So You Want to Go to Graduate School?

All right, you all knew this post was coming. I’ve just successfully finished graduate school (for the second time, given that I entered William & Mary with a Master’s). I had some great experiences while I was there, and I managed to get a job in my field to boot. While my degree is still relatively fresh then, I’d like to share my insights for anyone interested in pursuing graduate studies.

Note: my degrees are all either in art history or American Studies, and all my programs were in-person, so my recommendations will have their limitations. This is particularly true regarding STEM fields. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of advice out there for people looking to the sciences, including this post.

Determine Your Motives

Attending graduate school should not be taken lightly. It’s not a continuation of college. Graduate school can be an arduous, often isolating process. It can be an exciting, intellectually stimulating environment, but it can also be frustrating, demoralizing, and downright toxic. I had a good experience at William & Mary, but I’ve known several classmates who finished their degree burned out and unsure about their life path. I’ve yet to see a program in the United States that pays its graduate researchers a decent living wage. And there’s no guarantee you’ll get a good job in your field at the end. This is especially true if you dream of entering academia. Due to a web of interconnected reasons I won’t go into here, there aren’t enough tenure-track jobs for everyone (though there can and should be more).

So before you start researching programs, you need to first ask yourself why you want to go. And be honest. Are you hoping to get a better job? Do you want the opportunity to conduct prolonged academic study on a topic you care about? Do you just want to include the letters Ph.D. at the end of your name? Examine each reason seriously and ask if it’s sufficient, or if there’s another way to accomplish your objectives.

Look, I’m not telling you to not get a graduate degree if that’s what you really want. After all, it’s what I wanted, and I got a lot of it. Only you can determine whether your reasons for attending graduate school are sufficiently valid. But you need to know what you’re getting into before you go down this path, because you will question yourself and your motives at least once while you’re doing this.

Researching Programs I: Faculty

Okay, you’ve decided that you’re going to grad school. Great! Here are my suggestions for researching programs:

  • Focus on faculty: at the graduate level, you’re going to be working with faculty much more closely than you probably did as an undergraduate. You should concentrate on programs with faculty members who focus on your field of interest. Read their scholarship and get a sense of their work. Think twice about applying to a program that specializes in literature, for instance, if you’re more interested in visual studies.
  • Talk with faculty: don’t rely on the program websites to answer your questions. Contact faculty members you’d like to work with directly. Discuss your research interests and don’t be afraid to ask candid questions about the program. I corresponded with several faculty members through phone and email while I was researching graduate programs, and the insights I got from those conversations made my applications a lot stronger.
  • Identify potential advisors: being a good scholar in your field and being a good advisor to your students are not the same thing. Professors who are great at teaching or research can be terrible at advising graduate students, and vice versa. If you can, talk with faculty members you’re interested in working with about their advising styles. Are they hands-on or do they take a more laissez-faire approach? Will you have to compete with a lot of advisees for one-on-one time? Are they a first-time dissertation advisor, and will you be their guinea pig? Asking these questions now can save you future heartache.

Researching Programs II: Other Factors

  • Funding: one of my advisors at Williams told me to never bother with a graduate program if it didn’t offer full funding. Following this advice is a major reason why I graduated from William & Mary with no debt. You’re already taking a financial hit pursuing graduate study. If you’re looking to do this full-time, make sure their standard financial aid package includes a tuition waiver and several years’ funding.
  • Resources: one of the reasons I picked William & Mary was its proximity to archival repositories like the Archives of American Art and the National Archives. For each program, think about the resources they can offer you and your research. Perhaps they feature relevant collections in their university archives. Or maybe they have a great digital humanities program. You want to prioritize faculty, yes, but don’t forget about the other resources universities can offer.
  • Setting: while you’re going to be spending most of your time researching and writing, it’s still important to think about quality of life. Does your mental health thrive in the cosmopolitan environments of cities? Then maybe avoid schools in rural settings. Need access to women’s and gender-affirming healthcare? Maybe reconsider programs in states with restrictive policies. You’re going to be in this place for a least a couple of years, so make sure you can live with it.

Applying to School

Okay, you’ve decided on some programs and you’re ready to apply. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Be prepared to apply more than once: I applied to Ph.D. programs for the first time in 2015. All rejected me except for one, and that one offered no funding so it might as well have said no. In 2017, I applied again, having done more research and pivoted from art history to American Studies. This time, I got accepted to four programs, with funding included. My point is graduate school is very competitive, and you may not get in the first time. This happens more often than you think.
  • When it comes to admission materials, ask the programs what they want: When I applied in 2017, I asked the faculty at every program what kind of writing sample they preferred. Some wanted my most recent work. Others wanted seminar papers and other strictly academic pieces, even if they were several years old. Some people recommended sending both. Clarifying those details can make your application stronger.
  • On test scores: frankly, I think the GREs are a money-making scam. As a result, I did everything I could to limit my spending to the test fee itself, which meant I took no preparatory classes and checked out all my study books from the library. If you’re worried about your scores, ask the program faculty how much importance they give to the GRE, or whether they even require it.

After the Admission Decision: Choosing a Program

All right, so you’ve done the research, applied to schools, and have been accepted to some programs! Now it’s time to decide where to go.

  • Visit the campus: I saw my alma mater in person for the first time when I moved into my freshman dorm. I visited Williams the summer before I started classes, after I’d already decided to go there. For the Ph.D., I made a point of visiting campuses before I made a decision. I talked with faculty I considered working with, took the tours, and visited with students. If everything works out, you’re going to be at this place for a few years, so you should visit beforehand to make sure it’s a good fit.
  • Talk with current students, preferably when faculty aren’t around: this is really important because they’ll give you the most frank appraisal of the program. They’ll tell you the strengths and weaknesses of the faculty, the state of campus social life, professional opportunities, and more. While it’s important for everyone, prospective students of color, LGBTQIA+ students, and members of other underrepresented groups should especially talk to current students, particularly if they’re also members of those groups. They’ll likely be more candid about microaggressions and other inequities in the program, and know about support groups and other resources.
  • Get a sense of the place itself: I chose William & Mary over the University of Texas at Austin for several reasons, including more funding. But another reason was because I hated commuting in Austin’s traffic. Know your limitations. Initially, you’ll be spending most of your time on campus, but you’ll probably still live in that university’s hometown or city, at least until you finish comps. Make sure you can tolerate it.

Attending Graduate School I: Tips for Thriving Academically

Congratulations! You’ve been accepted to graduate school, decided on a program, and are ready to begin your studies. Here are my tips to help you thrive:

  • Find the schedule that works for you: One of the great opportunities of graduate school is that you get the time to learn how you work best. I’m an early morning person, and I’m invariably at my most focused in the hours before noon. You might be different, and that’s okay. Use this time to figure out what works best for you, and apply it to future jobs.
  • Document everything: dissertations can take anywhere from a couple of years to more than a decade to write. You’re not going to remember everything you read or thought. Each day you do dissertation work, then, spend a few minutes at the end of your work session summarizing what you did. It can be a few bullet points, a 500-word essay, an intrepretive drawing, whatever works. The point is to be consistent about it. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself later when you can’t remember that article you read three years ago.
  • Save your drafts: Are you sad about that fascinating but ultimately irrelevant passage you had to cut from Chapter 2? Save the previous version of that chapter for future reference. Better yet, copy that passage into a separate document. It might not fit the chapter, but it could make for a good conference paper or article down the road.

Attending Graduate School II: Tips for Thriving Personally

Academics are only part of the graduate experience. Having a life outside of your studies will be critical when you encounter the inevitable challenges that will come up. Here are some things I did to ensure that:

  • Treat graduate studies like a job: one of the best ways to prevent burnout is to not spend all your time being a graduate student. At William & Mary, I modeled my schedule off of Brandon’s. I started my day when he left for work, and stopped when he came home.
  • A life partner isn’t necessary, but it sure does help: I’ll be honest, Brandon was key to my quality of life at William & Mary. Financially, I was in a less precarious position than a lot of my classmates. His company also kept me from getting isolated and ensured that I had interests outside of school. Our division of domestic labor also meant that I could free up more of my mental bandwidth for the dissertation. Having done graduate work single and married, I know being married made a huge positive difference for me.
  • But if you are in a relationship, be prepared to work for it: graduate school will eat all your time if you let it. If you’re in a relationship, you can’t let this happen. Communicate with each other clearly about when you need to work, and when to focus on your relationship.
  • Make friends inside and outside the program: one of the best things I did for myself during my final two years in the program was join a pub trivia team. It consisted of friends I knew through school and through Brandon’s work. Having that weekly meetup has been great, because it means every week I get together with friends to not talk about dissertation work. Wherever you can, find those outlets.

Final Thoughts

I could share tips all day about graduate school, but no one should have to read that. The point is, it’s not an undertaking that should be taken lightly. Do your research, know your interests and limitations, and choose the program that best fits your needs. There’s no such thing as a perfect graduate program. Rather, find the one that lets you do what you want to do as a scholar and person.

And if you do choose this path, know that I’ll always be here cheering for you.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *