Tips for First Years
I write this as an almost 3rd year student so I’ve had some time to reflect. I remember feeling very positive feelings towards the department during my first semester though I was becoming increasingly frustrated with how precarious our financial situation is, given unstable adjunct teaching and lack of consistent funding. By the end of my first year, however, many of my positive feelings were gone. Instead, I became more level-headed, cautious and focused on getting through the program as quickly as possible. I no longer saw rainbows everywhere but was, in retrospect, better at being a PhD student. Here are my tips for First Years:
1. Think of yourself as an independent scholar with worthy ideas right away. I know it is easy to think, ‘Oh, I have some years of coursework, I will take lots of classes and people will help me along the way and I will be inspired and some day later on, I will start writing my own work and get my own results and/or create my own theory.’ But the time to think of yourself as a productive member of the academe is RIGHT NOW. It was my professor of Intro to Queer Studies here at the GC that nudged me to consider my thoughts as already sociological and valid and to not hide behind literature reviews. He encouraged me to reflect on my own experiences (where relevant), to expand my own analysis of whatever issue I was writing about and to always think of my papers as stage 1 projects – that is, papers that can be turned into publishable work. I kept thinking, ‘But I’m not THERE yet.’ And just like with considering children, you’ll never really feel ready so you might as well begin building your confidence. You are going to need it. Because I want you to present your papers asap and I want you to start attending conferences asap and I want you to become immersed in it all asap, so that it does not overwhelm you at some later point, when you will actually be doing a wider range of things/projects with your time.
2. Now, having worthy ideas is one thing. Being able to write them down in a coherent fashion is another. And let’s face it – no one is really going to teach you how to write while you are here at the Graduate Center. The assumption is that you are perfectly capable of churning out 20-30 page papers for 3-4 classes/semester; not only that, but the writing will be of graduate-level quality and provide insight. Regardless of your previous academic career or field of study, figuring out how to accomplish any of these goals will hit you hard, like a brick. Most of your energy will be spent on actually getting all your stuff in on time, with appropriate lengths. A lot less of your energy will be spent on making sure what you’re writing about makes sense throughout the paper, that all the paragraphs are necessary, and that your paper is offering something new to the field. You’ll think, ‘it’s just a final paper, no big deal.’ And maybe you didn’t even like what you wrote. However, if you remember my tip # 1 above, these papers CAN and SHOULD be reconsidered and re-written for publication. It’s taken me some time and lots of advice from Barbara Katz-Rothman to realize that nothing I write is a throw-away project; everything should be turned into something. ALL of your final papers, including the ones you write during your first year, should be presented at conferences and submitted for publication. It does not matter if they are accepted or not, it helps you get into the spirit of things, into always thinking of your work as worthy of sharing.
3. So, how does one improve their writing when most faculty are unwilling to go through each of your papers, paragraph by paragraph? Short of getting professional help, get together with another colleague or a group of your peers so that you can look over each other’s work, edit each other’s work and figure out each other’s writing flaws and pluses. We did this a lot in our Writing for Publication class but, because that class is not required, not everyone learns its lessons. It may seem like a lot to ask of your peers but I firmly believe in helping each other get through the PhD program, in encouraging each other and putting in time for other people. Of course, it is hard to have another person look over your writing but remember everyone thinks their stuff is not the best unless they are completely arrogant and, therefore, misinformed about their work. So, find a person that is kind and will offer constructive criticism and listen to their advice. If you do not like their style of writing, editing or advice, listen to it anyway. I learned that lots of different kinds of people will interact with your work, through peer-review and the such, so you have to figure out how to cater to them all, in a way. You also have to figure out how to write for your project or your source. Writing an op-ed is different from writing an article which is different from writing a fellowship grant proposal. Another thing to remember when trying to improve one’s writing is to keep reading and to read prolifically. That is, you have to read a lot of things in your discipline to get a feel for how people write and to read a lot of things outside your discipline to get a feel for how other humans write and what other humans read. Everyone in sociology always complains about incomprehensible writing and how language should be accessible. Regardless of your position on either point, you should figure out how to write for different audiences. And trust me, take the Writing for Publication course, preferably in your 2nd or 3rd year.
4. Learning how to write well or how to write better is in direct conflict with managing finals week and having many papers due. At that point, you are panicked and grumpy; it doesn’t matter to you if you are going to at some point submit this article for publication. You just want to be done with the semester. If you are a full-time student taking 3 or 4 courses, there is a good reason to feel that way. It is incredibly overwhelming. And still, my advice is to go hard on coursework that first year – I highly recommend taking 4 courses a semester even though I know quite well that it is very difficult. I’ve been there, done that. And yes, I know you also have required courses that you need to get good grades in and there is preparation for the first exam. Do it anyway, you will feel incredibly far along in the program once you have those first 24 credits out of the way. If you are also transferring credits from your Master’s program, you are even better off because you know what? In my opinion, getting a PhD is not about your coursework, at all. The coursework is good for becoming aware of general schools of thought and meeting professors you like but unless you are getting something out of those finals papers, that 60 credit number can be daunting. Eventually you will reach the point of course saturation – there will come a point when you will say, ‘No more, I don’t want any more courses, I don’t want any more final papers, I don’t want any more exams.’ And, for me, that point came very early on, once I finished my first year. I was able to transfer some credits, which saved me another semester. Part of the reason I was so done with coursework was because my mind was on moving along, getting to my Orals, figuring out my dissertation topic, etc. Why was I thinking about any of that at the end of my first year?
5. Thinking about future goals before you are ready to face them helps with the actually facing them. Sure, nobody expects you to know your Orals areas or dissertation topic right away (and if you do, congratulations, keep it to yourself until you’re in your 2nd or 3rd year, have some mercy for your peers) but why not think about it? Thinking about something is not a commitment, it’s just a process. You do not have to be married to anything that you think about. Your interests will probably differ from what you expressed in your graduate essay but, after your first year, you should have a general idea of 2-4 areas in sociology that you keep hovering around. For your orals, you can create your own areas or follow sections set up by the American Sociological Association. (ASA) BTW: if you can, join the ASA or SSSP or ESS or SWS in your first year, to get a handle on what’s going on in all of these organizations. And it’s good to put on your CV. Speaking of your CV, you should write one up in your first year as well even if you don’t have much to put on it, just yet. A CV is different from your resume and you can google ones that assistant professors in sociology have and just follow a format you like. You’ll be glad you did. Especially when applying for teaching jobs, which you should also consider doing as soon as possible. Preparing to teach Intro to Soc or other courses can help you in figuring out what you areas of interest are and once you make several syllabi from scratch, you can easily transfer texts you keep using into your Orals lists once it comes time to make them.
6. Now, a little bit about your dissertation topic. What you do have to remember is that your topic will not randomly come to you ‘once you’re ready.’ There are not enough courses you can take or enough books you can read, you will always kind of feel unsure. And that’s OKAY, that’s how it actually feels when you’re done with your coursework, like you’re in constant quicksand. The sooner you realize that, the better you’ll feel. I picked a topic (or a small portion of what is not my topic) because I wanted to teach the issue in my Intro to Women’s Studies course but couldn’t get a lot of academic articles or anything on the matter and realized it wasn’t really studied all that much. Well, you figure, if there is no literature, make some. Eventually, my topic grew into a bigger monster (I say that lovingly) but it all began kind of randomly. That is to say, there is no one way we stumble upon our topic and you should not wait several years before thinking about it. Again, it’s okay to start throwing ideas around, making up titles for your PhD, making a google doc entitled ‘PhD File,’ etc. Most of your years after the first should be spent towards taking courses, writing papers that can HELP your dissertation along. Want to try a pilot project? Take ethnography. Want to check out a literature for something you’re thinking about as a topic? Ask a professor in one of your classes if you can angle the final paper to that. Most of the time, they will agree. Oh, and a sidenote on faculty: you should write down contact info and a little bit about each professor that you interact with and make sure to follow up/keep in touch. If you liked a professor and they worked well with you, they might end up on your Orals or dissertation committees. Or they might need to write your fellowship/grant recommendations. Start thinking strategically right off the bat and make yourself known to as many faculty as possible. All right, these are some of my first year tips, email me with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.