Grad Students: Some Tips for Summer Productivity and Applying for Ph.D.’s

I was recently asked to speak to my department’s graduate student organization, COGS (for which I am the advisor), about thinking ahead to the summer. Basically, there were two main issues I was asked to address: thinking about Ph.D. programs (we’re a Masters-only program at UNT) and getting work (particularly writing) done over the summer. As a result, I came up with some general notes/ideas that I’d like to share with a wider audience. Some of these notes reference some UNT-specific things, but I think a lot of what I have to say is applicable to Masters students elsewhere. So here goes.

Applying to Ph.D. Programs (what to start now)

If you’re thinking about applying to a Ph.D. Program upon completing your Masters degree at UNT, you should start planning well in advance to get your ducks (or Mighty Eagles) in a row. What are those ducks? I recommend reading this blog post by John Murphy, a professor at the University of Illinois, which details some key points to consider in completing your applications: http://oratoricalanimal.typepad.com/oratorical_animal/2011/02/graduate-school-applications.html. With Murphy’s points in mind, here are some things you should be preparing now.

  1. GRE: You need to decide whether your current GRE scores are still valid (they’re good for 5 years) and good enough for a competitive Ph.D. program (1200 combined, 5-6 written is safe). If you need to retake the GRE, you’ve got a choice between two versions of the test. The current version (the one you took before) will be offered through July. Starting August 1st, the “Revised General Test” will be offered (http://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general). The new test, by all accounts, is a better test that offers some distinct advantages over the current test. One of those advantages is a 50% discount through September. Test scores for the new test will be reported in mid-November, which is early enough for most Ph.D. programs. Whichever test you decide to take, STUDY a lot so that you do well. Be sure to BUY a test prep book with a CD/DVD so that you can practice and study to resolve your weaknesses.
  2. Curriculum Vitae: You need to get your CV in good order. Period. Suzanne Enck-Wanzer has already addressed COGS about this.
  3. Writing Sample: Your writing sample is one of the most important parts of your application. It should be clear, clean, free of ALL errors, focused, and representative of your capabilities. This can be a chapter from a thesis or a well-revised seminar paper that’s 20-30 pages long. It doesn’t need to make a massive theoretical contribution to the field; but it does need to demonstrate that you can research, write well, and make a compelling argument in a scholarly context.
  4. Personal Statement: This is one of the most important parts of your application and should not be put off to the last minute. Look at Murphy’s recommendations (link above) and plan to revise this with the aid of your advisor. While it’s called a personal statement, it should focus on your professional experience, development, and goals (not on your personal life). Cutesy gets rejected. Seriously. There should be some kind of personal narrative/hook; but it needs to relate directly to your professional goals. This is your chance to make the case for why you are a good fit for their program. You can write a general statement for all your applications, but expect to then tailor that general statement to fit the specifics of each program to which you’re applying. Expect also to give it to your advisor well in advance of any deadlines so that you can request some feedback.
  5. Plan, Plan, Plan: You need to spend the summer getting all your stuff together and coming up with a long list of programs that interest you. When the fall term starts (if not sooner) you should talk with your advisor and whittle your list down. Applications cost a lot of money and are time consuming; so don’t plan to apply to 20 programs. Narrow it down to 10 or less (as a general rule, but YMMV) and be sure you’ve got a safety school. This process is not one into which you should enter lightly—it’s one that requires planning and a certitude that you want to continue with your education. If you’re not SURE you want to get a Ph.D. and have good reasons for doing so, you probably shouldn’t. Passion for the work that you do is key; so if you’re not passionate about it, getting a Ph.D. is a poor life decision.
  6. Letters of Recommendation: Once you’ve decided where you’re applying, make a spreadsheet with this information for each school: Name of school, deadline for letters, form of submission for letters (i.e., hard copy or electronic), address (physical or URL) to which the letters should be sent, a bio of the program to which you’re applying, names of people you and the person or committee name to which the letter should be addressed. Give this spreadsheet to your letter writers at least two months before the first deadline. Follow-up with those people two weeks before each deadline if their letters haven’t been received by the requisite admissions departments.
  7. Plan to Attend NCA: If you didn’t submit a paper or if you get rejected, submit something to the Round Tables on Works-In-Progress, the call for which will go out soon. The deadline is usually in June. It’s important to go to NCA to scope out the grad school open house (where you’ll meet professors and grad students at the programs that interest you), to meet other faculty through one-to-one introductions by UNT faculty who know them, and to meet other faculty and grad students at various panels. NCA is the main gathering for the community to which you belong; as such, attending NCA really isn’t optional for those of you planning to move forward in academia.

Importantly, you need to be in early contact with your advisor and other members of your committee about the possibilities and potentials of your continuing work beyond your Masters degree. They are going to be able to guide you better than any list ever could.

 

Getting Things Done Over the Summer

Summer is hard because you lose the structure of the regular school year. No longer do you have deadlines on the syllabus to keep you honest. Moreover, you’re more likely to have family and friends pulling you in 80 million directions since you “have the summers off.” So how do you avoid losing your entire summer in the blink of an eye? I think the biggest and most important thing is that you have a commitment to getting things done and an idea of what “things” and “done” mean. For starters, you might take a look at something like David Allen’s [amazon_link id="0142000280" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Getting Things Done[/amazon_link] system (a synopsis for which is here: http://personalmba.com/getting-things-done), which is a system for reducing your stress and, um, getting things done. Additionally, here are some tips that I found/find helpful for my independent productivity.

  1. Make a To-Do List: This is part of the GTD system, though I don’t follow Allen’s system religiously. Basically, you’ve got to keep a good to-do list that breaks down tasks into digestible chunks. “Do X Project” is not a to do list item; rather, it’s probably several specific tasks (research journal articles, search library catalogue, get books from the library, process research, draft lit review, draft analysis section, etc.) that occur in several unique contexts (at the computer, in the library, at the archives, etc.). Breaking things down helps to make order out of the chaos and makes it easier to set a good game plan and track your progress. I use Toodledo (http://toodledo.com), which has an iPhone app of their own and several other 3rd party apps. A lot of folks like Remember the Milk (http://www.rememberthemilk.com), which also has apps available.
  2. Set a Schedule: It’s the summer and your time is flexible. But if you don’t prioritize time to work and stick to that, then you’re going to quickly find that you’ll have no time at all to do your work. Set aside specific times on specific days to do writing, research, etc., and do not, under any circumstances, schedule something else in that time. You wouldn’t schedule a coffee date during your grad class, right? You wouldn’t go see a movie while you were scheduled to teach, right? Well, you’ve got to treat your summer scheduled work time like it’s set in stone, too!
  3. Write Everyday: I’ll admit, I’m bad at this because I’m more of a binge writer; that said, I know it makes me a bad person. Pretty much every successful academic will agree that it is extremely important to write every singly day. Now, those same academics will readily admit that only a fraction of that writing is salvageable; but that’s true of all writing. If you’re using everything you write down, one of two things is happening: either you’re using some seriously crappy writing sometimes or your laboring over every word to such an extent that it’s a minor miracle you ever finish an assignment. To help get you in the habit, I recommend 750words.com. The site lets you track the ideal amount of daily writing (750 words per day) and even lets you make it a competition against other writers and yourself (if you’re motivated by such things). Additionally, 750words lets you export your writing as a word document in increments you’ll find useful. I’ll actually be using the site this summer to keep me writing every day.
  4. Form a Write Club: The first rule of Write Club is: You only write about Write Club. Writing groups are handy for a couple of reasons. First, it creates accountability. Every time you meet, you set goals to accomplish by the next meeting. Second, it functions as a support group where you can talk about the challenges you face in writing and help one another address those challenges. Third, more eyes help. Even if you give yourself time away from a piece, you’re always close to it, which can make effective proofreading and revising difficult. With a Write Club, you can review and offer feedback on one another’s writing, which is a huge help. For Write Club to work (a) it can’t be too big (3-5 members is ideal), (b) it has to meet regularly (and virtual meetings over iChat or Skype could work), and (c) you have to be honest with one another (and be willing to receive honest feedback, even if it hurts.
  5. Make a Reading List: Summer can also be a great opportunity to fill in the gaps in your book-learning. We can’t teach you everything you need to know in your classes. You have to take the initiative to form a summer reading list (perhaps asking for suggestions from your professors) and take it on independently. How else do you choose things for your list? Make note of all the sources that are cited in the literatures you engage and track them down. For example, lots of folks in rhetoric and cultural studies talk about Althusser on interpellation. If you haven’t read it in class, go read it! Reading a lot of work inspired by Marxism but haven’t read a lot of Marx? Go read some Marx! As a variation on Write Club, you could even form a reading group to tackle some of the more challenging readings with a group of friends.
  6. Plan Some Rest/Fun: For goodness sake, it’s summer … so plan to have some decompression time! You’ve worked hard all year and deserve some time off. Time off, however, shouldn’t mean 2/3 of the summer. Get work done, but get play done too—it’s key to finding balance and keeping a positive outlook on life.

All of the above suggestions work for the regular school year as well as they do in the summer. The unique thing the summer offers is your chance to work on something you started in the regular semester or maybe didn’t even have the time to start despite your interests. If you’re writing a thesis, you’ll obviously be trying to focus in on it. If you’re not, however, then you can use the summer to take a project that started as a seminar paper and start working on making it better—better for a conference or, better yet, for the ultimate goal of publication. Alternately, you can tackle a new research project that’s been eating at you but just didn’t fit your coursework.

Be creative, be active, and be productive.