Dear Lord, Why Did I Go to Graduate School? Surviving Coursework

By November 16, 2012

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry about graduate school and the feelings of inadequacy that I was having.  I promised a blog series on surviving graduate school.  After much thought I?ve decided to do it chronologically, which means ironically that this series starts with the section that I had the least amount of trouble with: coursework.  Coursework was bliss for me ? I love being around people and don?t have issues working on a deadline, so the sociality and structure were fantastic.  It?s the dissertation process, which is more solitary and less guided, that I struggle with.  Please add any suggestions or advice you have in the comments below.

Tips for finishing your coursework in a history PhD program:

1.  You can?t read everything.  In most graduate programs in history, you will be assigned one book and a few articles a week per class.  Some classes assign two books a week (sadly, it?s the courses for Americanists that do this in my program).  In order you to make it through graduate school, you have to learn how to skim and skim well.

LarryC at the Chronicle has some great suggestions for ?reading? in graduate school:,28552.msg387055.html#msg387055 Basically, he suggests thoroughly reading the introduction, the conclusion, and then skimming one or two important chapters.  He also suggests only reading the first and last line of every paragraph.  Although some people have found that helpful, it didn?t work for me.

Don?t feel guilty about not reading everything.  No one else is reading everything, and the people who struggled the most in my graduate program were those who were tried to do too much work.

Note: This does not apply to English courses where close reading is expected.  Typically, though, English courses assign fewer books than history departments.

2.  Reviews are your friend.  Many, but not all, graduate courses in history have a historiographical essay as their culminating assignment.  Basically, you take 10 ? 12 books on a particular topic and put them into conversation with each other.  One of the biggest complaints that I have heard from graduate students (and I myself may have uttered occasionally) is that it is ridiculous to expect students to read an additional 10 books per class, which if added to the number of books already expected would mean reading 20 ? 24 books per class per semester.

The secret is: No one expects you to read all those books carefully.  You are supposed to skim and use review essays.

Review essays can actually be more helpful at distilling a book?s argument and placing it into a historiographical framework than the book?s introduction.  It can also help you point out the book?s flaws and successes.  Plus, reviews are three pages long tops compared to 300 page books.

3. Do your work on time.  This piece of advice is actually a contested point in my department.  The other day I was in the graduate lounge listening to a student complain about the fact that his advisor expects him to turn in his papers on time.  I wanted to roll my eyes and tell him that he was an adult and should be able to meet deadlines, but I bit my tongue.  Later that day I posted a comment about it on Facebook.  The reaction was mixed with one of my friends writing, ?Adults can turn in their seminar papers whenever they want (within reason).?

Although I have several friends who have turned in their final historiographical essays and seminar papers late and have continued to do well in the program, my general advice is to turn things in when they are due.  Too often, people get behind because they ask for an extension and then find that their next semester was just as busy as the last.  At Michigan, you have to be ?screened? by the department in your second year.   ?Screening? is essentially a time when the department looks at your academic record to make sure that you are making adequate progress and performing well enough to justify your continued participation in the program.  Students who are screened out finish one additional semester of coursework and then leave the program with a master?s degree.

Students are allowed to delay screening if they need more time.  Few students at Michigan are actually asked to leave with a master?s degree, but I have had several friends who have had to delay screening simply because they haven?t completed all of their coursework and have seminar papers, historiographical essays, and final papers hanging over their heads from several semesters past.

Extensions are easy to obtain in graduate school, but DON?T fall into the temptation.

4. It?s okay to tailor your coursework to your dissertation but also don?t be afraid to take courses outside of your comfort range.  Doing so provides the best opportunities. If you know what you want to work on (and it?s okay if you don?t), it?s okay to write your final papers on topics related to your dissertation.  It?ll ultimately help prepare you in the end, BUT try not to be too restrictive about what that means.  Some of the best courses that I took were ones that weren?t directly related to American religion or the 19th century.  Courses on feminist literary theory, writing biography, and the ?social? in European history were just important to the way I think about history as any other course.

It?s also possible to use your coursework to develop professionally.  Eventually you will have to write syllabi, why not practice now?  From my friend Kara:  I think it’s helpful when you try to use the assignments as opportunities to advance your project. I thought the most useful assignments were the ones that prepared me professionally- giving an undergrad lecture on the reading, a practice conference paper, designing a syllabus, etc.

My friend Jacqueline also used her coursework to develop her profile as a public historian and to gain skills working with the Parks Department to create historic sites.  Here?s her advice: My advisor gave me the best piece of advice. She said to always look for opportunities within opportunities. In other words, for every project you engage in, whether it is a seminar paper, a public history project, or a service learning project, look for ways in which you can spin that project off into another project. This advice has been tremendously helpful. For example, I took a public history class which centered on writing a National Historic Landmark nomination. That project resulted in several blogging opportunities, another NHL project, a conference panel, and several networking events with public and academic historians – all from one class project!

In other words, coursework doesn?t have to be busy work.

5.  From my friend Sara: ?Don’t leave graduate school because you hate coursework. It gets better. OH! it gets so much better.?  It?s important to remember that coursework only lasts for two years and no matter how stressful it is.  It?s not going to last forever.

Or you could just take a cue from Ben P. and go to the UK for your PhD where you won’t have coursework, but you’ll have to get a master’s first.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I’m loving this series. Thanks for all the inside baseball.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — November 16, 2012 @ 11:48 am

  2. I also agree strongly with #3. When I was with a group of grad students having lunch with the chair of the history department here at Michigan, I asked him what one piece of advice he could give me as a new PhD student. He said, quite succinctly, “Don’t ever get an incomplete.”

    Comment by Jacqueline — November 16, 2012 @ 11:59 am

  3. Also agree STRONGLY with number 3. Turn things in, and then don’t think about it again. No matter how much work you put in or how long you spend on any paper (historiographical or seminar), you will never publish it or present it without editing it again. So you might as well meet your deadlines and turn in what you have. Do yourself a favor.

    Comment by Nora — November 16, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

  4. These are fantastic, Amanda. Good grad students read the Chronicle of Higher Education. Wise grad students read the Chronicle forums.

    Comment by D. Martin — November 16, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

  5. One lesson I learned in graduate school is that most Journal and Conference papers that have interesting abstracts ultimately won’t help you. I’ve learned to read an article in a couple minutes. I can usually determine from the cursory reading if the article is really a golden nugget that requires deeper reading. Afterall, there are more grad students than there are useful topics of study.

    Comment by Jason — November 17, 2012 @ 10:02 am

  6. Good stuff, Amanda. I agree with all of your points, though I may be in the minority of individuals who really enjoyed (and sometimes really miss) coursework.

    Comment by Christopher — November 17, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

  7. Here in Europe, PhD programs typically contain little coursework, since a MA is a prerequisite for acceptance. No comprehensives either, just dissertation writing. I’m not sorry about missing comprehensives but I sometimes think i would have liked some/more coursework.

    Comment by Saskia — November 18, 2012 @ 3:09 am

  8. Thanks, everyone! I’ll try to keep the inside baseball coming.

    Jacqueline and Nora, what actually bugs me the most (and this is pure venting) is the people who don’t turn their own work in on time and then complain when their students fail to meet details.

    D. Martin, 🙂 – Though I try not to read them too often out of fear that I will use them to procrastinate rather than getting my own work done.

    Jason – That’s good advice. I’ve found the same thing with books. I can’t count how many times I’ve been excited to read a book only to be disappointed when I actually read it.

    Chris – I actually miss it, too. I really love the classroom and discussion. Can you sign up for coursework as a dissertator? At Michigan, we can take one course a semester. I might do so, once I finish archival research.

    Saskia – Yeah, the MA/PhD in the U.S. is unique. I didn’t have an MA in history when I came in and I often think I would have benefited from more coursework. I only have four semesters of it.

    Comment by Amanda — November 18, 2012 @ 8:18 am

  9. Four semesters?! We did four YEARS of coursework! (Uphill, in the snow, both ways…)
    Of course, that can vary widely from program to program and school to school. I remember a friend in the B-school doing a PhD. He said if you didn’t have a PhD after 3 years, there was something wrong with you. He wondered how long our program was, mouth agape when I said 4 years of coursework, and another 3-5 to dissertate.

    Comment by Ben S — November 18, 2012 @ 11:23 pm


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