where you can on your own coursework. Yes, that project may not be due until the last day of class, but if you can start it early, you will be much less stressed in the end. Second, if you can get an existing syllabus for the course you will be teaching during the summer before, this gives you the opportunity to read the materials for the course ahead of time, rather than trying to do everything during the semester. Finally, figure out where your students struggle and work with them throughout the semester. My students have to turn in three extensive written projects. I provide them with a large amount of support on the first two projects so that they are able to write the final project independently. Most courses have a final project that is due at the end of the semester, when graduate students are busiest, and helping students extensively throughout the semester means that you can devote more time to your own work at the end of the semester.

While each course is different, these tips will hopefully be useful as you begin your graduate career. If you are offered the opportunity to TA, I highly recommend that you accept the offer. While it does mean some extra work, the benefits are enormous and the workload is certainly manageable.

Feet in (At Least) Two Worlds

Every discipline has its subfields…and subfields of subfields. This is very much the case in Anthropology where the Cultural (and Linguistic) wing is a completely different world from the Physical (and Archaeological) wing. Of course there is a shared history, but they have diverged considerably over the years. In a tiny (reductionist) nutshell, the cultural wing focuses on understanding modern humans through the lens of culture, whereas the physical wing emphasizes biological features of modern humans and our ancient ancestors, such as the study of human origins. But I come from a four-field Anthropology background. “Four-field” means that I took courses in all of the aforementioned subfields, especially Cultural and Physical, and I always get a little thrill upon finding intersections where culture meets biology, such as in Medical Anthropology.

This appreciation for both the Physical and the Cultural has recently come to the forefront of my academic studies. Up until last fall, I studied the hominin fossil record. After about a year of hair-pulling and soul-searching I made the decision to switch my dissertation topic in my fourth year to the study of how we teach evolutionary theory. This switch means that now I will do my dissertation with real, live people! No more fossils for me (though I hope to visit them now and then). I am diving headlong into the world of interviews, surveys, and participant observation. Yet I am still grounded in evolutionary theory since that is my topic. This puts me in a rather unusual situation. I am still in the Physical Anthropology wing of my department, but I am also a little bit in the Cultural wing. In fact I will have committee members from both wings. As my advisor said, I’m a hybrid.

What will this mean once I finish? It could place me in a kind of disciplinary limbo, but I am choosing to look at it differently. Instead of focusing exclusively on tenure track positions, I will look beyond academia, whether it is in the realm of curriculum consulting, policy-making, or creating educational materials. The point is that taking this risk was worth every moment of anguish and anxiety leading up to the moment when I told my advisor what I wanted to do. He and others in both wings of my department have been incredibly supportive. Most importantly, what I am doing now is something that I will always be passionate about.

Lesson learned? While a big dissertation change can have its logistical drawbacks, if it will enable you to do what you love, don’t be afraid to switch direction even when you are halfway done! Graduate school is extremely challenging…emotionally, intellectually, and even physically. It’s only worth the immense effort if you are doing something that will drive you beyond the completion of that coveted PhD.