How to deal with Syllabi Anxiety

We all know that the first day of a new class can be the most anxious time at the start of the semester. You come into the class not knowing what to expect from the professor, other students, or the class itself. Through all of our combined graduate courses, we have seen that professors handle the syllabus and first day of class in a wide variety of ways.  These can range from first day scare tactics to underwhelming syllabi, to no syllabus at all. This week we share our experiences with all of these scenarios and how to handle the stress of the first day.

Dragana: The first week of a new semester can be a very exciting time—new classes, new professors, and even new friends. I think that my fellow contributors would agree with me that getting the syllabus for each class can both be very comforting and stressful at the same time. For me, personally, I find syllabi useful in terms of laying out what will be done week by week, but it also overwhelms me. Looking at the syllabus and seeing six readings for one class, a chapter in another, and six more readings for my last class—I don’t know where to start. Besides readings, assignments can start to pile up around the same time too. Looking at the syllabus and seeing the amount of work to be done can create a feeling of anxiety. While I still struggle with that, I have found that by not looking at the syllabus as a whole, but rather on a week by week basis and planning according to that helps alleviate some of the anxiety. Try looking at each class individually. Plan out on what days you will do the work for that particular class and then move on to the next one. And as a final tip: don’t forget to take a day off—we all need a little break every once in a while. 

Kiri: Syllabi are useful for keeping yourself on track during the semester. Most syllabi outline weekly readings and assignment due dates and give you details for expectations for assignments. At the graduate level, however, I’ve found that many professors err away from over-explaining the details of certain assignments, and sometimes they give you almost no guidelines at all. I’ve found that weekly reviews or end of term papers have the most instances of general or unclear descriptions and figuring out what exactly your professor wants from you could be tricky. Not knowing exactly what to do is uncomfortable, but it’s good to get used to this level of discomfort. After all, there isn’t going to someone there to give you strict guidelines when you’re working on your thesis or your dissertation. Your professors might be trying to help you find your voice while also honing your skills in academic writing. Knowing their good intentions doesn’t exactly help the anxiety of not knowing what on Earth you’re supposed to do though.

Graduate school is a time where you should start learning to quickly and concisely learn how to write a variety of different scholarly work— whether weekly responses, book reviews, or term papers. When your syllabus lacks clear instructions, I’ve found it useful to look up some examples of the type of writing you’re required to produce and try to emulate that. It’s also always a good idea to lean on your friends and colleagues. Exchange papers to make sure what you’re saying at least makes sense, and then as the semester progresses you can grow. Uncertainty can be stressful, but learning to operate within that discomfort and adapting, especially when instructions are lax, will help prepare you for when you’re researching on your own. 

Chelsi: The year is 2017 and I’ve decided to go back to school to get my masters. I was not given funding, so I secured a job with fairly good pay and flexible hours, a really great gig…at the movie theatre. I make my schedule, excited that after taking five or six classes in my undergrad years, I only have to sign up for three now. Everything was going to be perfect.

Things were definitely not perfect. As I have mentioned before that schedule didn’t last past one week. Reading those first syllabi, I was overwhelmed, scared, and anxious. My professors explained what was expected of the class in the first hour, and then jumped straight in for the next two. All those readings a week, final papers that I either didn’t understand (Historiography is much too big a word to not be scary) or were twice as long as anything I had written before. I couldn’t skip classes anymore and all assignments were required to be done (no more the lowest grade will be dropped). That anxiety the first time was overwhelming, and while it’s been three years since then, some syllabi still make me consider dropping out.

Overall, in 2017 that first week panic helped me realize that the schedule I had made for myself was not going to happen. I just needed to take a deep breath, pull out my planner, and chart week by week the assignments. While some weeks looked like hell, it also gave me a good indication of when things needed to be done. Syllabi are there to help you adjust your time and expectations, not to just scare you. Take a deep breath and it’ll be fine.

Clayton: When going onto a new class, I think that we all expect and prepare for the scare tactics approach from the professor and the syllabus. We expect to be bombarded with requirements and deadlines, however, what happens when it’s the exact opposite? In classes that I’ve had where there is no real scare tactics moment, it at first feels like a major relief. We’ve all had those moments of anxiety while the syllabus is being reviewed, so it can feel great to not have those initial pressures. These feelings only increase when there is also a lack of firm deadlines and assignments for the course. At first glance this makes it seem like the workload will be less than the other graduate courses, the one “easy” course everyone’s always looking for each semester.

These feelings shouldn’t last long, however. Even if a course/professor feels initially underwhelming, it is still a graduate course filled with graduate level coursework. While it may have no set deadlines, it can be risky to let work slide or come into the class unfocused on the work. While pushing one assignment back may seem like not a big deal, that can lead to pushing back the next one to finish the first one, on and on until you have three major assignments due the last week of the semester for one class. I’ve had a few classes like this and in my experience the best way to deal with this is to treat the suggested deadlines as hard deadlines. It helps keep you in a routine for the “easier” class, so you don’t risk falling behind. To sum this up with a fun paraphrase: the greatest trick a grad professor ever pulled was making their class seem easy.   

Stephen: Many of us are used to receiving a highly structured syllabus that lays out every project, point, and period that is required during a single semester. Typically, a syllabus is required for every class to be approved by the department and it provides a comprehensive schedule to follow. It is a rare occurrence that a class does not have a syllabus, but there are some exceptions at the graduate level like independent or directed studies. These classes may or may not provide a syllabus, or the syllabus is something created by yourself and the professor at the beginning of the semester. Again, this is an extremely rare occurrence; however, in my experience a class without a hard and fast syllabus is not necessarily a bad thing. I have taken part in two separate graduate classes that did not provide a syllabus. The first was an independent studies class that was based on achieving a single yet arduous goal that was set by myself and the professor. This class did not need a syllabus since it was research oriented. The second class I took that had no syllabus was a directed reading class that was highly specialized and only had a few students attend each week. Based on the subject matter and overall attendance, the schedule of readings and assignments was created the week before the next class. A “no syllabus” class is inherently challenging, its downfalls are evident, and it is something that many of us are not used to. Counter to the pitfalls, in my opinion they provide a great way to connect students and professors in class creation, self-responsibility, focused research, and at the same time fuel unrestricted creativity.

How to Handle Being a Graduate Assistant

Being a Graduate Assistant, Teaching Assistant, or Research Assistant as well as a full-time graduate student can be overwhelming. While we were all excited about the opportunities that being graduate assistants offered us, we felt a lot of pressure to be good at our jobs while also being good students. In this week’s post, we share our experiences in dealing with time management, workloads, and advocating for ourselves as both students and graduate assistants. 

Dragana: Being a Teaching Assistant, Graduate Assistant, or a Research Assistant can take up a lot of time that you might want to be spending on your own schoolwork. At times it can be overwhelming to juggle both your graduate school work and your assistantship responsibilities. One of the most important things that I learned in my very first semester as a TA was that if I don’t stand up for myself and my time, I will be expected to do work that I am not meant to do. With that being said, I still managed to divide my time in ways that allowed for me to get everything done. I spent most of my time in my office at school doing my readings. Each morning I would take care of my TA duties—be it grading, responding to students, or creating reading questions—and then I would move on to my own work. When my schoolwork got too hectic, I would prioritize getting that done before my TA duties. Sometimes, if I knew that I had a busy school week coming up, I would get ahead in some of my class readings so that I was not behind in my TA class. An ending tip: it’s okay if you can’t do everything every week, just do what you can and move on to the next week.    

 Frank: An appointment as a teaching assistant can be both a demanding and rewarding experience, especially if one plans to pursue work as a teacher after graduating. It can be a very useful introduction to teaching and course preparation, and there is some truth to the idea that teaching a topic is the best way to learn it. Finding a good balance between assistantship duties, coursework and research is important, though. In my opinion, coursework and research should come first. Negotiating workload and duties, should they become too time-consuming or difficult, is something that should be communicated with your supervising professor.  

In my TA experience, I had the opportunity to lead the class lecture on several occasions. While stressful at first, I was grateful for the experience. It helped me conceptualize how to structure a presentation for a class period, lecture for a more significant amount of time than I was used to, and consider different pedagogical approaches. This experience also helped me become a better presenter in my seminars. Grading can also be useful preparation for how to successfully evaluate students and other’s writing. 

Kiri: Working as a Teaching Assistant, Research Assistant, Grader, or whatever else your University has, can present a particular challenge for graduate students. There is a wide range in expectations from professors, and it’s often hard to gauge what exactly your professor expects from you each semester. In order to alleviate any potential misunderstandings or miscommunications, I’ve always tried to make sure to meet with my professor often, at least one a week outside of the physical class, especially if the class has weekly assignments like quizzes. When I’ve worked with professors who were more aloof, I’ve found myself anxious and it became easier to fall into the trap of imposter syndrome.

The workload from grading can become overwhelming, as it’s almost like you’re taking on an extra class. I’ve found the best way to make sure that I keep on top of grading is to set strict deadlines for myself and communicate with my professor if I ever feel like I cannot adhere to that schedule. Most of the time, your professor is going to know how hard it is to be a graduate student, and they’re going to understand when you need help. Communication, for me anyway, is the key to making sure that I am performing to the professor’s standards and ensuring that the professor knows what my limits are.

Chelsi: Being a graduate assistant ultimately depends on the professor you’re working for. The professor decides what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it, but in my experience, there are two major things I’ve learned. First, be upfront about what you have on your plate that semester because the professor knows that you are a student first. Second, sometimes you don’t have a choice with how much the minimum of work you’re assigned, but you can always ask for more.

In my first course as an assistant, my duties were essentially that of a grader, which was good for the first semester of my second year. Still, I was nervous and didn’t advocate for myself or my own work nearly enough. The professor noticed that I had gotten overwhelmed at certain points and would slow down on my grading, but I insisted it would be fine (it was not). My work suffered, and some students probably got away with more than they should have because I didn’t have the time to read that well.

In my second course, my duty was to sit in front of the class and take attendance, nothing else. Very early on my professor made it clear that because my masters was ending, I was in the middle of studying for comps, and dealing with the stress of PhD acceptances and rejections, he didn’t expect much. I was thankful for his understanding, even though I knew I could do more.

Hopefully, third time’s the charm and this year I can find the perfect balance and instead of letting professors think I’m fine when I’m not or letting them advocate for me, I can take it upon myself to know how much work is too much and how much is too little and speak up.

Clayton: Being a TA can be both a stressful and fun experience. As I have mentioned before in previous posts, my time as TA began in a very hectic way: about a week and half before my first year of graduate school I was offered a position as a graduate assistant because someone had just left the program. I was emailed about it on a Friday afternoon and had to respond by Sunday. I was obviously going to say yes, but because it was so close to the start of the semester, I went through a very rushed process preparing to be both a GA and a TA (I’m still not sure if I actually took the TA training). The actual job of being a TA is a balancing act. You have to make sure you are keeping up with the professor’s lessons, grading assignments, and paying attention to student questions, all while making sure you stay on top of your own work. However, being a TA also has some very rewarding elements. Personally, I found the classes I was assigned to interesting, so it was enjoyable to sit in on a class without being in a graduate student mindset. Getting to work closely with the professor in planning their lessons and assignments, I learned about the thought process that goes into planning assignments and lessons, and what it takes to teach and grade a class. I also got along great with the professors I was assigned to, which made the process much easier. I was even assigned to the same professor in three of my four semesters, which meant I developed a great rapport with that professor. Being a TA has its ups and downs, but overall for me it was an enjoyable and rewarding job.

Talking to Your Advisor: Even When You Really Don’t Want To

by Kiri Raber

In shifting from an undergraduate program to a graduate program, one of the biggest changes faced is the new dynamic between students and professors. Professors will range in how they interact with you, from those who now regard you as more of a peer than a student, to those who prefer to maintain the student/professor delineation, and every possible variant in between. One of the most important relationships you are going to form is between you and your advisor, and your advisor can land anywhere on that spectrum. It can be difficult to ascertain where your advisor falls, but it is important to pinpoint where your advisor is so that your conversations are both beneficial and encouraging, and you can quickly build up a rapport. Your advisor is going to be the person to go to when scheduling classes, cultivating research ideas, adding your minor fields, and later working closely with you on your final project (whether an MA thesis or dissertation). Your advisor will help to guide you through graduate school but can also seem intimidating and unapproachable at times. I hope to help ease some qualms and fears about meeting with advisors by delving into my own experiences with mine. Although each person and advisor relationship is different, I’ve learned that it is always better to be open with your advisor than to close yourself off for the sake of comfort.

 For my master’s degree, I had the benefit of already knowing my advisor from undergrad, so I had a good sense of the kind of professor and person he was and I already had an established rapport. He was always open to discuss various things in his office and was generally a laid-back person. Since he was a fairly casual man, our meetings would mostly be casual as well, and it was easy for me to relax and speak freely around him. For my PhD program, though I skyped with my new advisor before I joined the program, I was unfamiliar with how he worked with students and what his academic expectations would be. It wasn’t until I met him in person and took a class with him that I realized my new advisor had a more professional and serious demeanor than I was used to. This is not to say that one is necessarily better than the other, but I realized the way I presented myself had to change if I wanted to successfully advocate for my research project. To me, this felt very close to changing my language and the way I spoke to accommodate another person, and I worried about losing my identity in order to conform to the expectation of someone who directly oversaw me. Meeting with my advisor panicked me because I didn’t think I could live up to who he wanted me to be—or rather, who I thought he wanted me to be. As such, I would become nervous and stumble over my words and ideas, and found that when he called into question the foundation of what I wanted my research to be, I was unable to explain or defend what I wanted to do. That moment was truly a low for me, and I worried and stressed incessantly until we finally met again. The next talk I had with my advisor was very candid and needed. He explained to me that he was on my side and believed in my project, but I had to be prepared to answer difficult questions and needed to practice how to professionally defend my topic in a cohesive and coherent way. Talking openly to my advisor and standing strong within my belief that my project was one that was worth doing, allowed for communication and a better flow of ideas. Getting to this point wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.  

In most cases, your advisor wants to help shape you into a successful professional and give you the tools needed for you to make your mark on the world. The relationship isn’t a one-way street, though, and learning how to communicate effectively with your advisor and opening dialogues will help you to move forward with both your program and your profession. That being said, it is also important that you do not allow your advisor’s personality to dwarf your own or make yourself small to accommodate them. Remember that your advisor is supposed to be on your team, and though they might push you, ultimately, they have your best interest at heart. If your advisor is not someone who is like that, I recommend reaching out to another professor that you feel safe with and voicing your concerns and exploring your options. Graduate school should not function as an institution that tears you down to build you up, and though certainly it is to be challenging, you should never feel that you are less than or losing yourself because of the demands of an advisor. Sometimes, you have to be your greatest advocate, but opening that line for open communication will help you to reach your goal and gain the most out of the mentorship from your advisor. 

Once in a Century Pandemic….Again?!

By Clayton Richards

The last few years have brought a whirlwind of change and devastating circumstances to our society. These events have recently ranged from political stalemates, both domestic and international, racial protests and violence, and even a global pandemic. This combination of events has produced a defining moment in our recent history, something that will be analyzed and debated by our society for many years to come. The last time a series of events like this occurred was much more recently than you would think. Only one hundred years ago, the world was faced with the Spanish Flu pandemic, the earth-shattering aftermath of the First World War, and in the US the fight for African American rights engulfed the nation. Surprisingly, one hundred years later the world is faced with a strangely similar chain of events which are having just as profound an impact upon us.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has forced society to change over the last six months, from how we work to how we travel and interact with each other on a daily basis. Many have taken to calling the COVID-19 outbreak as a ‘once in a century pandemic.’ To highlight this point, almost exactly one hundred years before, a similarly devastating pandemic rocked the world. The Spanish Flu (although it likely began in the U.S. or China as opposed to Spain), began in 1918 and rapidly spread across the world. With so many people massed together because of World War I, the flu would go to infect about a third of the world’s population over the two years in which the outbreaks occurred. Just as today, society was forced to adapt to the threat of the flu. Although public health initiatives didn’t traditionally aid with flu outbreaks back then, public safety programs such as social distancing and closures were put in place all over the world to fight the flu.

Besides the Spanish Flu, politically the U.S. was facing a variety of challenges from 1918 to 1920 that seem quite familiar to us today in 2020. At the international level, both parties were deadlocked over how to proceed after World War I as an international power. At home, fears over Communists and other radicals in the U.S. led to political arrests during the First Red Scare. However, the events that have the most connections to events in our time was the violence of Red Summer in 1919. Red Summer was a series of racially violent riots and attacks in major cities across the U.S. following World War I. African American communities and leaders looked to maintain the limited expanded freedoms and opportunities they had gained during the War, while pushing for more equality. Hundreds died throughout the U.S. in these months. Sadly, what these leaders were pushing for relates directly to what the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is protesting for, racial equality and opportunity.     

Some say that history repeats itself, and in this circumstance, it eerily seems like it has. It is strange that despite a century of advancement and progress, we are confronted with the same threats. However, despite all the tragic similarities between these two eras, we can see that lessons and progress has been made. Some places have taken the lessons on how to fight a massive pandemic from the Spanish Flu and have been able to slow their COVID outbreaks. It should be noted that the progress that has been made that allows the BLM movement to be both so widespread, supported, and largely peaceful today cannot be understated, especially when compared to a hundred years ago. This is our once in a lifetime series of events, our history making moment, and our chance to make our mark, as a society, on history for the better.

Further Reading

For more in-depth information on this era of U.S. history, please see Ann Hagedorn’s Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America 1919, which focuses mainly on 1919, but covers the flu pandemic, the Red Scare, Red Summer and many other events that make this era one of the most impactful and interesting in U.S. history (in my opinion).

Also, while researching this piece I read a very interesting article from USA Today comparing the 1918 flu pandemic and COVID-19 in terms of social distancing, which was incredibly interesting.

There is also this article from NBC news which discusses the racial violence of Red Summer and how it relates to what has been occurring in the U.S. during summer 2020.

What is it like to be a graduate student in the midst of a difficult political climate?

(Photo of protestors in front of Boston State House on Monday, July 13th, 2020. Courtesy of the Boston Herald)

By Rozzmery Palenzuela

We live in an unprecedented time. Our country is battling systemic racism, corruption, sexism, and xenophobia in the midst of a pandemic that has dramatically altered our understanding of what is normal. On Monday, July 6th the Federal Student and Exchange Visitor Program announced that international student visas would be revoked for student’s registered as fully online. As a response to covid-19, most universities are offering fully online, remote, and/or hybrid courses as an alternative to in-person classes for the safety of all students, faculty and university employees. Many international students, a large sum of whom are coming from Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East, were forced to consider putting their health at risk from fear of having their student visas revoked and returning to their home country.

I am currently a Ph.D. student at Florida International University; keyword being “international.” Not only is our student base diverse, but we also pride ourselves as an institution that welcomes international students. As an M.A. student at the University of South Florida, I was one of two women in my cohort and to my knowledge, the only non-white Hispanic or Latino student enrolled in the program. At USF, I was an anomaly. At FIU, I am not only surrounded by people who are like me, but also by people who are not like me. In my graduate cohort alone, we have students from Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Brazil among other places, who knowingly expose themselves to anti-immigrant discourse and racism in this country even though many of them held vastly different social statuses and positions in their home countries. I’ve watched them face judgment from their professors and their peers because they struggle with language acquisition and articulating themselves in a classroom. Internally, I think to myself, why would someone willingly do this unless they wanted to learn and improve themselves and their communities back home?

I am an immigrant, but I am privileged. I benefit from the privileged immigration status that Cubans have had since the early 1960’s due to Cold War policies placed against Cuba in an effort to combat communism on the island. Growing up, I benefitted from immediate green-card status upon arriving on U.S. soil, having had ESOL instruction in the classroom, and now from being a naturalized U.S. citizen in a political climate where resident aliens and undocumented people continue to be judged, targeted, and marginalized under the law. Just as my family fled Cuba during the Special Period for better opportunities for my brother and I, so too have these students left their home countries. It has been heartbreaking to watch members of my cohort fearfully follow the news and monitor the increasingly xenophobic discourse that has permeated through this election cycle; especially in how they are increasingly being marginalized on a local, regional, and federal level on matters like financial aid, healthcare, housing, and emergency funding in response to covid-19.

As a person who grapples with intersectionality – in this case, I’m referring to the discrimination that I face as a non-white, immigrant woman – it’s become increasingly apparent to me that battles have to be fought on all fronts. Recent events involving police brutality against people of color have produced a renewed interest in the BLM movement and demands for policy change and justice against people of color has become difficult to ignore. But I know that is not the only area where we, as a nation, need to work on. As a society, we can’t afford to fight one battle at a time. We have to fight all battles, at all times. Just as we are demanding change and accountability for years of systemic racism and police brutality against people of color, we need to equally demand that children be released from cages, that LGBTQ+ people be protected and treated equally under the law, that immigrants be met with kindness rather than hostility, and that women’s bodies be controlled by women.

As graduate students, we feel powerless. We hold very little power within the university hierarchy and are often brushed off by the professional community for being “just students.” However, it is our responsibility to use our platforms to the best of our ability ­–– whether it’s highlighting these issues in a student paper, continuing these discussions during seminar, by pushing faculty and GSO’s, or by emphasizing these issues in our research and writing. Between writing this article and seeing it published, the combined efforts of the public’s outrage on social media and student protests at various universities has forced the Trump administration to rescind their announcements and allow international students to maintain their student visa status even if they are enrolled fully online. This is a small victory, but it shows the power in unity and popular protest, and, as the woman holding the poster that reads “I love someone on an F-1” shows, it is the responsibility of the privileged to serve as allies and fight to dismantle the structures and hierarchies that allowed us to benefit from that privilege. We have to keep fighting until change happens. In other words, vote in November!

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.

How do you write a CV?

By Chelsi Arellano

Let me tell you a very long-winded story. Circa 2017 Stephen looked at Frank’s resume as an example to format his CV, as told by Frank. According to Stephen he stole the format from his sister. Around 2018, I asked Stephen about his CV and he sent me a copy. I liked his formatting, so I copied it. He did the same with Dragana and Kiri, and while we were applying to our respective PhD programs, we all shared and sent around our CVs. Clayton liked the formatting too and changed his CV to fit it. In 2019, when Frank decided to apply to a PhD program, he asked for Stephen’s CV. He was surprised to see the same formatting he had used in 2017, which he had taken from a friend back in 2015 when they were searching for jobs. Frank still liked the formatting a lot and decided to use it again. The true origin and end of this format will never truly be known.

This is not a confession to our egregious plagiarism, but a reminder of something that everyone should keep in the back of their minds at all times: no one knows what they are doing. Writing a CV falls into that category perhaps the hardest. You can google how to do it and get a hundred really good examples. Whatever school you’re at or planning on attending probably has a writing workshop and a pdf file of a great example too. They’re all pretty good and going to serve you well, and there’s going to be at least one professor that won’t like the way it’s formatted at all and tell you to redo it. I’m still going to give you some hints and tips about things that should be in a CV, and what a CV is, but at the end of the day, it’s not something that has one perfect form, it’s just about knowing how to fake it till you make it. 

First up: What is the difference between a CV and a resume? I googled it and basically a CV is your whole line up of experience and a resume is a short (1-2 page) example of your experience. An academic CV as opposed to a regular CV is focused on only academic experiences, which cuts out my first five jobs in various minimum wage work but would include things like a pedagogical course I took and some projects I completed for class. It’s a confusing distinction between all these different types, and honestly, I’ve been asked for all three in different capacities as a grad student. Stephen keeps a master CV of everything he’s ever done and plans on doing and just copies and pastes from it when asked, which is probably the best practice to go by. Write a CV as early as possible, because it’s going to change, either as you add more things you do or as someone tells you to change it.

Some things that everyone asks for are as follows:

  • Education (What schools have you studied at, specifically colleges/universities?)
  • Professional Experience (What jobs have you had?)
  • Leadership Roles (When were you in charge of something?)

Some other categories include:

  • Languages (Do you know any language besides your native language?)
  • Skills (Do you know how to work that complicated program?)
  • Professional Affiliations (What cool clubs are you part of?)
  • Awards (Has anyone given you something for all the work you do?)

And finally, some general formatting:

  • Use reverse chronological order (newest things go first)
  • It should be single spaced
  • Put your name in big letters at the top
  • Write the dates of when everything happened (by month/semester and year)
  • Use black for your font color and a neutral font

This is not a comprehensive list, and I am no expert. Like I said above, no one knows what they’re doing and someone’s going to come in and tell you to reformat it more like theirs. Writing your CV as soon as possible will save you some stress, particularly the stress of remembering the specific title of the internship you had five years ago. Any hard and fast rule that someone tells you, someone else broke and got a fabulous job. A CV is not an easy task that comes naturally for anyone because there are so many ways to do it. Which also means that it’s really hard to get completely wrong. These tips can be found on a million websites that probably look much more official than this blog, but be assured that no matter where you steal your formatting from, it’ll probably be pretty okay.

How do you pick a subject area or research topic to focus on?

Picking a subject area and research topic is an oftentimes monumental decision for graduate students. While some likely find it easy from the start, others might find narrowing down a huge diversity of interests into one to be quite difficult, and those who originally found it easy will likely hit some bumps in the roads. Below, our team has detailed advice and personal anecdotes about how to approach this important decision.

Stephen DeCasien:

Typically, people who choose to go to graduate school possess an overwhelming love of learning for many subjects. As such, it is difficult for some students to pick a specialization to study in graduate school. In my case, I took a year off in between my undergraduate and graduate education to contemplate what I wanted to study specifically and what I considered a viable career path. I knew that I wanted to study the ancient world but was uncertain of what to focus on within that field.

I devoted much of my time during that year off to research and contact graduate programs. I devised a comprehensive list of universities that I found promising and read the works of the faculty members I potentially wanted to work with from each institution’s history department. The work that resonated with me the most was Dr. William M. Murray’s book, The Age of Titans, which extensively describes the topic of Hellenistic naval warfare. Based on our similar viewpoints on the subject, I instinctively knew that I wanted to work with Dr. Murray. I applied to the University of South Florida where he works and was accepted into the history graduate program. From there, I actively sought Dr. Murray out to ensure that he knew of my study interests and eagerness to work with him. Fortunately, he took me on as his student.

Those two years of Dr. Murray’s tutelage and guidance inspired my passion for studying ancient Mediterranean maritime history and archaeology, which led me to my current Ph.D. program in Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University. Overall, when deciding what to study in graduate school, it is worthwhile to consider which subject you have an inherent desire to study each day and would love to dedicate most of your time to. 

Clayton Richards: 

Picking an area of study for a Masters program is not as simple as it may seem when you first enter a program. When you enter most programs, the professors want you to have a preferred area of interest or focus coming into the program so you can know what classes to take and which professors to work with. However, at least for me entering my program, this was just a general idea on what I wished to study. I knew I wanted to study American history, and I had a general idea on which era I wanted to study, but anything beyond that I was uncertain about. The core ideas that I would go on to heavily focus on, including culture, race, and imperialism, would all come over the course of graduate school.

While graduate school is very useful in helping you narrow down your subject areas, it can also be a double edged sword. Through taking classes and discussions with peers and professors, you can figure what subjects and themes fit your interests and ideas. However, being around so many different ideas and topics can also make it harder to narrow down your ideas. While this can be more fun than difficult, it can still make you hesitate when committing to a single topic or idea. You need to find the subject that makes you excited to be in this field, and the grad school process helps you pinpoint where you want to be.

Chelsi Arellano: 

When I started grad school, I already knew exactly what I wanted to do. In my undergrad with Dr. Boterbloem, I had already begun exploring the politics surrounding the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and had no plans to ever change that. One of the first things I learned was that I knew nothing about what I was getting into. Knowing a bit about what you want to do is good heading into grad school, but something I learned later was that it also required a lot of flexibility.

I was disappointed that I couldn’t just take British history courses only dealing with politics. My professors pushed me to consider the imperial spaces of Britain, women and gender during the early modern period. I took classes on the Spanish Empire and the Mediterranean. Even now in my PhD, I’ve taken classes on US gender and the Ottoman Empire. My focus remains the same, but not because I stubbornly held on to the same beliefs I had when I first started. I read and learned about different facets of historical study outside of my area and grew as a scholar. Some of my professors tried to convince me to switch subject areas, but I found a balance between knowing what I wanted and being open to other perspectives.

Frank Amico:

Narrowing down a topic to focus on in graduate school can be easy for some and incredibly difficult for others. Starting out, it is usually a good idea to go in with a lot of flexibility, because ultimately, you know a lot less than you think–even the people who say they know nothing. It’s also smart to have a real idea or research proposal in mind because it’s hard to go forward if you don’t have a place to start. Relying on your advisors and professors is also an important strategy because, as established scholars of their fields, they can help direct you towards fruitful avenues of research and away from wasting your limited time pursuing dead ends.

Self-reflection on why you are in graduate school on both a personal and professional level can ultimately be the most important factor when choosing a research focus. What personal goals did you want to fulfill by going to graduate school? What kind of career options are you looking at after you finish? The job market for humanities scholars is unfortunately quite dim so spending your time in graduate school studying a topic and learning skills that are meaningful and useful to you is most important. 

Dragana Zivkovic: 

When choosing an area or topic of focus, you can feel a bit pressured to choose one that is feasible and interesting to you. If you are coming into grad school, like me, without a concrete idea of exactly what you want to focus on then it can be a bit nerve-wracking. Although I don’t have an exact idea of what I would like to focus my research on, I do have a general one. I think the first step to finding your focus is to see what you have already done research on. Have you explored one central topic from multiple angles? Do you generally stick to one time period? Have you met with your advisor and discussed how feasible your possible topic is? These are the first steps you can take to picking a topic of focus. If you already know what you would like to focus on, consider doing some preliminary searches to see if your topic has already been done. If it has, can you contribute anything new? It is possible that as you go on, your topic will evolve and maybe even completely change. Don’t feel like you have to fit your research in a box, rather let it guide you. In any case, your topic should be something that interests you, but also something that has enough scholarship for you to work with.

How does graduate education differ remotely versus in-person?

By Tamala Malerk

Covid-19 forced students and educators to resort to online classroom formats. Many struggled to navigate this new academic world; however, there are currently millions of Americans who are earning college degrees online. My husband is in the Army and we frequently move. During my master’s, I lived in multiple cities in Georgia and Florida. In 2017, I earned my M.A. in History from the University of Memphis, never setting foot in the state of Tennessee. For almost two years, I read monographs, journal articles, had in-depth discussions with classmates, and wrote historiography papers completely online. I am currently enrolled in a doctorate program at the University of South Florida where I completed classes in person but now, I reside in Texas as a Ph.D. candidate.

 If you are working on a degree online, the classes are designed as such, unlike the situation the pandemic has created. There is a common misconception that online classes are easier because you have the internet to assist with your assignments. Conversely, some believe that online classes are harder because they require a lot of self-motivation. Neither one of these statements are inherently true from my experience. Earning a history degree online entailed weekly discussion posts and seminar-like meetings. Classes were typically asynchronous.  I wasn’t held to any schedule, so I could work ahead on my assignments. This flexibility allowed me to take long weekends if I wanted and gave me time to deal with personal matters. The overall level of difficulty of the classes related more with the actual subject and professor rather than how the content was delivered and accessed.

A major difference between online and traditional classes is the interaction and creation of close bonds with your peers. A lot of people form a cohort with the people they go to graduate school with. Doing a degree online makes it difficult to establish close ties with your colleagues. I compensated for this by being involved in various internships and group activities such as yoga; however, my real cohort was my basset hound and family. The networking connections I made were mainly at conferences. We live in a world where it is not just what you know but who you know. Consequently, it is important to think of alternate ways to make connections and build your academic profile.

The best cohort member ever, Otto von Barkmark. He couldn’t help me edit my papers, but he was a great listener when online school got ‘ruff.’

Unlike my online degree, I had many more opportunities in my Ph.D. program to enhance my academic skills and learn what it really was like to be a graduate student. I missed out on some of the graduate school experience and skills during my master’s which carried over to my Ph.D., particularly my tendency to work alone and not take time to focus on the fun that graduate students can have interacting and collaborating with one another. I was able to receive multiple graduate assistantships, which went to those who could be on-campus. I was now contractually obligated to work a certain number of hours per week and hold office hours in the department. Though this position gave me less time to work on my assignments, it exposed me to the rigorousness of graduate school. For example, I would have to balance grading student papers while trying to write my own. From this experience I learned how to differentiate which assignments required more of my time and effort. The skills I gained from participating in a traditional academic setting proved to be more valuable than my online learning experience.

Those who earn their degrees online do so for a variety of reasons. It can be an isolating and demanding endeavor to complete a degree online; however, it permits more freedom. I cannot say that earning my degree online was any better or worse than earning it in-person. Ultimately, I think having academic training through both formats has helped make me a versatile student, worker, and educator. Overall, my online and in-person degrees were different experiences, which both have their advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, I acquired unique knowledge and skills from both. Choosing online versus traditional formats truly depends on your personal learning style preferences and circumstances, and demonstrating the ability to switch between these different learning formats is a marketable skill.

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 .

What should you look for when picking classes?

Choosing your classes for the next semester, or your first, can be both an exciting and daunting task. Whether you’re just coming into the program, or you’ve been there for a few semesters already, a lot of thought and planning should go into your class schedule. Below, we go into the three most important things we think you should consider doing before finalizing your schedule.

Check your requirement

When it comes to picking classes for the next semester, it can be a bit overwhelming at times. How do you know which classes are right for you? Well, one of the first things you should take into consideration are the requirements of your degree. Do you need to have a certain number of course hours outside of your field? Do you need to take a language? What about thesis hours, if you are going that route? All of these requirements are there to guide you. They are by no means telling you which specific classes to take, but they are there to help you out and keep you on the right track. Some requirements may be specific. For example, you need to take an introductory course such as Historic Methods as an incoming graduate student or a seminar as an exiting undergraduate. Before you pick classes, just be sure to go over the requirements of your degree and don’t be afraid to reach out to advisors if you have any questions—they are there to help you. It may seem like your requirements list is very long but remember that some classes can cover multiple requirements at once. At the end of the day, choose classes that you are interested in but that also satisfy your requirements. 

How to choose what’s best for you

In graduate school one of the most important, and nerve wracking, parts of the semester is when it comes time to pick new classes for the next semester. Picking the right courses is obviously very important in graduate school. While taking three graduate courses a semester over two years may seem, and in the moment feel, like a lot of it goes by quickly, so you need to make sure you are capitalizing on your time and resources. Making sure you take courses that are directly tied to your major or area of focus is key to helping you succeed. My first semester in grad school, one of the courses I wanted, US 1865-1920, was on a day that made it so I was unable to take it, so I had to take another course in its place. When the semester began, on my second day of classes, I learned that it had changed dates there was one spot open. I sat in on the class and signed up for the next day. While there was nothing wrong with the first class, US 1865-1920 fit directly into my area of study, and the professor would go on to become one of my comps advisors. Making sure to target the subjects and professors that focus on what interests you is the goal of taking courses, so make sure to never give up on the right ones.

Talking to your professors and advisor about classes

Figuring out what interests you and what requirements you have are the first steps to picking the right class, but the last is definitely to talk to your advisor. Go to them with the list of courses you think you want, and—in my experience—the list will serve as a starting point to a longer conversation. Your advisor is there to mediate your interests, what you think would suit you the best, and your academic progress, what will actually make you a better scholar. When I wanted to take a Victorian Literature course instead of my MA Capstone, my advisor said I could do what I wanted but the capstone would serve me well. That course ended up creating the project that I now want to be my dissertation. Most semesters, the discussions and results weren’t as extreme, but always talk to your advisor before the add/drop period ends.

On that note, if the course list is sparse that semester because all the professors in your field of study decided to take the semester off (which has actually happened to all of us on this blog at one point or another), then just go to your advisor, shrug your shoulders, and start the discussion from nothing. Most likely they will tell you to email the professors of some classes that may be somewhat connected to what you want to do and see if a project tangential to what you want to do is possible. This upcoming semester, I will be taking an Ottoman modernity course, which seemingly relates to almost nothing I do, I emailed the professor, and the majority of the course is about theoretical methods using the Ottoman Empire as a case study. My advisor pointed me in that direction, but it’s a good idea to introduce yourself in a short email or in person to a professor you are considering taking a course with regardless. Sometimes things may fit better than expected, and other times the course that sounds right up your alley is actually not the best fit. The best thing to do at all times, is to begin by asking.

They See Me, As If…

By Nella Delva

I want to share a piece with you to give you a glance of my experiences as a Black immigrant woman on how they see me.

They see me as if:

My Black life is invisible

My Black life is disposable

My Black life is unworthy

My Black life is dispensable

They see me as if:

My Black life is unimportant

My Black life is replaceable

My Black life is insignificant

They see me as if:

My Black life is unbalanced

My Black life is disrespectful

My Black life is irresponsible

My Black life is untrustworthy

They see me as if: 

My Black life is worthless

But today I’m here to remind myself that:

My Black life is beautiful

My Black life is worthy

My Black life is resilient

My Black life is important

I remind myself that:

My Black life is strong

My Black life is loving

My Black life is understanding

My Black life is companionate

My Black life is forgiving

I continue to remind myself that:

My Black life is intelligent

My Black life is dependable

My Black life is loyal

My Black life is competent

My Black life is successful

AND BEYOND EVERYTHING ELSE I. am. HUMAN and my black life matters

I want to encourage everyone to be conscious of their professional and personal efforts to do better, act better and be a better person in their everyday lives so we can all protect, understand and empathize with black and brown people such as myself.

Black Lives Matter movement does not STOP after this protest is over, or after giving a donation, this movement is a conscious effort to remind ourselves that we truly matter.

And because we matter, let’s take a couple seconds to say their names:

George Floyd

Breonna Taylor

Ahmaud Arbery

Botham Jean

Tamir Rice

Trayvon Martin

Eric Garner

Philando Castile

Samuel Dubose

Sandra Bland

Walter Scott

Jordan Davis

Thank you everyone.

My name is Nella Delva, I’m a rising third year PhD student at Florida State University in the Biomedical Science Department.

Be safe, be conscious and be well.