Friday, May 22, 2009

Blog XI (11): Get a Life

This entry represents something of a shift in the focus of the blog. Previous essays have focused on the early stages of the graduate school experience, now the blog is focusing more on surviving and thriving.

How do you survive grad school? Well, the simplest piece of advice I can give is don’t let it dominate your waking hours. In short, get a life.

Going to graduate school in history is far more time consuming than most people outside of the profession imagine. It is, after all, the beginning of your professional career and you paying your dues as an apprentice. If graduate school ends up dominating your life beyond all else, you are going to put yourself in an terribly stressful situation, which can and often does lead people to burn out or suffer some sort of emotional trauma. Basically, being a workaholic is bad.

There are two ways to avoid burnout. The first one is to have a life away from the department and library. This focus can take many forms: you are on a college campus—join a couple of student groups that have little to do with history, be it the campus ski club or student government. Other options include joining a church, exercising regularly, or doing volunteer work with local civic organizations. In short, have some type of social life and a set of friends away from the history department.

The other thing to do is to try and develop some type of office culture in your department. Know how in television and the movies people that work together often go out and get drinks after work? Well, those are television programs about lawyers, not historians. There is not much office culture among academics. Some departments have weekly shindigs, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. Try to make your department the exception. Graduate students that have a sense of community are far more likely to finish a program than those that do not. This situation can take many forms. When I was in grad school at the University of Kentucky both the faculty and senior grad students believed they had a certain responsibility to foster a good climate in the department. The result were department-wide (faculty, staff, grad students) picnics at the beginning and end of the year. These were in the backyards of people (faculty and staff) that had homes big enough. The senior grad students also hosted parties at there houses. These were basically grad student affairs, but I do remember faculty showing up for a few minutes at these functions. The department also had weekly softball games between faculty/grad student teams and these were the type of functions that people brought their family too as well. I know other departments get together on a regular basis at the end of every week for drinks. At the University of Southern Mississippi, it was basically a faculty only function. On the other hand, while I was visiting College Station, Texas, I visited a weekly drink fest in which the Texas A&M history department faculty were at one end of the bar and the grad students were at the other. At USC, a few grad students on occasion would get together for coffee after class and on special occasions (like the end of the semester) faculty would take us out for dinner and/or drinks. Every department I have ever been in has always had some type of Christmas party.

This type of departmental socializing often does not take place. Many people see their fellow grad students as rivals for departmental funding, or look down on other fields and want as little to do with them as possible. This attitude is common, and while there is some truth to other students being funding rivals, the assessment of faculty is going to be far more significant in shaping these decisions. More importantly, this attitude is counterproductive. Your grad school friends are going to be important professional assets in the years to come, not rivals. Faculty need to maintain some distance from their students, so do not expect to be going to bars with them. Your relationship with them is a professional one, but there is nothing to prohibit faculty and grad students from socializing under the right conditions. If this is not the type of department that you belong to, remember my first point and have a some type of life away from the department.


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