Year 3: Lessons from a PhD Candidate

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Me, 2020


I decided to take a hiatus from the blog during my second year of the PhD program. The summer before, I experienced loss after loss in my family and fell behind in school. Grief is difficult to work through. Some days you feel okay, some days not okay, but I wanted to continue with my blog. I missed y’all and thank you for the warm welcome back. 


 

I am officially a PhD Candidate. Last May, I passed my comprehensive exams, both oral and written. Now I am focusing on my dissertation project on Geraldine Louise Wilson and a few digital projects. During my first year as a graduate student, I wrote a blog post entitled—#BlkGradLife: Lessons From a PhD Student, Now, two years later, I provide further insight into life as a PhD Candidate.

Initially, I gave five pieces of advice—(1) Stay on top of your reading, (2) Talk to your advisors, (3) Continue to have a social life, (4) Stay in touch with your family, and (5) Talk with other students. Would I still stick to this advice now, yes, but with a few more additions.

Create a work schedule. At the moment I am juggling digital projects, writing a journal article, dissertation prospectus, and fellowship applications, and classes. Outside of school, I am pursuing other community projects. What am I saying—I have a lot on my plate. In order to balance everything, I had to create a work schedule and a writing schedule to stay on task. Ideally, I want to work/write for at least four hours a day. I do not find an 8-hour work day productive. At the moment, I work on research and outside writing items from Mondays to Wednesday. I spend Thursdays and Fridays simply writing. As for the weekends and evenings. . .well that goes into the next piece of advice.

Take the weekends off (if you can)/and weekday evenings. When I go home, I cannot do work. It comes to the point where it is quite impossible for me to complete work at home. My house is my space, my sanctuary, the place where I can lounge, not a place where I want to be stressed out doing work. It creates a nice balance and a time to turn off from school. My writing goal—a chapter per semester (summer included).

Check-In with your Advisor. Let your advisor know what is going on this semester. What are your goals? Writing schedule? What are you applying to? Also I had to replace an advisor, which was difficult to do…I also still have to have that conversation.

Do community work. Do more work, I know right? But being at a large research institution that has abused the poor and Brown/Black members of its community, I cannot simply attend and not care about the community I’ve now lived in for three years. So yes volunteer with a non-profit (that does good work), invest in the youth, support local activists, and support local organizations.

Find your crew! When I came into graduate school, I was the only woman and non-white person in my cohort. They were cool people, but not my people. So I begin to build my community outside of my cohort, program, and university. Folks who could encourage me, laugh with me, and just keep me motivated throughout the program. This year, I definitely have a strong crew of Black women who make the program 10x greater. We root for one another and push for one another. It is truly a beautiful thing.

 

 

 

#BlkGradLife: Lessons from a PhD Student

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Graduation Photo by Vika Photography (Charlotte-based photographer)

For those who are new to my blog, welcome! I began my PhD journey this past September. These past few months have been long, but full of many lessons. This post is five pieces of advice I learned along the way to assist you in your graduate program whether you are working toward you masters or doctorate degree.

1. Stay on top of your reading. Regardless of your discipline, graduate programs are comprise of a great amount of reading. This was no surprise coming from a masters program, but in a PhD program you have to adapt to not only class readings and research reading, but also reading for fields/comps. Currently, I read two books a week for class as well as 2-3 books/articles in preparation for my field. This will double next semester as I begin my major field list and into the fall as I prepare for my two remaining fields. So if I fail to stay on top of my readings, I will fall behind in class, my field, my program, and basically life in general. So how do can you manage this large amount of reading? Speed-read/skim. Which honestly I failed to do in undergrad and my masters program. It takes a few weeks to master the art of speed reading and hopefully these tips will help.


Speed Reading 101 (created with tips from my advisors/PhD students)

  1. Focus heavily on the introduction and the conclusion (also any corresponding footnotes). What is the author’s thesis/main arguments? Research Questions? Historiography of the topic and how his/her book challenging and/or expanding the current historiography? Source material? (Write notes)
  2.  Read the introductory paragraph and concluding paragraph to each chapter. (Write notes)
  3. Choose one chapter to thoroughly read, specifically a chapter of much interest to you.
  4. Skim the remainder of the book paying close attention again to the introductory and concluding paragraph. It also helps when the author provides a conclusion in each chapter. Sometimes, you can “cheat” and read just that. 

I can do this in 3-4 hours depending on the book (some are too good or theoretical to quickly read); however, create your own speed reading process. 


2. Talk to your advisors. Luckily, I have two great advisors who are bad asses in their respective fields. Our communication began soon after I gained acceptance into the program and continued throughout the summer before I arrived to Hopkins. Although they are both relatively new to the department, I feel well equipped to succeed with both of their support and mentoring. And most importantly, they want me to succeed and it is amazing to have professors affirm that you are smart and that you belong at the university, especially when the space is white and male-dominated.

3. Continue to have a social life. I think we fall under this bad misconception where we equate graduate school to a life of exhaustion and seclusion from the outside world. I try my best, although it is inevitable, not to allow my stress or anxiety to build up in addition to my school work. In order to keep stress levels at a minimum, you have to create and STICK to a consistent schedule. My academic day begins early. My daily goal is to be on campus by 8:00am and I typically leave around 4:30pm (depends on my class schedule). If I met all my goals that day, I can relax, watch Greenleaf/Queen Sugar/How to Get Away With Murder, hang out with friends, and sneak a book in before bedtime. I also set a schedule of when to work on research papers, class, and personal research endeavors. Again, adjust this to your schedule and set your own personal daily and weekly goals. With this you can create a free day, a day to relax, read for leisure, and travel the city (or stay in your apartment all day and finally hit up that overflowing laundry basket).

4. Stay in touch with your family. The biggest mistake I made in my masters program was not staying in touch with my family. Now, I have a relatively large family, but it was still no excuse. What changed? My great-grandmother, who I promised to always call, passed away after Thanksgiving. By that time she was already sick and nonverbal. I really took the time to reflect on how much I prioritized my education over my family and realized something had to change. Communication does not always take the form of a phone call, if you live close by plan a surprise visit, write a card, send a text, or a Facebook message. No matter how you communicate, stay in touch.

5. Talk with other students. Make a study buddy, an advice buddy, a lunch buddy, and a venting buddy–in other words make friends. I converse with students within my program who provide tips on speed reading, note taking, forming a field, and navigating around the city. Also the random and much needed check-ins of how you are doing in the program is a great time to sit and say hey I am doing okay or hey I am not doing okay. They either been where you are or going through the journey with you. Smile a little and make friends.

Hope this helps. If you are a graduate student and want to add more advice, please feel free to do so in the comments section. If you are looking at graduate school as an option, feel free to leave questions.

 

Christina

We Don’t Want No Problems: Tips for the Archives

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Schomburg Center, summer 2017 (I am excited to visit the newly remodeled Schomburg Center next month)

For those who are new to my blog, I am working toward my PhD in History with a focus on African American history. The department requires each of us to submit a first year paper, or our “rite of passage” into the department. As I begin to outline and sketch out this paper, I plan to make a trip to the Schomburg Center (Harlem) and the Mississippi State Department of Archives and History (Jackson, MS). I journeyed to many archives over the years and I learned an important lesson–no two archives are the same, meaning they each have different rules. Some allow cameras, some do not. Some allow you to bring your own paper, some do not. Some even allow you to bring your own pencil and personal (portable) scanner, and some do not. The archives were a new environment for me back in 2012. I entered my first research center with little knowledge of how these places work. How should I organize my finding? If I cannot take photos, what is the best way to document my research? Did I check the photos division? To help some new scholars, this post will provide you with tips on navigating these storehouses of history.

Plan ahead, plan way ahead. 

Do you have a place to stay? What’s the duration of your research trip? How are you travelling around the city? Is it cheaper to go during this ______ time of the year? Does the archive have research grants or fellowships? What times are they opened? Are they closed on certain dates/days of the week? How much does it cost to print? Also did the information you need magically became digitized? It is important to answer these questions because research trips are pricey. You also want to be prepare for the trip. If you planned a two day trip and realized you have 15 boxes of material to go through, you will run into some problems.

Make sure your material is on-site. If the archival collection is off-site, you will have to contact the archivist (or use an online form) in advance to have the material retrieved for the week of your visit. At most archives, this can take one or two days up to a few weeks. You have no time to waste on research trips.

Study the collection’s description before arriving! 

 

I cannot stress this enough. If possible, gather a sense of what is in the collection before going. A detailed collection description should accompanied the collection within the catalog (if  processed). This will enable you to prioritize boxes and maximize your research trip.

Learn the rules. 

Paper. No. Laptops. Yes. Pens. No. Portable scanner. Depends.

Most archives (besides smaller historical societies) will not allow you to bring bags, laptop cases, notebooks, or even other books. Know the rules of the archive you are going to. Some rules are universal, but other are location specific such as cameras, scanners, and paper.

Stay organize.

Written notes– Simple. Head each paper with the box #, folder #, and document title before proceeding to write. Later, type up all of your notes and save them on your computer, CLOUD, and flash drive (no flash drive, simply e-mail the documents to yourself).

Electronic notes– (BEFORE YOUR TRIP) Utilize the collection description to create folders based on box # and within each box’s folder, a folder corresponding to each archival folder. This way you can enter your notes into each respective document. NOTE: You can wait to move the notes post-trip. Also this helps as you take photos of each item you need. Before photographing documents, first take a picture of the box # and folder title. This will keep your photos organize when you import them to your computer. When you move on to the next folder/box, just take another picture as you create visual reminders of which photos goes to which box. Once the images are imported to your computer, rename each picture using this format, Box_Folder_Title. Save on computer, cloud, and flash drive.

Reminder about photographs. Some archives remove photographs from collections and place them in a separate division. Check both the archival reading room and the institution’s photography division as well.

Last, contact the archivist. 

Share your research, ask questions, and tell the archivist when you are coming. Archivists are your friends and you want to remain on their good side. An archivist in Mississippi was an additional help when it came to lodging information, car rentals, and even good food in the area.

Additional notes. 

Bring snacks. Explore the area. Take breaks. And most importantly bring a nice sweater.

Best of luck on your research journeys!

Christina