Preparing for Comprehensive Exams: Advice from a PhD

By Guest Contributor Rozzmery Palenzuela

Qualifying exams tend to be intentionally mystified and that often makes preparing for them an arduous experience. Typically, doctoral students begin prepping for their comprehensive exams in their final semester of coursework and the process takes anywhere from 6 months to a year.  The process is simple: identify your committee, make your lists, do the reading, study the material, and pre-write. But simple processes are not exempt from complications and are certainly not removed from stress. These are my tips and takeaways on how to advance to candidacy (relatively) stress free:

1.  Identify your committee early: for those who have stayed in their field of study for a long time, it’s more likely than not you go into the program having identified professors that you want to work with and fields you want to specialize in and that makes this process a lot easier. For those that are switching fields or face departmental hiccups –– i.e. professors leaving, retiring, or disputes over advisor status and who gets to chair) –– do your best to identify these people early on and get an informal committee set up for when you start prepping for exams.

2.  Bureaucratic work: Many universities require doctoral students to fulfill language requirements and submit a number of forms; identify the deadlines and always submit your paperwork at least 60 days before those deadlines (it can save you a lot of grief to get those things taken care of early on)

3.  Comps Lists: After preliminary conversations with your committee about what your field with them will look like, you will then start forming your Comps lists. Some professors have a strict list that they want you to use, while others allow you to use their lists as a guide but expect you to make your own list.

  • Pro-tip #1: if you have taken classes in any of your fields, do the best that you can to include books that you’ve already read. For example, if your field is Modern European History and you’ve taken a class on 20th century Consumer Culture, create thematic subfield and include the readings from that class.

Remember: Your lists are not fixed. They are very, very fluid and will change periodically as you make your way through each section. Usually, professors will “greenlight” a list and tell you to jump into reading, but will make modifications and suggestions for further reading as you have conversations about each subfield and your reading/research interests.

  • Pro-tip #2: Let your proposal inform your list. If you’re planning to write a dissertation on Gender in Early Modern Spain, make that a subfield, or subcategory in your list. Your readings for each field should help guide you in the way you structure your teaching and should serve as a foundation for your dissertation proposal and bibliography.

4.  Comps prepping: Your lists are “done” and it’s time to start reading. Starting is often the hardest part. Depending on your field/department requirements, talk with your advisor about which lists to tackle first especially if temporally, it makes sense to tackle one list before the others. The order, in the end, is up to you.

  • Pro-tip #3: By now you should know what kind of a note-taker you are from having taken years of graduate coursework; Comps prepping is about making that process more efficient and less time-consuming.
  • If you’re a person who types, find the best platform for storing your notes; if your preferred annotation style is to handwrite, find the best way to note-take that’s separate from the marginal notes that you write in the source (book, article, etc.). Whatever your style, just remember to digitize your notes. Having the ability to Ctrl (or Command) + F and search through your notes will save you so. much. time.
  • Pro-tip #4: Once you finish a subfield, get in the habit of writing a “Comps Question” for that section and doing a rough outline or writing a short paragraph about how you would answer that question (and what readings you’ll pull from). This is a good habit to get into as some professors will expect you to contribute largely to the formulation of your comps question.

5.  Proposal writing: Every university has different requirements for what the proposal should look like. Get a firm sense of what your requirements are and ask advanced PhD students/candidates to share their proposals with you for guidance and make sure that you are clear about deadlines.

  • Pro-tip #5: Begin thinking about your proposal early on and in your meetings with your committee; after you finish each subfield, think about how the readings in the subfield inform your approach to the proposal: do they force you to ask methodological questions? Do they help you narrow your proposal idea? Etc.
  • Remember: your lists should help you write your proposal.

Begin writing the proposal at least two months before the deadline to give you ample space for your committee to review and make suggestions for revisions.

Take away suggestions:

  • Have very open and candid conversations with your committee about their expectations for the meetings as well as the written or oral exam. You don’t want to start off on the wrong foot.
  • Think like a professor. Role play and flip the script. If you had a graduate student, what things/themes/arguments would YOU want them to know from the readings in the subfields/lists
  • Also get to know your professors: who trained them and who they’re friends with and collaborate with. Odds are that they know their work best and it will come back and bite you if you don’t understand or are not familiar with their work or approaches.
  • Know when to stop reading and when to start pre-writing. This is very important; stop reading 30 days before the exam and start pre-writing as soon as you have or relatively know what your questions are or could be. 
  • Remember that your professors are rooting for you. We all are. Imposter syndrome is unavoidable but have faith in yourself that you have done the work and you are capable of proving your mastery of the field. Your committee would not let you take exams unless they know that you’re ready. Stew in that and let that give you confidence as you take the written and/or oral exams.
  • Before the exams: Get a good night’s rest, eat well, drink lots of water and remember to breathe. Your body and mind will thank you and will take over from there.
  • After exams: go out and celebrate with friends. Distract yourself and take a much needed rest. You did it!

Rozzmery Palenzuela Vicente is a third year Ph.D. student at Florida International University where she studies gender, family and childhood in Modern Latin America with an emphasis on Cuba. She is also interested in comparative communist cultures, black internationalism, and tackling heavy theoretical works – most notably, affect theory. In her spare time, she is an avid film buff, beach bum and actively engages into arguments with Miami-Cuban Republicans.

Graduate School Funding Decisions

Introduction: In our last post we discussed the daunting acceptance and rejection process of graduate applications. This week we are highlighting an integral part of that process which is, applying, receiving, and maintaining funding for graduate studies. Before accepting an offer to any university, you should always know the “price of admission” or how much tuition will cost without internal or external funding. It is our collective experience that it is better to accept an offer from a university that is willing to fully fund you for a higher degree. There are a variety of opinions when it comes to funding for graduate schools and below are just some of our experiences: 

Dragana: When applying for grad school, funding is something important to consider and plan for. We all hope that the schools we are accepted into will have enough funding to offer incoming students, but that is not always the case and especially now with COVID-19. We have seen a lot of universities cutting funding overall and this results in fewer funding opportunities for students. My advice would be to accept a school that offers you funding because it waives your tuition which is the biggest cost factor. While you are still responsible for taxes and fees, it is not nearly as much as tuition (keep in mind that different universities and programs offer different funding packages). With that being said, you might still have to take out student loans. If you have no funding through your program, there are fellowships that are available to students—some require an application and some don’t, so just be sure to research them properly. Often second year students who did not get funding for their first year do end up getting it, but that is not something that you should rely on.

Ultimately, if you are applying for grad school you already have an idea of how much your degree is going to cost. If you attend a university in your state, then tuition costs will be lower than for an out-of-state university. As acceptance letters have been sent out and decision time is approaching, I wish all of you the best and hopefully our posts are able to assist you in some way with funding opportunities.  

Clayton: While simply getting accepted into a graduate program is a major accomplishment, finding the funding for the program is also a major concern for anyone looking to attend graduate school. Graduate school is far from cheap, so in many cases the decision whether to attend a program or not is tied directly to what funding is offered along with the acceptance. When I was first accepted into the graduate program at USF, I was told that all the graduate assistant positions in the History Department were already filled. There was no more funding in the department for any more GAs. While this was initially disappointing, admittedly I was not fully sure what a GA position meant and what funding it would provide.

This all happened in February of 2018, and throughout the rest of the spring and summer I went about preparing to attend the History program at USF. I had made the decision to attend the program even though I didn’t receive any funding. Although I was excited to begin the program, the finances were always in the back of my mind. Then, with less than two weeks before classes began, I received an email saying a spot had suddenly opened up for a GA, and it was being offered to me. It was at this time I also realized how much funding was provided to GAs. I was worried about whether I would be able to handle the combined graduate workload and the GA workload, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. It was a sudden change to my graduate school plans but looking back it was an amazing opportunity that changed so much. 

Kiri: Funding is an important facet when considering which schools to apply to or whether you should accept an admittance. For my MA program, I did not receive funding my first year and it put a lot of extra strain on my ability to do work because I had to find outside employment. I was lucky, however, because I had recently moved back in with my parents and my family helped to support me whenever I needed it. I was thus in a privileged enough position to accept a position at USF without funding for the first year. I received funding in my second year as an MA, and for me the lack of funding for the first year did not outweigh the merits of pursuing my MA.

When I was looking for PhD programs, however, I knew I would have to go to a place that offered me funding, or I would not be able to go at all. When I received my acceptance into FSU, I did not hear about funding until a much later date because I was shortlisted. During this period, I couldn’t help but begin to question myself and my worth, especially as I later learned that my funding package was a bit more limited than the fellowship packages a lot of my peers received. It’s hard to not tie your worth to your funding package, or lack thereof, because it feels like a solidified value that the institution ascribed to you. Even today, the limits of my funding package cause me anxiety because a lot of stress and tendrils of imposter syndrome stem from questions of why I was not “good enough” to earn a fellowship package. However, funding (much like acceptances) is not some hard-set determination of your worth. It’s important to understand your own needs when looking for schools and remember not to settle for a package that would cause too much strain or stress. For some, a full funding package is needed to attend a graduate program, but for others the funding isn’t as necessary. Both are okay, but it’s important to understand where you fall on the spectrum before committing to a program. 

Chelsi: Last week I mentioned that I had applied to eight schools and gotten into two for my PhD. What helped me make the decision from two very similar state schools was primarily the different funding packages I received. FSU was the first school to tell me about my acceptance and very quickly gave me a strong fellowship package that included a year of research funding. A few weeks later, I was nominated for a minority scholarship for incoming graduate students by the department. My other package was a run of the mill assistantship funding, where I would be working for five years for my tuition waiver and would have to fund research through other methods. Considering the cost of living in each city, FSU was definitely the better offer.

But there were other things to consider as well. When I had initially looked into the schools there were less professors at FSU in my area of study. I was also apprehensive about moving closer to family and staying in Florida, where I had been my entire life. I didn’t immediately jump for the bigger package, but asked around with friends, professors, and family of what they thought would be better. Ultimately, I email both schools asking for a visit, to sit in on some classes and meet the professors I would possibly be working with in person. FSU paid for my visit and the other school essentially told me they couldn’t afford it. Money doesn’t mean everything, and I may have been better off at the other school, but as someone coming from a poor background, just knowing that I would be more financially sound at FSU meant much less stress to worry about overall.

Graduate School Acceptance and Rejection

Introduction: It’s that time of year when graduate schools begin to send out acceptance or rejection letters to potential students. It’s a very stressful time for many of us wanting to continue our education. We all know that the graduate application process and waiting for an answer is daunting. All of our team members have gone through the graduate school application process. We have all been at some point accepted, accepted with funding, accepted without funding, waivered, and rejected. In this post we present some of our experiences, feelings, and general knowledge concerning the acceptance and rejection period.

Kiri: When applying to PhD programs, I decided to apply for six different schools to spread myself as much as I could without completely breaking the bank. Of those six schools, one school accepted me. I always knew that PhD programs were competitive, but the rejections of five different institutions felt like it solidified the feelings of imposter syndrome that began creeping up throughout my MA program. The one silver lining was that I received my acceptance for FSU first, and though I wouldn’t hear about funding until much later (which is a tale of anxiety for another time), this did help to soften the blows from the other schools. Having even just the one school gave me something to focus on and helped me to mitigate the emotional fallout from the other rejections. Though it’s taken me awhile to realize it, acceptances and rejections do not define my worth as a scholar, nor do they mean that I cannot pursue my dreams. It also took me a while to feel proud about my acceptance amidst all the rejections. When speaking of my acceptance, I always prefaced it with “only.” I “only” got accepted into FSU. I “only” made it into one of the six schools I applied to. I’ve now realized that receiving my acceptance from FSU is something to be proud of though— getting into FSU was an accomplishment in and of itself. I’ve stopped needlessly prefacing the “only” in my acceptance, and learned that my worth as an historian, an academic, and a person is not tied to the number of acceptances I receive. My one acceptance turned out to be the best thing for me, and I could not be happier with where it landed me. 

Dragana: Getting a rejection letter from a university (or all of them) you had your heart set on can be crushing. Besides not being able to attend the university and program I wanted, the emotional impact it took on me was great. I began to question myself. Was I even good enough to pursue a PhD? Did I choose the wrong area of focus? Were my school choices wrong? Is my research interest not good? It became difficult to focus on anything else besides my failure. As my friends were celebrating their acceptances, I was closing in on myself and refusing to talk about how I was feeling. There came a point where any time my friends were talking about their future schools, I would quietly go back to my office and be disappointed in myself. The more I tried to not think about it, the more I actually thought about it and the worse I felt. It wasn’t until I broke down in front of my friends in my office that I started to feel a little better. It took me a while to come to terms that although it didn’t work out this time, it didn’t mean that I had to give up. Understanding that just because I didn’t get accepted doesn’t mean that me and my work were not good enough. It’s okay to take a moment and feel disappointed, but you have to push forward and focus on what comes next. It was difficult for me to accept my failure, but that’s what made me work harder on making a stronger application for the next cycle and it paid off.

Chelsi: I applied to eight schools and got into two of them. I had heard all of the normal platitudes: “Academia is akin to a lottery, where most of it is luck. It doesn’t mean you’re not smart, but that luck wasn’t on your side. Sometimes these things just happen.” In a lot of ways, I was lucky, because the first letter I got back (from FSU) was an acceptance, which lessened the sting of the later rejections a bit. What surprisingly hurt me the most was an acceptance to another master’s program—when I had applied to the PhD. It seemed like a backhanded compliment, like the school saying that I had the potential, but that I obviously needed training only that they could provide. It made the master’s that I was still in the process of working on seem pointless and made me feel stupid for going to such a low level school in comparison to the one I was applying to.

In the end it was still technically an acceptance though, with no funding. Obviously, I didn’t accept their offer, but before I received it, I didn’t know that such a thing was common. It took me by surprise and bruised my pride quite a bit. I had to weigh the prestige of a better school against the idea of starting grad school from square one all over again. My other acceptances won me over, but this one gave me the most to think about.

Clayton: Applying to any college program, undergrad or graduate, can be a daunting task. Generally, when it comes to picking the programs that you are going to apply to, it is best to have few in mind. This allows you to focus on your favorite school or program, while still having other options available to you. This is something that I learned only through experience. While I did apply to multiple schools for graduate programs, I only applied to one school for my undergrad. While this did work out for me in the long run since I was accepted into my first-choice school, looking back on this it was definitely risky! If something would have happened with that application, I did not have a backup option. 

Luckily, I didn’t take this chance when looking at graduate programs. I applied to a few programs for graduate school, and in the end was accepted into two of the programs. While this was exciting, a major issue was funding. Although I had applied to be a graduate assistant in each program, I was told all GA positions were filled for the upcoming year. This was very stressful, since graduate school is not cheap, and the GA positions would have helped greatly. I still decided to accept the USF program; being accepted into any graduate program is a major accomplishment and I wanted to take full advantage of my opportunity. Figuring how to apply to a college or program can be almost as stressful as the actual courses. Planning out your applications and knowing what your bottom lines are when it comes to funding doesn’t make it easy, but it can make it less stressful in the long run.  

Taking a Break

Dragana: With the fall semester having ended and the spring semester approaching, it can be difficult to take some time to just relax and not worry about work or school. Oftentimes we feel like we need to work, to be productive or we are doing grad school wrong. While some students outside of the humanities are not able to take proper time off, think of those who work in research labs, those of us that have a break tend to struggle with it. How do I relax and stop looking for work? Is it okay to silence the emails? Is my advisor going to be okay with me taking a break? These are some of the questions that I’ve asked myself and to be honest there have been moments when I just want a break and don’t care, but there is always this voice in the back of my mind telling me that I need to be doing something school related. While the pressure to do well and be productive is still there, I know that I need a rest.

At the end of the semester I could feel myself burning out. I was working hard to write my final papers and once I was done, I didn’t know what to do. I had all of this free time now and what did I do? I waited around for one of my papers to be graded so that I could see if I wanted to submit it for a future conference. Instead of taking the time to relax and clear my mind, I was busy thinking about my paper and whether it was good enough. My professor ended up grading it fairly quickly and I submitted it for that conference. After that, I told myself that I was going to take the remaining time for myself.

I allowed myself to be lazy. I watched some shows on Netflix. Re-watched some movies that I love. Most importantly, I gave myself a week or so to forget about school and my work. it felt great. Sometimes we become so focused on work that we forget to give ourselves a proper rest. If we keep pushing ourselves to work without a break, our work is going to struggle. Knowing when to take a break is very important because it gives you and your body a break from all of the pressure that you may be feeling. As the end of my winter break comes to a close, I am still relaxing and enjoying my free time. I know that once the spring semester starts I will be busy and most likely won’t have a proper break for a while. I hope that other students will allow themselves to take a week, or a few days at least, to just forget about school and the responsibilities that await them. Know that it is okay to take a break and recharge yourself. Work can wait, your mental health cannot. 

Chelsi: Academia tries to pull a very mean trick on its students. Anytime a break is written on the calendar, such as Thanksgiving break, Winter break, Spring break, etc., we are told that those are prime moments to get some work done. There’s always another conference, another paper to edit to try to publish, and another language that you should know. It does not particularly help that grad school and fellowship applications end up due at this time.

I spent the first weeks of December compiling a list of fellowships I should apply to for the summer. Then I remembered that the idea that I should be working on my break is actually a huge scam. This fall semester which had the normal challenges of grad school, but also extra challenges due to COVID. I am tired of listening to professors and colleagues either telling me how much I should be doing or how stressed they are because they haven’t done anything. I did not plan on reading any books or furthering my research or planning for my future. I have an email from my advisor still sitting unanswered in my inbox, that I will get to when the semester begins. It’s called a break and I will take the break. It does not make me lazy, or a slacker; it only means that I want to take care of myself and use the time as intended. There should be no further discussion past that.

Clayton: Graduate school has a habit of burning out students. A long semester of research, writing papers, classes, and other academic responsibilities is enough to drive up anyone’s blood pressure. That’s why breaks of any kind during the semester are a necessity for every student to make sure that you stay fresh and on top of your work, and to just keep from getting overloaded. That’s why whenever an extended break comes up during the semester, it is important to take a little bit of time to decompress. I would typically try to read something that was unrelated to my major focus or go to a movie theater. Both allowed me to turn off my academic brain for a while and enjoy something that was not related to any of my work. It’s important to find these little distractions for yourself, whatever they may be, in order to allow yourself to relax when you have the opportunity.

While the major breaks are the ones everyone anticipates and looks forward too, they are unfortunately few and far between, especially in the spring. A small way I would try to de-stress when there was no break was to set aside a couple hours during the day when I would do something to take a small break from classes or research. Usually it was something as simple as taking a quick walk outside, anything to take my mind off my studies. These mental breaks may not seem like much, but they can help break up the sometimes monotony of academic work and keep you fresh and invested.

Election Anxieties: The Elections of 1800 and 2020

By: Clayton Richards

Another election cycle has come and gone in the United States. The practice of peaceful and efficient transfers of power have been a hallmark of American democracy for most of this nation’s existence, and it has allowed American democracy to survive almost 250 years. While this concept has become a steady part of the political way of life, it was not a concrete principle, but had to be established and put into practice. Many elections have helped create this tradition, but the one that can be credited as being the most impactful in establishing this tradition is the election of 1800, also known as the “Revolution of 1800.” This contested election was the first real test of the American Constitution and electoral system, and what helped prove that the American republican experiment could succeed.   

While the current Constitution is a well known document, it did not create the first American government. This was the Articles of Confederation, which was adopted during the Revolution. Although the Articles helped unite the colonies during the war, they proved to be weak afterwards. During the years after the Revolution, the weak Confederation government teetered between bankruptcy and ineffectiveness, while also dealing with constant threats of disunion and open rebellion. After years on the edge of the abyss, the 1786 Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts pushed many in the U.S. to call for a new government, which was established in 1789 with the adoption of the current U.S. Constitution. The origins to the election of 1800 can be found in these early years of the new government under President George Washington. Although Washington never joined a political party and wanted to avoid the formation of parties in his government, two “factions” began to form that would evolve into the first parties: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.

These two factions developed in the Washington years, and finally emerged as function parties after his retirement in 1797. This caused problems with the election of 1796, due to the way the elections were set up at that time. There was no separate vote for President and Vice President, the person with most electoral votes became President, while the runner up became Vice President. With the development of the Federalists and Republicans, this created a tense situation where John Adams, a Federalist, became President while Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, became his Vice President. The end of the century saw many intense political battles between these two parties as they became more entrenched in their ideologies..

The Election of 1800

The election of 1800 was a rematch of 1796, featuring Jefferson vs. Adams. Each party ran two candidates, with one meant to be the Vice President (each elector cast two votes; one elector would vote for someone else, giving the main candidate a one vote lead). Although the candidates did not campaign for themselves at this time, political mouthpieces and newspapers spread the candidates’ and parties’ platforms while attacking the opposition. The Republicans attacked Adams and the Federalists as being monarchical, elitist, and attacked them for raising taxes and the Alien and Sedition Acts. Federalists in turn attacked the Republicans as dangerous anarchists and Jefferson as a dangerous atheist who would bring the bloodshed of the French Revolution to America. However, while the Republicans generally rallied around Jefferson, the Federalists were a divided party. Washington, although he had never joined, was seen as the head of the party, and his death in 1799 left a vacuum. Although Adams was President, he was not overly popular and a group Federalists, called High or Ultra Federalists, rallied around Alexander Hamilton. Adams and Hamilton despised each other, clashing over how to deal with the escalating tensions with France. Adams was working to send peace envoys to France, while Hamilton, who was in charge of the Army raised in case of open warfare, wanted to use the Army to expand the U.S. into Spanish and French territories in North America, and maybe even to suppress Republican opposition to Federalist policies. Adams eventually won out, sending the envoys to France while also firing Hamilton loyalists from his Cabinet. Adams went into the election with a divided party while Jefferson was riding the opposition wave. It came down to Adams (the would be king) vs Jefferson (the anarchical radical).

Leading up to the elections both parties were fully mobilized. The political newspapers printed scathing propaganda aimed at the opposition, while supporters for each party rallied and brawled in streets across the U.S. Despite this backdrop the election itself went smoothly. However, as the results began to come in, both parties were unsure how to proceed. It became clear that Adams had been beaten in the election by the Republicans, but no one received a majority in the Electoral College. Additionally, the Republican electors had failed to leave one vote off for Jefferson’s Vice President, meaning Jefferson and Aaron Burr were now tied in Electoral College votes. In only its fourth presidential election, the U.S. was forced to look to the Constitution for what to do next. A deadlock like this meant that the election would be sent to the House of Representatives. Although the Federalists held the majority in the House, the Republicans controlled more state delegations (states vote as a block in this instance), but still not enough for the clear majority needed. Since Jefferson and Burr were the only ones tied, no Federalists were considered. This did not stop some Federalists from exploring ways to stay in power. Some suggested delaying the vote past the March 4th inauguration date, which would mean either the president pro tempore of the Senate (if one was elected) or Speaker of the House would be President until December. A small group wanted to invalidate some electoral votes and give the election to Adams outright, while others wanted to support Burr to spur Jefferson and make Burr rely on Federalist support for power. Republicans also were concerned. Their main worry was that Burr had not stepped aside from the election, but he hadn’t said he wanted the presidency either. He was taking a wait and see approach to this election to save his political career no matter what happened, but this approach was causing tension to mount among the Republicans. As the February 1801 House election approached, both sides continued to weigh their options.

Tensions Rise

As the House met in February both sides were discussing their options. The Federalists were divided between those who wished to find a way to hold onto power and those who wanted to make the best of the current situation. Adams virtually disappeared after his defeat, so Hamilton led the Federalist efforts in Congress. Jefferson was meanwhile trying to figure out how to secure the necessary votes while dealing with Federalist demands and Burr’s unexpected challenge. In this tense environment, anxieties and conspiracy theories ran rampant. Rumors spread that the Federalists meant to assassinate Jefferson while both sides accused the other of starting two random fires in Washington D.C. Threats of violence were commonplace among this turmoil. Several Federalist Representatives received threatening notes or had their houses pelted by stones. Republicans also threatened that if Jefferson’s election was delayed or taken away, they would call for a new constitutional convention, looking to reorganize and amend the current government and make it more “democratic.” Most concerning was the news coming from Virginia and Pennsylvania, two of the strongest Republican states. The governors of both states sent messages to Jefferson stating that their militias were ready in case he was denied the election and took steps to make sure their militias were properly prepared. The Federalists also had their backers, with newspapers claiming that the militias of New England were prepared to meet any threat of force from Virginia and Pennsylvania. Although these threats of violence never came as close to happening as either side believed, many felt that disunion and civil war were inevitable unless something gave way.

Luckily, in this tense environment, calmer heads prevailed. For a week in the capital, the votes in the House were deadlocked. Jefferson was unable to secure the majority of states needed to become President. Working behind the scenes, Hamilton warned other Federalists that in his mind Jefferson was the lesser of two evils when compared to Burr. Some Federalists were willing to throw their support to Jefferson on the condition that he continued certain Federalist policies, mainly their financial program, the navy, and assurances that not all Federalists officeholders would be dismissed. This was the best-case scenario in the mind of many Federalists. Finally, on the 36th vote by the House, some Federalist delegations abstained from voting, leaving the final tally at 10 states for Jefferson, 4 for Burr, and 2 abstaining. This majority finally gave Jefferson the win, making him President of the United States.

The rest of the election process in 1801 was uneventful compared to the previous few months. Jefferson and the Republicans took power in March while Adams and the Federalists left office peacefully, although bitter over their loss. There was no civil war, no mass upheaval. The Revolution of 1800 was peaceful and showed that the American system of democracy could work effectively under intense pressures (although the 12th Amendment in 1804 made sure the votes for President and Vice President were cast separately, making the process smoother). Despite all the threats and allegations thrown out by each party, neither had attempted to use violence to either overturn or force the election results. This principle has been a cornerstone since 1800 and has helped American democracy thrive. While this election did show the possible dangers of contested elections, it also demonstrated how democracy survives in a republic and what we as Americans must do to make sure that it continues and prospers in our country.   

Further Readings:

Ferling, John. Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800.

Taylor, Alan. American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804.

Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815.

Sharps, James Roger. American Politics in the Early Republic.

For a brief overview of America’s other contested elections, read this recent Time Magazine Article:  

Stop Calling it Plan-B

By Guest Contributor: Tamala Malerk

Plan-B: The career-trajectory of the unlucky few who do not secure a position in academia after obtaining their Ph.D.

By referring to any other job besides one in academia as “Plan-B,” implies that there is a “Plan-A” that will work for the majority. Unfortunately, the “unlucky few” from my self-created definition above is today the vast majority of people exiting their Ph.D. programs. Each year, the academic job market remains stagnant and competition seems to just get more fierce. You are not only competing with other newly-minted Ph.Ds. but the hundreds of others who were previously rejected from positions. I wish that what I was stating here was new information, but we have been seeing articles and data about “Plan-B” since the 1970s with the introduction of the field of Public History. We’ve known for almost half a century that academia will not be the end for many, if not most, PhDs and we need to start preparing scholars for the world outside of academia.

By referring any job outside of academia as “Plan-B” places unnecessary and unwarranted shame on these jobs. There is nothing wrong with not working in academia, and some historians may not even want to work in academia in the first place. *gasp* Academia offers the opportunity to continue research and writing, but places all of its value in publication. If writing your dissertation was not the most fun you had during your time as a Ph.D. student, tenure-track professing may not be for you. Most scholars believe that if they don’t land that coveted “Plan-A” position that they will end up teaching secondary school. However, there are plenty of jobs out there for historians that don’t involve educating teenagers, and even if that is where you end up: there is no shame in that, and we need to stop stigmatizing these and any other non-academia jobs. (Did you know the federal government pays its historians upwards of 6-figures a year? No shame there). Academic programs need to start placing time, value, and resources in jobs outside of academia because that is where most of us will land, and I would like to get there without feeling like a complete failure and that the last four years of my life were not a total waste of time. 

My own experience in this has been both inside and outside of the college experience. In May 2017, I was a newly minted History M.A. on the job market in one of the most historic cities in the USA: Savannah, GA. There were tons of colleges, historic sites, and museums in the area; yet, I couldn’t even land a $10.00 an hour job at an archive or an adjunct position, both jobs that I had been conditioned to see as “lesser-than” anyways. Didn’t these places know I had a graduate degree in the humanities? I ended up teaching 7th-grade social studies and language arts, a position that paid equal or more than what many of my similar-aged peers made AND gave me summers off, yet I felt like a failure because it wasn’t a position at a college.

My second experience was in my Spring 2019 Ph.D. Interdisciplinary Seminar course where we learned about how to write syllabi, cover letters, CVs, and discussed the job market. I asked my professor why if we, the students, already know that there are no jobs in academia and they, the professors, also are armed with this information, are we being solely trained as academics? His answer was basically because that is all they, as tenure-track professors, know. They are the unicorns, the lucky few who make it to those coveted positions. We need to re-frame our Ph.D. programs so that students can gain knowledge and experience in something other than teaching undergraduates and writing conference/journal articles perhaps through internships and guest speakers. There are universities out there that are beginning to do the leg-work by reshaping how a dissertation is done and how students achieve Ph.D. candidacy, but we need work like this to become more wide-spread to see any real impact.

I don’t claim to have all, or, any of the answers, but I can provide some information for articles that got me thinking about abolishing the term “Plan-B.”

Career Diversity is Not Plan B: Thoughts from a PhD Candidate on the Nonfaculty Job Market

Guest Contributor: Tamala Malerk is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of South Florida. Her focuses include British Imperialism, Modern Europe, Public History, and Women and Gender. Her dissertation is about a British Gandhian disciple and still does not have a catchy title. In her spare time, she does freelance content writing for websites and, now, humanities blogs. Find her on LinkedIn at

How to Collect Information for your Research Projects

Around halfway through the semester, many graduate students are beginning or have already begun research for their term papers. From narrowing down a topic to finding primary and secondary sources to trying to understand those sources, below are a few strategies towards beginning a research project. 

Kiri: When thinking about my final project for a class, one of the hardest things for me is coming up with a concrete idea for what I want to write about. While normally the class itself can provide a good baseline (i.e, in my class about Gender in the Mediterranean, I probably wouldn’t want to write about generals from the American Revolution), there is still a lot of leeway for where one can go. Within this space, where I feel like I can write about almost anything, it can sometimes feel like I’m staring into an abyss of possibilities—and that feeling can be quite paralyzing. I’ve found that what helps my research is to start broadly about a topic I’m interested in, and then whittle my ideas down from there. I might home in on a specific region and time period, but I try not to form any research around any specific questions just yet. Rather, I delve into an idea that I can build upon. Once I’ve done some of this research, then I start to think about questions I think I would want answered and start to explore how to answer these questions.

Another way to help form your final topic is to reach out to your professor and see if they have any ideas that might help you. Talking to your professor, who is normally well versed in the field already, will also help you to establish a solid foundation for your research, and they might have some good ideas for how you can move forward if you get stuck. Overall, it helps to begin thinking about your idea early, but you also want to make sure you don’t limit yourself too much. Reach out whenever you feel stuck or need help, and remember to always research what you’re interested in—if you’re writing about something you’re passionate about, it can really shine through the paper

Chelsi: A library is generally pretty straightforward. You go online and search for your topic in whatever search bar your library uses. You find some sources there, and then go to the library (COVID permitting) and pick up the books you wrote down the codes for. Now let’s back up.

For me, moving from undergrad to grad school went from professor’s asking for six sources maximum to twenty sources minimum. Learning how to really utilize and understand what resources my library actually offers was tantamount to actually getting to the sources I need. I heard “talk to your librarian!” plenty of times as an undergrad, but as a graduate student, it actually makes all the difference. They can teach you how to actually use that search bar to its fullest potential—or tell you that it’s actually the worst system in the world and you really should be using this other much more intuitive system that’s hidden on the website. Setting up a meeting or going to one of the many lectures they have about using the library showed me how to actually use a database search and learn how to find and recognize primary sources from secondary sources. The history librarian at FSU has set up a specific page for historians to find sources, which I would have not known about without actually talking to him

Also, I learned pretty quickly that no matter how good a search system is, that nothing beats actually perusing the stacks. Instead of focusing on what I already knew I wanted, I take my time to look at the books around it. The organization system isn’t just there to make you wander all over in confusion, but to place books together on the same topic. Once I found out what combination of letters and numbers that the Glorious Revolution books all used, it became much easier to go in and get what I needed.

Use your library, but most importantly, make sure that you use your librarian and make them do some of the legwork for you.

Clayton: The process of writing papers or articles in graduate school will take up most of your time each semester, since these are usually the main focus of your courses and program in general. These papers will require a lot of academic materials to produce graduate level work, so the more resources that you have to pull from the better off you will be in the long run, and the less stressed you will be when trying to find that perfect quote or the piece of information that’s just right to support your thesis. Besides books, articles will end up being the main source of information, and in my experience one of the best databases to find these articles online is JSTOR. Most colleges and universities (as far as I know) give students access to JSTOR through their library, so any student can use JSTOR. JSTOR is an online database that has thousands of academic articles from thousands of authors, allowing students to search for any keywords or subjects that they can think of. JSTOR also allows you to narrow your search by dates, going back into the 1800s in some cases, which means that you can find primary source articles on JSTOR, which is a major benefit for anyone writing an academic paper. However, while JSTOR can be a great starting point for your research, the sheer number of articles can make it difficult to narrow down your ideas. On the other hand, some searches that are too specific can give you hardly any useful articles. JSTOR can be difficult to work with sometimes, but overall it is an amazing resource for anyone looking for academic information. 

Dragana: When you run into a wall while looking for sources and you feel like your search is not producing anything usable, WorldCat is a great resource that is readily available for students through their university. WolrdCat is a network of library content and services that range from books, articles, archival material, maps, and much more. It searches all the libraries in its network at once to locate all the libraries that carry your particular source and shows you the closest ones to you. You are able to check out the item and have it shipped to your university or view it online, for instance e-books are readily available as well as articles. For electronic versions, the search will tell you if an item is downloadable and it usually is for articles. If you are doing research on a topic or area that is not very popular—for example, early modern Balkans—WorldCat is a great resource. When I was doing my own research on early modern Balkans that turned up very few books in my university’s library, WorldCat provided me with literature that I didn’t even know was available. There were works by scholars that I have used in previous projects, but the number of new scholars and works that it showed me was amazing. It gave me results that were closer to my topic than most other databases I am used to using. I would highly encourage everyone to at least take a look at WorldCat and just explore what it has to offer. 

Frank: One great way to find sources and information about a research topic is using the footnotes and bibliographies of related works. Mining these sources can help put you on the right track for where to find relevant information, identify kinds of primary source data that is available or often used in studies of the topic under investigation, as well as give you a better understanding of the relationship between the different literature. A good way to start is finding several books or articles that are either relatively authoritative in the field or, for whatever reason, have a great literature discussion section. From here, you can investigate those other works mentioned and look into their primary and secondary source information. Another great way to see how literature connects to each other is using Google Scholar. Google Scholar allows you to search works and identifies other works that cited them. It also provides a convenient ‘related works’ search that can yield helpful results. Sometimes databases or library searches, especially virtual only, yield unwieldy results that can overwhelm a project early on. Using the footnotes and bibliography as a guide can be helpful when starting out on a project.

Stephen: “It’s all Greek to me?” I have heard this joke by too many colleagues who see me attempting to translate ancient Greek passages for various research projects. Learning and knowing one or multiple languages is typically a requirement for undergraduate and graduate programs. Understanding another language is vital to your own research as there is a lot of terrific literature in foreign and ancient languages.

The question is: How do you work through and comprehend a text that is not in your native language for research? There are various approaches to working through a translation. If you have some previous knowledge of the language and a good dictionary with some free time than you may have all you need. The major problem is when you run into a language with which you have limited or no experience in. Of course, you could throw the text you wanted to read into Google translation or a similar translating engine. Typically, a Google translated text is fine for basic understanding, but Google tends to miss certain nuances in other languages. What I have found to be the best approach in translating a language I do not know is to ask someone else! In my own experience, my colleagues were more than willing to help me through a language which they have more skill in translating. If you do not have this luxury the next best thing is to go to your school’s language department. The students and teachers in university language departments are more than willing to help you through a translation!

History’s Mysteries: Historical Halloween Hits

It’s almost Halloween, so we wanted to have a little fun with this post and tell everyone about our favorite spooky stories (and add in a little bit of history too). This week we dive into tales about the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a Serbian vampire Petar Blagojević, and the infamous Blood Countess, Elizabeth Báthory. 

Clayton: History is a great source for entertaining fiction, with many movies, books, and short stories basing their narratives and ideas around a piece of history. This is especially true for the Halloween season, since so much from history, from local legends to actual events, can be twisted into a spooky tale. From this category, one of my all-time personal favorite stories that has been spun into movies, TV series, and much more is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Written in 1820, the legend that is haunting the featured town has its origins in, for the time, recent American history, mainly centering around the American Revolution and the years after it. The story is set in 1790 and features two men competing to marry a woman in the town of Sleepy Hollow, New York. The town is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a Hessian soldier who lost his head to a cannonball during “some nameless battle” of the Revolution and has since been haunting the town and surrounding valley. Eventually one of the suitors, the famous Ichabod Crane, is chased by the Horseman, and whether the Horseman was real or the other suitor in disguise and the fate of Crane is left ambiguous.  

This story has proven to be incredibly popular and one of the earliest examples of American folklore. The supernatural horror of the legend has proven to have strong staying power in American culture, and the Headless Horseman is still a recognizable horror figure. Irving’s story has maintained a place in pop culture as well. The story was adapted into a feature movie in 1999, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp (one of my personal favorite Halloween movies too!) and was also made into a horror TV series in 2013. Besides those, many other TV movies, plays, games, and cartoon specials have been made about Sleepy Hollow, Disney even made a cartoon about it in the 1940s! The legend has even seeped over into the real world: in 1996 the town of North Tarrytown in New York, the original village Irving based Sleepy Hollow off of, officially changed its name to Sleepy Hollow. Irving’s legend has shown itself to be one of America’s most enduring folktales, and the perfect story for the Halloween season.   

Dragana: It’s spooky season and you know what that means? Scary stories. As Clayton has mentioned, history is a great source when looking for inspiration—think of Dracula or the Salem Witch Trials. As I focus on the Balkans, I’d like to share a story of Serbia’s vampire problem. Everyone knows about Count Dracula, Romania’s vampire, but few people know about Petar Blagojević (also known as Peter Plogojowitz) who is Serbia’s most famous vampire and one of the earliest sensational and most well documented cases of vampire hysteria in Eastern Europe. Petar was a peasant living in the late 17th-early 18th century village of Kisilova (modern day Kisiljevo) which at the time was part of the Hapsburg Empire. Told by the Imperial Provisor, after his death in 1725 Petar visited his wife looking for his shoes causing her to flee the village perhaps out of fear. Not long after, nine villagers became ill and died within 24 hours. While on their deathbeds they claimed that Petar had come to them at night in their dreams, bit them on the neck and sucked their blood. It was believed that Petar had become a vampire and was preying upon the people in his village. The remaining villagers, scared that they might be next, decided to exhume his body and examine it for any signs of vampirism. They found his body undecomposed, his hair, beard and nails had grown, he had new skin, and there was blood smeared on his mouth—all clear signs of vampirism. To be safe, the villagers staked the body through the heart which caused blood to spur out from his mouth and ears and burned it. The other nine villagers showed no signs of vampirism, but garlic and whitethorn were placed in their graves for safe measure. If you have the time, I would suggest reading the very short first chapter of Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality for more information on Petar and a translation of the Imperial Provisor’s account.

         In 2012, an article published in USA TODAY discusses another more famous vampire from the village of Zarozje (bordering Bosnia). The villagers have become fearful that the vampire Sava Savanovic has reawakened after a wooden mill that was thought to be his home, and where he drank blood from his victims, had collapsed. While many believe he is just a fairy tale, they are still being cautious by carrying garlic in their pockets and keeping wooden crosses in their rooms. The article states that the villagers are hoping to bring in more tourists to the region through their story, so maybe next time you’re thinking about visiting vampire sites consider adding Serbia on your list. 

Kiri: Vampires are certainly a popular topic for Halloween, and like Dragana I’d like to retell a story likened to that of Dracula—the tale of Elizabeth Bathory. Elizabeth’s story presents us with an interesting case study because we are certain that she was a real person, who was really tried for the crimes she allegedly committed. But her story becomes so sensational, even in contemporary times, it’s hard for historians to tease out the fact from the fiction. Nonetheless, what’s Halloween without a retelling of the story of the infamous Blood Countess?

In the early seventeenth century, a Hungarian noblewoman named Erzsébet Báthory (or, as she’s more commonly known today, Elizabeth Báthory) stood trial against accusations of witchcraft and the murder of at least eighty—though some argue as many as six hundred—young girls. The trial supposedly contained witness accounts from two hundred individuals, each one detailing the gruesome and horrifying ways that Báthory and a select number of her servants murdered young girls from around the village. According to legend, Báthory was a particularly cruel mistress who punished girls for even the most minor offenses. One day after striking a servant so hard that blood splashed on Báthory’s hand, she noticed that her skin was noticeably smoother where the blood landed. Obsessed with vanity and her own beauty, Báthory’s cruelty grew as she devised ways to bathe in the blood of her servants. Because of her noble status, there was little that anyone could do. Báthory’s crimes against peasants was hardly a concern for surrounding nobles or the Church. Once she had depleted the pool of young poor women, however, Báthory opened a school to teach noble daughters how to properly behave in high society. When a few of these girls went missing, Báthory had crossed a line. The afflicted noble families had enough power to finally grab the Church’s attention, and soldiers raided the Báthory castle. Scores of dead bodies were found, and with the trial Báthory and her accomplices were all found guilty—her servants all executed in varying painful ways, and Báthory herself sentenced to confinement in her room behind a brick wall.

As mentioned above, Báthory’s story even in her own time was quickly sensationalized, and it is hard for historians to pick apart fiction from fact. While nineteenth and twentieth century authors and creators embellished Báthory’s actions, more recent scholars have attempted to rescue the Báthory name, citing an over-reliance on fabricated sources. Either way, Báthory’s tale gives historians insight into the cultural world of both the time Báthory lived in, and the periods where her story became popularized. Although today she is remembered as the “Blood Countess,” her story offers more to us than simply a hauntingly frightening tale.

For more on Elizabeth Báthory, I recommend these sources, which I also relied on for this blog post.

 Kürti, László. “The Symbolic Construction of the Monstrous—the Elizabeth Bathory Story.” Croatian Journal of Ethnology & Folklore Research / Narodna Umjetnost , 2009, Vol. 46 Issue 1, 133-159.

Adam, Wayne. “Elizabeth Bathory–COUNTESS AND KILLER.” Renaissance Magazine 22, no. 5 (2018): 62+. Gale General OneFile.

For funsies, I recommend The Countess by Rebecca Johns. It’s a historical fiction, but a very good read. 

Stephen: The Greek and Roman world is just as spooky as today! The ancients did not celebrate Halloween, but they sure did like phantoms, witches, magic, and even zombies?! Scary stories about ghosts and werewolves were being told more than 2,000 years ago. 

A Greek Zombie?: “I know of a man who came to life twenty days after he was buried; I was his doctor both before his death and after he came back to life.” -Lucian, Philopseudes 26

Here is a list of modern works on ancient Greek and Roman Halloween related subjects: 

  • Greek and Roman Folklore (2006) by G. Anderson
  • Greek and Roman Necromancy (2019) by D. Ogden
  • Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity (1999) by D. Felton
  • Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook (2002) by D. Ogden
  • Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece (2013) by S. Johnston 

What are the steps in applying for grad school?

With an international pandemic, plenty of schools are changing their graduate school policies or not admitting new students all together. A lot of things are up in the air right now, so we decided to at least make certain parts of the application process clearer for students who will hopefully be joining us in grad school for the next year.

Dragana: With the start of October, many students might be wondering when they should begin their search for graduate schools. I would say start now! Finding the right school for you could be a long and exhausting process, especially if your area of focus isn’t as popular or if it’s a very specific field that not a lot of professors study it (I’ve been there). Getting an early start allows you to have enough time to properly research schools and programs, but it also gives you a good amount of time to reach out to professors who you are interested in working with. When I was looking for programs and professors, I used the American Historical Association (AHA) website to do a preliminary search for my area of focus. It’s a great first step because it shows you professors who focus on areas and topics you might be interested in—be careful though as not all of the information on it is up to date. Regardless, it’s a great tool to get you started and exposed to schools that might have a program that suits your needs. Create a document where you have the schools, programs, professors, and application requirements. It would also be a good idea to meet with a professor you are close to or your advisor to go over the list. Professors can provide you with some extra schools/programs and they’ll usually tell you some information you might need to know about your schools. If you start your search early you are giving yourself enough time to find the best programs for you and to complete the applications (which can be long and sometimes expensive). Good luck!

Clayton: Graduate school is full of hurdles, and the first major one that you will face is often one that is overlooked, applying and getting into a program. It may sound like a redundant statement, but getting into a graduate program is much more involved and in depth than getting into undergrad (something I did not fully realize when I first began to apply). First off, one thing I would definitely recommend when getting everything together for a graduate program is good time management. The process of applying involves multiple steps and some, such as signing up and taking the GRE test (if needed) and getting letters of recommendation, take time and may not fit perfectly into your timetable. You also have to get your own materials together, mainly a good writing sample, which means you can’t be preoccupied with constantly checking on external factors.  Making sure that you have all the necessary materials, letters, scores, and whatever else you need well before the major deadlines will eliminate a lot of worries and headaches.

Besides making sure you have everything to get into a program, you should do all you can to make sure that you are getting into the right program. Every program and professor has its own strengths and weaknesses, and before you even apply, you should make sure that the program and professors fit your needs and wants from a grad program. Make sure to go on the university website and look at what certain professors usually teach and what they have written on. Researching what certain professors study and finding one that works on a similar field that you wish to study will make your time in grad school much more enjoyable. Applying is only the first hurdle, but it can often be one of the tallest.    

Chelsi: After taking a year off from school, I decided to apply to grad school in 2016. I had moved back home, four hours away from my undergrad university and no one in my family had ever been to grad school. The process was a daunting one in which I had no one I thought that could help me. Like you may be doing now, I looked up checklists on blogs for what materials I might need, and still felt overwhelmed. Finding out that I needed a letter of recommendation (not just one but three at that) was by far the hardest part to conceptualize.

When was I supposed to ask? How do I ask? Who should I ask? The first is easy: ask as soon as you have a working list of what schools you want to go to, but no later than six weeks prior to a school’s application deadline. As for the second question: If you can go to the professor’s office hours or if you can’t send them an email. Remind them who you are and tell them what you want to apply to with a short description of what you plan on doing. Tell them when the applications are due as well. Attach a CV or Resume (which I go over how to write here) and ask them straightforwardly.

The last question is the hardest. In undergrad I was not close to my professors nor did I really go to office hours. I was applying to a history program but could only think about two history professors in which to email. When considering who to ask for a letter, make sure that you did well in their class, that they have a semi-secure position, and that you did a project for them in which you are proud of. My third letter was from an internship position I had in undergrad. This obviously worked for me, and I was stressed and worried every step of the way. Hopefully this can take some of the stress out of the process for others.

Frank: After narrowing down what schools and professors you might want to consider working with or attending based on your interests, it is usually a good idea to reach out before applying. Emailing individual professors who you may be interested in working with can be a great way to learn more about the program and clarify if you would be a good fit working with them or attending their school. Moreover, sometimes department website’s can be a bit overwhelming in what is said to be offered, specialized in, and possible about a program. By reaching out, you can receive more individualized feedback about how you might fit in the department if accepted. Since most applications start becoming due by the beginning of November, it is usually a good idea to set these correspondences in motion in advance of that; however, it is never too late to reach out since the application will likely not be formally reviewed until at least a couple of weeks if not much longer after the deadline. Initiating and maintaining good communication when appropriate is a great way to learn more about a program and get a better understanding of how things might work if you decide to attend.

Owning Pets as Graduate Students

As many of us know, graduate school is a stressful time in which the work seems to never end. It is an experience that can make you feel separated from friends and family and alone as you spend hour after hour doing assignments. Many graduate students try to combat the isolating nature of graduate school by adopting a pet or two or three. Adopting a pet during graduate school has an equal amount of positive and negative aspects which need to be considered before adding a fluffy or furry member to your family. This week we share our experiences with having, thinking about having, and taking care of pets during graduate school.

Stephen: In my first three years of graduate school I did not have any pets to call my own. I grew up with multiple dogs in my house and missed the companionship which they added. It was not until my girlfriend and I moved in together that I even considered adopting a pet again. We discussed at length the potential pets that we could adopt, but more importantly we talked about if we had the time, energy, money, and commitment to give a pet a fun-loving and joyful life while we continued our graduate experience. In the end we agreed that we could afford at least one pet. I was dead set on getting a dog, however my girlfriend reminded me about the time commitment that a dog needs compared to a cat and she did not think that we could properly tend to a dog’s needs. We decided to get a cat…. two cats! Getting cats has been one of the best decisions I have made being a graduate student thus far. They are fun, loving, and require less time to care for than a dog. We named our two cats Ares and Athena! The addition of both of them to our small family unit has actually made us both less stressful and gives a companion to play or cuddle with when we are feeling down. 

Clayton: During the ups and downs of Graduate school, it is always good to have a way to relieve stress and just feel positive throughout all of the papers and stress. While this can be filled with a wide range of hobbies or activities, one of the best ways to quickly relieve stress, at least in my experience, is by having a pet. Right now I live with a dog and two cats, and they can all be equal parts annoying and endearing. Sometimes your work in grad school can become very repetitive: reading a book, taking notes on the book, writing about the book…, and having pets can be a fun way to break the cycle for a little while with something cute and fun. Especially after COVID, when we’ve all been stuck inside for months, my pets have been  great to break up the monotony.

However, dealing with pets can also be a double-edged sword. While they are usually adorable and fun they often don’t fit neatly into our schedules. When I had to be up at 6:30 to drive almost 45 minutes to campus for my 8 in the morning TA class, one of my cats (who was new and still a kitten) had no problem running around and yelling at 2 in the morning. While they can be annoying when you least want it, for the most part my pets have been a great way to relieve the stresses of grad school.

Dragana: Growing up, my family always had pets–cats to be exact. When I started grad school, I was still living with my parents so all of the work taking care of the cats was done by them while I was in school. I would usually come home pretty late, so it was nice to be welcomed by a swarm of meows and pet-sessions. Now that I have moved away for my PhD, I have two new cats which have completely different personalities from the cats at home. Marko, a tuxedo, and Liam, a Persian, are some of the most loving cats I have ever had. Being with them 24/7 as a result of COVID has made our relationship stronger. I have come to realize that they play a big part of my every day. I talk with them, I feed them, I play with them. Liam has become like a shadow lately. When I’m in the kitchen, he is too. Even now as I’m writing this post Liam is sitting on my desk watching me. When I’m sitting in a zoom class, he’s there next to me sleeping. It’s a good feeling to have someone there with me even if no one can see him. 

Even though I chose to focus on the positives of having pets, it’s important to know that it’s hard working taking care of them. There will be moments when they’re sick and you have to take them to the vet which can be a financial burden if you can’t afford a large bill. You’ll have to feed them, clean after them, and give them the attention they need. Even though it’s a lot of work, I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Kiri: When I was in my MA program, I was still living at home with my parents in order to save money. The best part about living at home, besides the free room and food, was our pets. We have three cats, two medium sized dogs, and a behemoth sized dog, and there truly was nothing better than coming home to a surge of fur and drool after a long day of work or school. It was also helpful that as my mom, grandma, and siblings shared “ownership” of the various animals, I got to relish in all of the love and, aside from a few treats given here and there, didn’t have to worry about any of the maintenance. Moving to Tallahassee for my PhD program, though, where I had no pets at all, left a peculiar emptiness in my life. Aside from the abysmal student housing I naively thought would be a great idea to live in, my roommate also made it clear that she was not a pet kind of girl. I resigned to admiring the stray cats that roamed my apartment complex from afar, connecting particularly with one gray cat that liked to slink around our dumpster. I lovingly dubbed him “Little King Trashmouth,” after Dragana gave me the idea because of her love of Bob’s Burgers, and LKT’s choice for a hangout spot. 

This semester, I’ve thankfully found much better housing (and two amazing new roommates) and we are planning on getting a cat the second week of October. We’ve had to have a lot of discussions about the cost and logistics of adopting a pet, and what we need in the apartment so that a cat would have a happy home. Stress has been a huge factor in each of our day-to-day lives, though, and we’re so excited to have a new friend who will hopefully give us lots of cuddles and love to help ease some of that stress. COVID-19 has brought a myriad of heartbreaks, challenges, and stressors, but that one silver line is that this moment is perfect for busy graduate students who have been on the fence about adoption will finally have the time at home needed to give their new pet the love and attention it deserves. 

Chelsi: As I write this, my cat, John Cena, is meowing incessantly at the office door. If I were to let him in, he would first rub himself on all of my books, jump onto my desk, and then proceed to bite at me and my computer. If I go to the living room, he will lead me to his full food bowl, rub on my leg, and then try to bite my hand. Elsa is a much sweeter cat and only meows at me when she’s feeling particularly lonely. They spend their day laying in bed together until they realize that they’re too close and start fighting. Then I’ll have to go break it up and assure them that they can both share a queen bed.

Cats are a handful. I’ve had both of them since my undergrad and they haven’t gotten particularly easier. Since grad school, I have moved three times with them, and each time they scream in the car the entire ride and I have to give apartments hundreds of extra dollars for pet rent. In grad school, I have sometimes felt that I haven’t been able to give them enough attention, especially in the pre-Covid world, where I would be out of the house from morning to night at least five days a week, and often more. Automatic feeders provide their food and they have toys spread all across the floor, but they still want real human contact. In John’s constant meowing at the door, he is telling me that I need a break. My cats give me a reason to come back home and perhaps take a day (or just a morning) off, particularly when Elsa lays on top of me and refuses to move. They take time and dedication and money, but my cats have continued to remind me that my life is more than just school.