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October 25th, 2014

How to Read for Grad School

One of the very first things you’ll learn in graduate school is that your professors will assign a lot of reading. A lot of reading!

Depending on your field, each week you may be asked to read anywhere from several journal articles (mainly STEM fields) up to an entire book per class (social sciences and humanities).

How can you manage all of this reading? Here are a few tips to help get you through those pages.

How to Read for Grad School

  1. Remember, you can’t read it all…

The first thing is to recognize that you can’t read all of it in the time allotted. Graduate professors, quite deliberately, usually assign more reading than the average graduate student can complete in a given week. With research, teaching, sleeping, eating, and your personal life, there aren’t enough hours in the day to read all of the materials you are assigned.

This means that you’re going to have to get creative in how you manage the reading load so that you cover the material requested.

  1. Prioritize your readings

Since you know that you can’t read it all, you’re going to have to figure out which of the readings are most important for a particular week.

Start by organizing your readings into three groups:

  • anything that you’re going to read closely;
  • articles/chapters/books that you’ll “actively skim;”
  • anything left that you will try and skim if you have time.

But how do you determine which assignments to read closely and which to put on the back burner? Sometimes professors will make it obvious by designating certain readings as “required” and others as “optional,” or by foreshadowing what you’ll talk about in your next session.

You can try to surmise this yourself by quickly looking through the materials that are assigned and finding their common theme. From there, you should be able to determine which readings are ‘core’ and which are peripheral to the main theme.

What about ease of reading? It’s tempting to select the papers or books that you think will be the easiest to get through, but take caution. Often, the thorniest theoretical papers are the seminal ones that are the heart of the themes your graduate professor is trying to convey. They’re likely to be on your qualifying exams down the road. But if two or more papers look equally important and have similar purposes in the assigned readings, sometimes a good strategy is to pick the one that captures your interest most.

Read ‘Closely’ by Taking Notes

Doing a “close reading” of graduate school papers is not like reading a pleasure book. You’re looking for key themes and discussion points – things that are relevant to your research and scholarship. When doing your close readings, take notes!

If you are using a paper copy, you can annotate right onto the paper. If you’re averse to writing on your paper – or don’t have enough room – brightly colored sticky notes can help flag specific sections in which you have a particularly insightful comment. These notes will be helpful to refer back to when discussing articles in class.

Skim Actively

While you’re not reading every single word, you’re also not just reading headings. Read the first and last sentences of each paragraph. Scan your eyes over each paragraph to see if there are important supporting points or keywords.

After skimming a section, take a moment to summarize what you skimmed – jotting down brief synthesis notes can help, although they won’t be as extensive as the notes from the materials you read closely. Writing down broad questions you have can help, too – they may be questions you want to raise during the discussion or in your seminar paper.

Whether you are reading closely or skimming actively, you should ask yourself questions as you read. Constantly challenge yourself: What is the point of this passage? What is the author trying to convey? How does this connect to my own scholarship? How does this connect to the larger body of work in my field?

  1. Don’t read when you’re sleepy

Graduate school life is super busy, and many grad students find themselves getting around to their reading late at night, after they’ve spent a full day in the lab or classroom.

If your lids are feeling heavy, put the article down and go to sleep!

You’re not going to absorb the information in a meaningful way, while at the same time your cutting into precious time that could be spent on other more enjoyable aspects of your life. A double-whammy of wasted time and missed opportunity!

Set time aside to take care of yourself. Sleep is important, so make sure you get enough of it! In the end, it’s better to have meaningfully consumed a smaller portion of your reading than it is to have read it all and retained nothing.

  1. Figure out what works for you

One of the perennial questions I get about reading in graduate school is “should I use electronic resources, or hard copies?” I think this is a personal question that depends on your individual preferences and desires, but in so doing highlights an important point: you’ve got to figure out what works for you.

Some students have a difficult time concentrating when staring at lighted electronic screens; others prefer the ease of annotating paper copies. On the other hand, all that printed paper can be an organizational nightmare that for some can be a distraction in itself.

Whether you like reading real paper or the electronic version, try different options and see what ‘clicks.’ Likewise, try switching up the environment where you read to find the best fit:

  • Morning/afternoon/night?
  • Office? Library? The local coffee shop?
  • Music? Total silence? Background noise?

Getting through your reading doesn’t just take steely perseverance, it also takes common sense and a personal strategy that works for you.


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October 15th, 2014

“Should I Go to Graduate School?”

If you’re an undergrad or recent college graduate, you’re probably asking yourself this question: “should I go to grad school?”

The idea is simultaneously tantalizing and terrifying. Along with the promise of prestige and expanded career opportunity comes the risk of added debt, a delayed start to your career, or wasted time.

Here are five questions you should ask – and answer – before deciding whether or not graduate school is right for you. 

Should you go to grad school?

  1. Will it be worth your time and money?

Graduate school can be expensive. A report (pdf) by the New America Foundation shows that the median debt of a graduate degree holder is about $57,600, while the 75th percentile of borrowers owed over $99,000.

The tuition for professional master’s degrees in top programs at private universities can be well over $40,000 a year and there is often little non-repayable financial aid available.

What are the median salaries in the field you want to enter with your degree? How much money can you expect to make after graduating? And are you going to be able to comfortably repay the debt you incur?

Even if you enter a fully funded PhD program, you will be out of the workforce for at least five years – and increasingly, six to ten years. Outside grad school, that’s time you could spend accumulating work experience and moving up the ladder (in addition to earning more money and saving for retirement). Six years is enough to make you mid-career in many fields, where you’ll be earning a great deal more than a grad student stipend.

Ask yourself: Is it personally worth it to incur the expense or forgo those opportunities in order to earn your graduate degree?

  1. Do you need a grad degree to do what you want to do?

Ultimately, a graduate degree is designed as a training program for some kind of career field. The end goal is for you to get a job in the field and build a career based on your newly acquired skills. But if you can already do that without a graduate degree, why spend the time and effort?

I like the way Alison Green puts it:

“Grad school makes sense when you’re going into a field that requires or significantly rewards a graduate degree.”

Do the people who are currently doing what you want to do have graduate degrees? Is there a ceiling to your progression in that career if you don’t have an advanced degree? If so, where is it?

The corollary to this question is to ensure that the degree you plan to obtain is actually going to lead you to the career field you want.

Do some research: what kinds of graduate degrees, if any, do the people in your desired career field have?

  1. Do you know what you want to study – for the next 2-7 years?

Graduate programs – particularly PhD programs – are designed to be intense, immersive experiences. Unlike college, graduate school is not the time to explore new interests; instead, you’ll be hyper-focused on the area you choose to study.

But remember that the graduate treatment of a subject can be quite different than what you were exposed to as an undergrad. As a master’s student, you will dive into the ‘nitty gritty’ in addition to spending a great deal of time mastering research methods and other analytical tools. If you don’t have a clear goal in mind, the passion you felt for a subject as an undergrad can quickly wear off.

On the other hand, if you know why you’re there you may find yourself instilled with new-found drive and motivation: many of these students find that they enjoy their graduate experience more than undergrad.

If you’re not entirely sure of what you want to study and why you want to study it, remember that you don’t have to attend grad school to continue your intellectual growth. You can attend lectures at nearby universities, take classes as a non-degree student, or simply go to your local library.

  1. Are you thinking about grad school because you don’t know what else to do?

If this question makes you think, stop now! There are so many things you can do after college that don’t involve getting a graduate degree.

According to the Census Bureau, only about 11.5% of the U.S. population over the age of 24 has a graduate degree. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for those with only a bachelor’s degree is a mere 4%.

It’s a myth that you can’t find a job without a graduate degree. The vast majority of the American workforce has never attended grad school and never will.

  1. Are you mentally and emotionally prepared for graduate school?

Graduate studies can be a wonderful experience – intellectually stimulating, challenging, eye-opening – but the environment can also be intense. Given the pool of students around you, graduate school can take on a pressure-cooker atmosphere, and while the rewards are (usually) high, the demands of your program (and accompanying stress) will be significant.

The demands of grad school will also limit, at least to some extent, your ability to do other things. If there is something that you really wanted to do after undergrad – say, travel the world, teach abroad, move to a new city – with few exceptions, you should do that first so that you can feel settled once your start your program. The last thing you want to do is find yourself totally overwhelmed by other interests in your first year of grad school.

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October 9th, 2014

7 Big Differences Between College and Graduate School

Many students begin graduate school believing that it’s basically an overgrown version of their undergraduate education. I mean, you’re a student – right? How much different could taking classes and writing papers possibly be?

What's the difference between grad school and college?

The truth is, there are some big differences between college and graduate school. Being aware of the changes you’ll be expected to make can help the transition to graduate school feel less daunting. Here are seven of the biggest differences between life as a college student and life as a grad student.

  1. In Grad school, you’ll spend (a lot) more time on each individual course

It’s not uncommon for undergraduate students to take 5 or 6 classes a semester in college. In graduate school, five classes would be nigh impossible. A full course load is generally 3 courses – and for good reason.

Each graduate class will require a lot of reading, more than you ever thought possible in college – and more than might actually be possible in a week. You’ll have to learn to prioritize the most important readings and actively skim the rest.

Moreover, the structure of the courses will be different. There are virtually no lecture classes in graduate school; all or nearly all of your classes will be small seminars with 15-20 students or less. Even as few as 2-5 students in a class is not uncommon.

You’ll be expected to be prepared for seminars and to speak up and participate in the intellectual conversation. Your professors will be interested in hearing your insights. Higher quality is expected from your papers, presentations, and group projects. You’ll devote much more time to each class than you did in college.

  1. You’ll develop a laser focus on your topic of interest

Undergraduate education is primarily about breadth. In graduate school, your education will be focused on developing depth in a particular subject area. Coursework in graduate school is designed to help prepare you for your comprehensive exams and for writing a dissertation.

Develop a clear idea of what you want to study before you start graduate school, because you won’t have the same freedom to explore different disciplines as you did in college.

This is good news for anyone who knows exactly what they want to study and is ready to polish their knowledge in that field (which – at least theoretically – should be everyone in grad school). You’ll spend a great deal of time reading deeply within your field and participating in high-level discussions with scholars in your area.

The caveat, of course, is that this is not the time to explore brand-new avenues. While there is some flexibility and plenty of room to grow in grad school, for the most part your job is to specialize and become an expert within a specific field. You’ll want to build upon the knowledge you’ve gained in college.

  1. You’re expected to be(come) independent

In college, you were likely shepherded through the process of selecting a major and a class schedule. Graduate programs expect you to be much more independent – both in selecting your classes and in directing your research program.

Your classes themselves will also be more self-directed. While many undergraduate professors provide constant deadlines for big projects (e.g., by asking you to turn in a topic and an outline before turning in a final research paper), most seminar classes in graduate school will simply set a single deadline for the final paper. Moreover,that final paper may be your only ‘official’ assignment for the entire semester.

It’s your job to pace yourself and figure out what internal deadlines you need to set in order to get all your work done without overwhelming yourself into uselessness.

In research, too, you’ll be expected to be more independent. While you will get more guidance toward the beginning of your program, by the end of your first year you will be expected to have some fresh ideas about potential research or scholarly projects with potential to contribute knowledge to your field.

  1. You’ll be judged by completely different standards

In college, the most important thing was performance in your classes. If you did well in classes, you received good grades, and you were considered a “good student.”

PHD Comics - Grade Inflation

In graduate school, classes are just the beginning – and frankly, one of the least important aspects of your program. Good grades are commonplace and expected.

You’ll come to understand the oft-noted phenomenon whereby a “C in grad school is like an F in college.”

You’ll also be expected to get involved in research and/or scholarship early on in your program. The quality of your ideas and your research will be a far bigger part of how your advisor and other professors perceive you within the program than your performance in classes.

  1. You’re highly visible

Even at a small college, you might have been one of a hundred other students in your major, while at large universities there are thousands of students in every department.

It’s important to remember that unlike in college, you can’t just fade into the background if you want to succeed in graduate school and beyond.

In graduate school, you’re part of a much smaller cohort within your department, and as a result you’ll be much more ‘visible’ to your peers and faculty. The faculty in your department will form opinions about you based on the way you act, think, and speak in classes and at departmental events and meetings.

This is good – and necessary! These same faculty members become part of your network and you’ll want them on your side down the road when a hiring committee calls them for their opinion. You also want to be at the forefront of their mind just in case the perfect job for you crosses their desk or email inbox.

  1. You’ll be more involved with your department and less involved with the rest of the university

Many college undergraduates become highly engaged with the life of their campus – joining campus groups, cheering the football team on Saturdays and hanging out at campus hotspots.

While some graduate students are more active than others, in general graduate students are less involved in the social life of the campus and more involved in their department as the hub of their experience in graduate school.

Most of the people you interact with on a daily basis will be other students and faculty members within your department, to the point where you may find yourself completely unfamiliar with faculty and practices in other departments at the same school.

Graduate student organizations do exist, but typically they meet less frequently and tend to focus on different things than typical undergraduate social clubs. And while some graduate students live on campus, most will live outside the campus ecosystem.

In any case, the halls of your department will quickly become your home on campus, for better or worse.

  1. In graduate school, everyone wants to be there

Compared to college, the biggest difference in graduate school is that everyone wants to be there. Many graduate students think of their schoolwork as their job (and chances are, it is or will be) and this difference in mindset changes everything.

Your peers will stimulate and challenge you, and they won’t come to class in their pajamas. Faculty within your department will actually be interested in what you have to say. And because of this fundamental dynamic, you’ll learn more and discover that you have more to offer than you might previously have imagined.

This point should also be something that you think hard about before you decide to attend grad school: are you sure it’s what you want to do? If not, there’s no rush: wait until you know exactly what you want to study and make sure you can confidently answer the question, “Why do I want to go to grad school?”

If it’s where you want to be, you’ll find yourself in good company.

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