Things I Wish I Knew From The Onset: A Minor Guide For First Year History Graduate Students Straight Out of Undergrad

The aim of this blog post is to share with any prospective history grad students the things I learned from my experience as a undergrad student transitioning into a graduate history program during my first semester. I’m going to write about things I wish I knew going into my first semester at Villanova, and I hope that future history grad students will pull a few lessons out of this blog post and make their transitions easier (at my expense, haha). Also, a note to the reader: this blog entry is informal. Informal and humorous but informative (hopefully, no promises). Also, the views and opinions, suggestions and recommendations expressed in this blog post are solely the author’s own personal beliefs, and not representative of Villanova University, the Villanova University History Department, nor any of the other contributors to the Historically Speaking blog.

I’d like to start off by saying that in hindsight, I realize how well you settle into your first semester determines how the remainder of your graduate studies go. In short, the student you become your first semester dictates – mostly, with a few exceptions such as studying for comps – what kind of student you will be for the remainder of grad school. There aren’t many semesters in grad school to begin with (assuming you’re not in it for the long haul, or no unforeseen events negatively affect the timeline of your graduate studies), so it’s pertinent that you transition efficiently and somewhat quickly.

So the first thing I would like to say to future first year history graduate students is that studying history in graduate school substantially differs from studying history in undergrad. Quite an obvious statement, I know, but there’s more to this. Studying history as an undergrad is largely a matter of learning and remembering facts, names, events, etc. It does not require of you to think much about the sources or the author or origin of the facts that you acquire. It can be argued that graduate school teaches you how to think like a historian.

There’s more to each history book than the thesis and main arguments. It’s pertinent that you learn to not only read the narrative of the book, but also learn to read the dedications and acknowledgments, the endnotes/footnotes, the bibliography, and the index. While you would most probably not even take a glance at these in undergrad, these are as important for a history grad student as anything else in the book. There’s a lot you can learn from knowing what sort of sources the author used, what archives the author utilized in their research, whether or not the author utilized sources native to the country of origin (you wouldn’t exactly want to read a history of the American Civil War solely based on Soviet archives, would you now?).

Now, there are plenty of aspects of studying history in grad school that you will have to pick up on your own on the go (there’s simply too many to list), but there are some vital questions worth knowing from day one to help with your transition. Some of these questions seem basic and self-evident, but they can really help with reading “in between the lines”. Most of the questions that I am about to introduce will really help with studying and approaching schoolwork, but they can definitely be expanded and utilized in your own projects, especially when applied to studying your own sources. (Also, I’m omitting questions like “what is the thesis of the book?” or “what arguments is the author trying to make?”. I’m assuming you’ve figured out to ask those types of questions already, otherwise you’d probably not be in grad school to begin with)

1) Who’s the intended audience of the text? Simple question, but often you can tell a lot about the author and their personal biases based on who the intended audience is and how the author approaches them. (Hint: read the Introductions and Dedication/Acknowledgment pages). Are there political undertones to the author’s writing style? If the text you have at hand is a primary document, what’s the purpose of its existence? (Yes, we know, to inform, but inform who? Why? What are the implications of the intended recipient of this document acquiring the knowledge that the document-author is attempting to convey?)
2) What are the sources? Does the author utilize known archives or sources, or are they more obscure? Are there sources or archives utilized by the author that you would not expect to be used and are surprised by them? If so, what makes them so unexpected? Are there sources that you know of but are surprised to see that the author did not utilize in their research? Why could that be? Does the author attempt to be as precise and descriptive with their sources, or is the author somewhat vague? Like I said, there are many things the sources (read the endnotes/footnotes and bibliography!) can tell about the book and the author, and there are many questions you can ask of the sources to give you an idea of the author’s methodology.

3) Who’s the author? This ties in with the first point. You can tell a lot by who the author is and what their past experiences are with the subject matter. Is the author writing about a subject that they have experienced and lived through? Is the author known for previous instances of biased research and publications? Has the author been trained in a particular school of thought? How does the author approach this subject? This is quite an important question to ask especially when researching your own interests and work. Let’s say that you’re researching an aspect of the Holocaust. You’d be pretty skeptical to use a text written by an author who is a known Holocaust Denier, am I right? Likewise, this same point can be extended back to the second point regarding sources. Does the author utilize controversial sources, or sources authored by controversial individuals? What is the application of these sources by the author? In other words, you’d be skeptical of an author’s arguments when they’re held up by pseudo or questionable sources.

4) Who’s the publisher? A very important question when researching your own projects. You can tell a lot by the type of book you’ll be reading simply by looking at the publisher. If it’s some sort of university press, it’s probably an academic text of adequate quality that probably is a reliable text to utilize in your own research and work. Personally, I’d stick to these. If it’s a big commercial publisher that also lists “how-to” books or cook books in the “recommended books from this publisher” page of the book, ehhhhh…. it might be an informative and an entirely factual text, but you would not want to use it as your main source for a project you’ll be working on. Likewise, books published by commercial publishers tend to be less…… verifiable. If you’re reading something and the author makes a controversial claim but there are no footnotes, endnotes, or bibliography that you can check to verify the source of this claim, have a look at the publisher. It’s more than likely that it’s a commercial publisher whose sole purpose is to sell, sell, sell – not to contribute to nor invigorate the discourse of the particular subject/topic at hand.

If I could summarize the differences between studying history as an undergrad and as a grad student using a metaphor, it’d be something like this: If studying history was like learning a language, then studying history as an undergrad would resemble learning the vocabulary of a foreign language, whereas studying history as a grad student would resemble learning how to use the vocabulary to form coherent sentences and achieve fluency. In order to be fluent in a foreign language, you sort of have to think like a native speaker. You can’t be using American idioms to get a point across in another language. (Well, technically you can, but it probably wouldn’t make much sense to whomever you’re speaking with) The same goes with studying history in grad school. You have to start asking questions a researcher would ask.

Remember, a historian isn’t just someone who knows a lot of facts. Laypeople tend to forget, but history is a heavily research-orientated field. A historian’s strength is not the ability to memorize large amounts of information and facts and regurgitate them on command, but rather, the ability to think analytically to identify relationships between people, events, locations, and ideas throughout time and space. To put it metaphorically for a second time, history is one big murder case and we, historians, are the Sherlock Holmeses (or whatever the plural of Holmes is). It’s a literal mindset, it’s how we view the world. But how exactly do we view the world? More on that in a little bit towards the end of the post.

Let’s continue. My second tip for incoming history grad students is: don’t be intimidated. Who are we kidding, you definitely will be intimidated by your peers and professors. But don’t be. You have no reason to be. First of all, understand that you would not be in graduate school if someone did not realize that you are smart. You have the wits, you have the knowledge, you’ve proven it with your work as an undergrad, someone noticed it here in Villanova when you applied, they liked what they saw, and now you’re here. So when you’re in the situation where you feel like your peers are a league ahead of you, that you don’t belong here because you’re not smart enough, understand that you’re wrong about that. The truth is that there are things that others know better than you, however, there are things that you know better than other people.

Second, don’t be intimidated by your professors. Okay, maybe just a tiny bit (haha). It’s true, they know a lot more than you. You should not be intimidated by your professors, but rather, impressed and inspired. I can vouch that the professors at Villanova do not bite, and I haven’t heard or seen a professor chew a grad student (…yet). What I have seen, however, is students being intimidated by professors’ advice and corrections. Understand that unless you continue on to earn a doctorate, you will probably never be in such a unique situation where you will have the attention and full aid of nationally-acclaimed professors. They are here to help us, students, not to belittle us.

And perhaps most importantly, talk. Both in class and outside. I admit that my first semester I was one of the quiet ones in class. It did not suite me well, and I think I hindered my own transition into grad life. In my view, the earlier you take command of your own voice, the quicker the transition, and the quicker you settle in into grad life. After all, with class sizes ranging from half a dozen to just over a dozen students, grad classes are primarily discussion-based. I should not even have to mention that participating in class discussions is a large chunk of your grade in every single course you will take. Also, talk with your peers. Other grad students are your best sources for finding out information about school life. Second-year grad students are especially helpful with information regarding the history program, courses, professors, etc. Also, the history department at Villanova is particularly well-connected when it comes to program deadlines, campus events, and extracurricular activities. So talk with your peers because its important to have a social life, which brings me to my third tip.

Have a social life. If you just graduated from undergrad and are moving to a brand new city to start grad school – Philly and Villanova in this case – than here’s my tip: do not sit at home all day and do homework. For the first few weeks, make some friends, go into the city, see what the city has to offer and learn your neighborhood (assuming you’re not a native of the region). However, within the first month or so you will come to the conclusion that there’s only some many times you can walk around the city and your neighborhood before you get to know it relatively well and get bored of it. That’s why I recommend finding things to do outside of schoolwork to occupy yourself with. Pick up a hobby, join an intramural league – or what I highly recommend – pick up a part-time job.

Yes, studying will consume a lot of your time, but not as much as you think. People (especially second year grad students) make it sound like all you will be doing from 8am to 10pm every single day is studying, reading, and researching. It’s simply not true. I must concede that there will be weeks where you’ll have lots of work to do, but it’s never a“mission impossible” type of scenario. Believe it or not, unless you have other obligations, you will spend more of your semester bored than actually occupied and doing schoolwork. In my opinion, it’s best to be constructive with your time, particularly by picking up a part-time job.

First, you’ll be occupied, and therefore, not bored. That’s a good thing, trust me. Second, you’ll be making some money. If you’re straight out of undergrad, you’ll still have the energy of an undergrad. You’ll want to enjoy the city’s nightlife during the weekends, spend time with friends, go to a Villanova basketball game, etc. For all of these activities, money is sort of a must.

On the other hand, you most probably have student loans to pay off coming straight from undergrad. Picking up a part-time job is a perfect opportunity to begin paying off your student loans. Assuming you were a recipient of government subsidized and unsubsidized loans, it’s best to start paying off your unsubsidized loans as soon as possible out of undergrad. The interest on your subsidized loans will not accrue since you’re still in school as a grad student (make sure your loan provider is notified of your continued education). However, the interest on your unsubsidized loans continues to accrue, and paying it off first will save you money in the future. For legal purposes, I would like to take the time right now and mention that I am not a financial advisor and that you should consult a legal financial advisor and your loan provider before you make any decisions. (See, I even underlined it and made it bold so you can’t argue it’s not noticeable)

And the last point I would like to make is that in my opinion, it’s kind of the mature thing to do. Unlike in undergrad where all you have to care about is going to class and getting good grades, grad life is sort of the in-between step from undergrad into actual adulthood (yes, we were all legally adults in undergrad but how many of us actually acted like adults?). Acquiring a job helps with paying for your expenses (especially if you’re renting an apartment or paying for grad school out-of-pocket). It also forces you to adopt a relatively mature lifestyle and forces you to learn to manage your time. Which brings me to my fourth point.

Learn to manage your time. Assuming no unforeseen emergencies occur, grad school and grad life is very expectable. In other words, it’s very difficult to be caught off guard and surprised about schoolwork. Grad school in general requires a good amount of reading, time, and effort, but it’s easily manageable. Everything you need to know about your upcoming semester is in your syllabus, and usually the sole major assignment is a 20-page essay or so at the end of the semester (check your syllabi for exact details). Most of the semester is relatively calm up until that last month or so of classes when students scramble to research and write that final essay. That is why I highly recommend that as a grad student, you learn to manage your time by starting your final project early while things are calm (who am I kidding? Most people will read this their first semester and laugh it off, only to return to it their second semester and admit that I was right. Mark my words). Doing so will save you tons of stress, anxiety – and most importantly – sleep. Additionally (and this may seem contradictory, but) one of the reasons I recommend picking up a part-time job is because it literally forces you to learn to manage your time. I mean, there are grad students who have full-time careers and families to take care of (hats off to them). A part-time job limits the overall time you have available for schoolwork; never to the point that you’re barely finishing up with schoolwork on time, but just enough that you have to schedule things in advance. So if you haven’t taught yourself how to manage your time properly in undergrad, now is your time to do so for graduate school and real adulthood.

Now, here is a warning: what you are about to read is MY personal opinion. I admit, this whole blog post is largely based on my own experiences and opinions, so don’t feel like you have to follow everything or anything that I say (especially where I was talking about paying off students loans. Seriously, talk to a legal financial advisor and your loan provider before you make any decisions).

Whereas I am quite confident that most of my peers will agree with me on what I have written so far, I am also quite confident that what I am about to write will produce to a certain degree some consternation and controversy. I do not expect anyone reading this blog entry to agree with me on each and every single comment and tip I have introduced so far into this discussion, and I maintain that belief with what I am about to write. Therefore, if any of my peers or professors agree or disagree with my upcoming statement, I encourage them to continue this discussion in the comment section or with a blog entry in response. That being said…

You know how you had that one topic or maybe two which you really enjoyed studying throughout your life and ignited that initial interest in history, and they became your go-to topics for research and history projects in undergrad? Yeeaaahhhh, don’t do them in your first semester of graduate school. I’ve put some thought into this throughout my first year as a graduate student and I’ve come to two conclusions. First, there will be moments when you will be questioning your decision to go into grad school. There will be moments when you will be questioning your decision to study history in the first place. There will be moments when you will be anxious to the point of infuriation. You do not want that moment(s) to be while researching your favorite historical subject or topic. It will ruin it for you, and you will never approach that topic with such enthusiasm and interest as before. There can be nothing less damaging for a historian and their work than a loss of interest in their work.

In my opinion, the problem with researching your favorite topic your first semester at grad school is that most likely you will be approaching it the very same way you’ve approached it in the past at as an undergrad student, and to put it lightly, it will not suffice in grad school. You cannot do undergrad work in graduate school and expect a similar outcome. Professors expect more from you, and you ought to expect more from yourself. And this brings me to my second conclusion, and perhaps the most important conclusion.

Do not go to your go-to subject for a history project in grad school before taking the Theory and Methods course. I’ll be blunt with you. Yes, this course is difficult. Yes, it can be frustrating. Yes, it is even more so coming straight out of undergrad. But the honest truth is that you will not learn what you need to learn to succeed in grad school and to succeed as a historian by pushing this course off to the future. I highly recommend taking this course your first semester, because in hindsight, I must admit, that I would not be learning as much and as efficiently without learning the theoretical aspects to history as offered by this course.

Remember earlier in this post how I wrote that in order to be a historian, you need to develop a proper mindset – a historian’s mindset? A historian’s mindset is being able to view a historical topic or subject through a different perspective to provide alternative interpretations that need not agree with one another, however, altogether provide a more holistic understanding. What the Theory and Method course teaches are the various theoretical approaches to interpreting history. Different theoretical approaches identify different areas of interest, highlight different attributes, that help to explain and interpret a particular historical topic or subject. This might all sound like one big Russell’s paradox, but the truth is that there is no one sole definitive understanding or interpretation of history. As long as there is substantial verifiable evidence, no interpretation is absolutely wrong. A historian’s mindset, in essence, is being open to all verifiable explanations, or alternatively, having sufficient verifiable evidence to posit one’s own explanation. A fundamental question a historian asks – and a question the Theory and Methods course introduces you to – is “what best explains this historical topic?”

I would like to end by returning as to why I discourage using your go-to historical topic or subject from undergrad for any projects that will be required of you during your first semester at grad school. I’ll be straightforward: you will be approaching your topic as you always have because you haven’t taken the Theory and Methods course and you won’t be utilizing the full range, full scope, full spectrum of possible theoretical approaches to analyze your topic. When you’ll be required to put in a large amount of effort at the end of each semester to write a 20-page paper, at least try to gain a new understanding of your topic. What’s the point of putting so much effort into something you’ve already done in the past, when you can put that same amount of effort to use and learn something new? (This last point can be extended to anything in life, really. If you absolutely have to do something, do it in a way so that you come out of it having gained something in the process).

In conclusion, I hope that at least someone somewhere read the whole blog post, actually made it to the end, and gained some insight for what they’re about to undergo from someone who just underwent it. In the end, grad school is just like any other level of schooling you’ve entered in your life; what you gain out of it and what you earn is dependent on the work you put in. There’s no magic formula, but hopefully these tips will be helpful and make someone’s transition a tiny bit less stressful and a tiny bit more easier. Last tip, don’t end your essays with “in conclusion”.


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