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.

 

 

 

I Got Ya!: Last Minute Grad School Application Tips

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Last December, I remember scrambling around to read those final books class, write those last papers, work those last few weeks, and finish those last minute applications to doctorate programs. You are in that place of trying to finish one dream while working to start another and it is stressful. This is a late post, but I wanted to share some tips for people who are applying to graduate school in the next few weeks.

Graduate school application requirements:

  • Application form.
  • Application fee.
  • Statement of Purpose
  • Resume/CV
  • 3 Letters of Recommendation
  • Transcripts
  • GRE Scores
  1. Application Form-Take the time to review every line on your application form. Did you write the correct e-mail? Did you select the correct program? Phone number? Name?! If you are applying to dual programs, make sure you follow the directions provided by each program. Resist the urge to skip through the last review pages before pressing submit.
  2. Application fee-My first act as future president is to waive application fees. We are students and let’s be honest some of us can neither afford nor ask our folks for $85-$100 to pay for an application fee. Plan ahead and save ahead (if you can). Ask the program if they can waive the fee if you are in a dire financial situation. Some schools said no and I was unable to apply, but I made the effort to ease the cost of applying to graduate school. I decided to keep my list short, 3 schools, but then fear sunk in and I added two additional universities. If I could start this process over, I would have kept it at three. Three should be your magic number, but if you have the $$$$/fee waiver you can do whatever you like.
  3. Statement of Purpose-This two page, double-spaced paper is the hardest piece of writing. Write, proofread, ask a friend to review it, and then a professor. Repeat the process until you feel comfortable attaching this paper to a $75+ application. Although you can write a generic statement of purpose (swapping out school names/professors you hope to work with) make sure you read the fine print of what each program is looking for. You always have that one school who wants to be different.For the most part, each school asked:
    -your purpose/objective in pursuing a graduate degree in ___________
    -your interests in ____________
    -research projects in the field
    -why __________ college/university
    -who would you like to work with

    For tips on writing this paper, follow these directions given by writer/poet/superwoman Eve Ewing.  Her directions helped me get into graduate school.

  4. Resume/CV-My rule of thumb if are applying from a master’s program to a doctorate program is to use a CV. If you are applying from a bachelor’s program to master’s or doctorate, use a resume. Have the chair of your department, professor, or the career center glance this over before submitting. They are available these last few days of the semester.
  5. Three Letters of Recommendation-If you did not ask for a recommendation in at least a month’s advance, I do not know what to say. Ask nicely? Beg? That is all you can do. If you are pressed, ask a professor who truly loves you and has previously written a recommendation for you to another graduate program. Also note, LOR have to be submitted by the due date as well unless otherwise noted.
  6.  Transcripts-Most universities allow applicants to upload an unofficial transcript and will request an official one if you are accepted. So there is no need to rush unless they requested an official one. Most colleges/universities have an option for rushed transcript orders.
  7. GRE scores-Make sure you send them to as many schools as possible when you take the test. If not, you are looking at $27 per school. Most schools will ask you to manually input your GRE scores, but will need official test scores from ETS at some point.

For those who have later application dates-I can provide greater details on how I applied to graduate school if needed. Something I cannot stress enough is a spreadsheet with the following columns: the school’s location, application cost, deadline, faculty members you want to work with, financial aid package (if PhD go to a program that is fully funded for at least five years), number of LOR, GRE score requirements (I only applied to schools that held no GRE score minimum), details concerning statement of purpose, and rank the school from 1 to the number of programs you are applying to. This will help you stay organized and you can mark them off/highlight them as you complete each application. Create folders for each program on your desktop under the umbrella folder, ‘PhD programs’.

Hope this helps and if you need someone to read over a statement of purpose. Let me know, I got ya!

#Blkgradlife

Christina

#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

The Thesis Process

This past January I celebrated my five year research anniversary *does a happy dance*. Since 2012, I conducted research on the Flowers family and continued my research into graduate school. I had a small advantage–I completed the majority of my research over the years. At this point, I simply needed to write. It was impossible to write of three generations of this family history; therefore, I needed a theme to focus on which spoke to the family’s accomplishments and resilience. After meeting with my advisor, we chose the theme of educational activism and education as a “weapon of the weak”–a tool of resilience.

523649_484062104958005_652410085_n First presentation on Rachel Flowers, October 2012

I organized my thesis into three chapters with of course an introduction and conclusion. Each chapter studied the educational activism of grandfather Reverend Joseph J. Sawyer, his granddaughter Rachel H. Flowers, and his great-granddaughter Geraldine L. Wilson. Three biographies equaled three historiographies and three vast histories to share. With a theme and a thesis, I began and confronted my biggest fear head on–writing.

I am sensitive about my writing. Let me clarify, I am sensitive about writing for academic audiences, creative writing is more of my area. Because of this, I must leave myself time to proofread, edit, and deal with passive voice. And that my folks is how you cure procrastination. Now, the thesis process requires extensive editing from thesis readers and this process was humbling to say the least. I wanted to cry because of minor mistakes I made, I wanted to yell because I failed to grasp a full understanding of passive voice, and I wanted to quit because honestly at times I felt inadequate. One thesis reader in particular left no page of my research without comments. It took time for me to remember that one I am learning; two, my committee offered this criticism to prepare me for my next endeavors; and three, they were looking out for a sista.

Overall, the process was nothing to dread and far from those horror stories you hear from other graduate students. Once you find your research topic and become passionate about your work, the words flow right into the page. My advisor made it clear in the beginning that as long as I do the research and the work, I had little to worry about. You as a student must do the work on your end to get the paper done. Oh, and my first chapter won the departmental award. So confront your thesis head on and your fears:)

Now that I shared a piece of my thesis story. Let’s discuss some thesis tips.

  • Set a timeline and stay in communication with your committee. The timeline helps you stay on track as you are completing your thesis hours independently. No professor has  time to ensure you are on track and coming unprepared to schedule meetings is a big no-no. It can be interpreted the wrong way.
  • Establish your own personal thesis goals. How much time a day are you devoting to research and how much time are you devoting to writing? What do you want your communication with your advisor to look like? Have you all discuss this?
  • Set one or two break days. This gives you time to focus on PhD applications, other coursework, and hobbies. This gives you time to “break-up” with your research and to reunite with your research with fresh eyes.
  • Edit in sections. I realized editing 45 pages over a few days was too much. Edit per section.
  • Zotero! Zotero! Zotero! Zotero is a lifesaver. Simply download the standalone and Google extension to pull articles and books citations. After you save each one of your references, you can pull an extensive list in the citation style of your choice in seconds.

Zotero

Hope this helps. Until the next post,

Christina

Thesis Woes

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(A rare glimpse of me on the blog)

As I entered my (second) first semester of graduate school, my goal was to meet with my adviser as soon as possible. I firmly believe that we are an academic “match made in heaven”. We discussed my background, interests, and most importantly my thesis. Since my senior year (undergraduate), it was my goal to finish the Flowers history as my masters thesis and to move forward in a Ph.D. program with a new thesis (which I already have #nerd). With her approval and support, she told me the words I wanted to hear, “You can do this.”I expressed some hesitation in the logistics behind this thesis; however, she assured me that this could if I framed it in the correct format.

I agree, but how?

For over two years, I have been blogging about this family’s history and this has been no easy task. This family touches on a multitude of history-military, education, sports, the rise of the middle class, migration, opera, fashion, religion, etc.. To compile their history in three chapters, each of 25-30 pages, is a daunting task. Whose story do I leave out/whose story do I include? What if it is not good? How would I feel if someone wrote this about my family? This brings me to the bigger question at hand-how do I arrange this thesis?

I am working with the following breakdown:

I. Title Page
II. Genealogical Chart
III. Abstract
III. Intro: Meeting the Flowers
IV. Chapter I
V. Chapter II
VI. Chapter III
VII. Conclusion
VIII. Appendix

Current Possible Themes:

(TOPICALLY) Family history by location—(1) Florida (2) Pennsylvania (3) Mississippi.

(CHRONOLOGICALLY) To be an American, the fight to be an American through education, fighting in war, religion, class, etc.

Time to read some more books.

Until the next post,

Christina