In Part II I shared some strategies for reading over the summer that have worked for me at various stages of my graduate program. Reading over the summer is a great way to increase your knowledge of your field and to get ahead start on program requirements that are looming ahead in the coming academic year. However, reading is not the only activity that graduate students can engage in over the summer that can make their immediate and long-term futures more promising. Today I am going to discuss how graduate students can use the summer to write.
Throughout the academic year, graduate students engage in many activities or encounter ideas that can potentially lead to summer writing projects. Here are a few strategies that I have used in the past to advance my academic livelihood by devoting significant portions of my summer to writing.
The Term-Paper Transformation. In my post on reading I talked about identifying areas of interest that you did not have the opportunity to pursue in detail in your coursework and devote time to reading them over the summer. This strategy is sort of the opposite. Reflect back on the past year of coursework and the research or scholarly projects that you completed as term-papers for your courses. Do any of them stand out? If you find yourself still thinking about a term-paper topic a great deal or if you did particularly well on one of them it is a good idea to take the summer to transform the paper. If you are a younger student, you might begin by meeting with the professor for that course to talk about ways to improve the paper and proceed from there. For more advanced graduate students, I recommend thinking about old term papers as potential future conference papers and, eventually, publications. Conference papers are a nice transitional stage between the term paper stage and the publication stage, and it is never too early to start thinking about presenting at conferences (I will address the issue of conferences in more detail in later posts). Regardless of your goal, however, the important point here is to continue developing promising projects that you began as term papers. Doing this can help advance your thinking, lead you toward potential thesis or dissertation topics, and foster your professional development by introducing you to the process of maturing research or scholarly paper projects. At the beginning, you may need more direct guidance from the faculty in your program, but as you mature as a graduate student you will begin to get a feel for what a term paper needs to transform it into a conference paper.
Controlling the Conference Carousel. Academic conferences occur throughout the year, and the deadlines for proposals to present at them are generally 6-9 months before the conference date. This means that if you are trying to stay active and involved in your field (and that’s never a bad idea) you will likely have both conference proposals and papers at different stages at any given time. The summer is a good time to get control of this conference carousel (or at least get caught up). If you proposed to present at a conference that occurs in the fall, you will likely hear if your paper was accepted by the early to middle portion of the summer. If you were accepted, the summer is the time to write and edit the conference paper (not the fall quarter right before the conference). At the same time, if you’d like to present at a conference that is scheduled for the winter or fall, your proposal would likely be due over the summer, and you would want to save time for that. The conference carousel gets even more intense if you are also developing proposals and papers for your research group as part of a graduate student researcher/research assistant position, and in these cases making the most of the summer is invaluable. The bottom line is that you don’t want to be trying to cram for academic conferences during the academic year. It is unnecessary stress and graduate students already have enough.
Pushing for Publications. Another possible focus of your energy over the summer is developing a conference paper or other serious project into a publication. Here, just as in the term-paper transition strategy, you would want to procure feedback about your work (and a conference is a great place to hear what other people think) and then consider how you want to respond to that feedback. Not all feedback from conference chairs, discussants, panelists, or other colleagues needs to be addressed, but it is always a good idea to pay special attention to their remarks because if you intend to submit your work to a journal it would be sent to experts in your field. I find it best to plan for and pursue several rounds of this feedback-reflection-editing cycle before even considering submission somewhere (hopefully using the various faculty in your program). I find it easier to focus on such a large task during the summer, when I have fewer obligations to the graduate program and the university.
Obviously, these are not the only ways to utilize writing over the summer, but, outside of developing thesis or dissertation-related work, I think these three strategies are the best ways to advance your work while also making your life during the coming academic year easier. The less you have to worry about developing side research projects, conference proposals and papers, or publishing your work during the “school” year, the more you will be able to devote your energies to successfully completing your coursework or other program requirements. And if you can do all that, while still increasing your research and presentation experiences, all the better. Spending some time to write today with your eye on tomorrow is never a bad idea.
Earlier Posts in this series:
In part I, I discussed three strategies that graduate students can use to clear their minds, recharge their batteries, and wrap-up the previous academic year. In my next few posts on grad school, I will discuss strategies that graduate students of all levels can use to make their lives easier in the next academic year. Today the topic is reading with purpose.
Reading over the summer is one of the more obvious pieces of advice that professors or senior graduate students can offer to any graduate student. After all, in the academic world, reading can never hurt you and the summer is a good time to get ahead or catch up. You might finish reading something you only read a portion of in one of your courses the previous year, catch up on the latest volumes of the key journals in your field, or simply explore scholarship in which you are interested in a whimsical fashion. Those are all potentially useful ways to spend time over the summer. However, I think that reading with purpose can make your summer more productive and valuable to your future studies.
When I say reading with purpose, I mean reading with a pointed, well-developed plan to organize and frame what you read within the constraints of a particular goal. Here are a few examples:
Reading for exams. Nearly all graduate programs have some sort of examination process designed to assess how well graduate students have mastered their particular field of scholarship. In some programs, the exams are based solely on the courses you have taken, but in others you may be responsible for material not necessarily addressed in specific courses. In some cases, particularly in fields like history, there are often formal reading lists available to graduate students to help them prepare for these exams. In other fields, these lists might be more informal and you might have to ask the faculty (or perhaps senior graduate students) to help you develop something. Regardless of form, the guiding idea here is to compile a list of the most important pieces of scholarship to your area of interest, and devote serious time and effort toward studying those works over the summer. While students at all stages of coursework can benefit from this strategy, it may be most useful to those who are beginning to see their exams on the horizon.
Creating a summer “course.” This example is similar to the previous, but is more flexible and specific, and may be more useful to students who still have time to explore or who are still looking for their thesis or dissertation topic. As you take more and more courses in your fields, you might come across a specific topic that really interests you but never had the chance to pursue because of the specific focus of your courses or time constraints. Maybe you stumbled upon a school of researchers or theorists that keep getting cited in what you read but you have never read their work or still don’t understand what they are about. The summer offers a good chance to pursue these topics. I used this strategy after my second year of coursework. Throughout my second year of study, post-modernism and post-structuralism appeared tangentially in the majority of what I was reading. I had never had the chance to read them, knew I was probably not going to have the chance to take a course that would offer any extensive treatment of them, and I wanted to be more conversant about those topics. So I did a little digging, came up with a “syllabus” to guide me through my planned readings, and dragooned a couple of colleagues to join me. It was an interesting summer.
Reading for your thesis/dissertation. By the latter portion of a graduate program, the purpose portion of reading with purpose tends to take care of itself, as your research project idea will define the area(s) of scholarship you will be pursuing. Of course, if you are a PhD student, by the time you get to this stage in the program the differences between summer and the academic year are far less marked and meaningful. Nonetheless, if you are developing a dissertation proposal or already working on your dissertation, the summer is still an important time. Dissertation grant or fellowship application deadlines are often in the fall and the more you can read to develop ideas for those proposals over the summer the easier developing those proposals will be and the earlier you can send them to professors and colleagues for feedback.
So while reading in general may be a good idea, reading with purpose can provide focus to your productivity over the summer. It can help you broaden your mastery of your field, discover new areas of interest, or prepare for your program’s comprehensive examinations. A little hard work over the summer can make your experience in the next academic year more meaningful and less stressful.
Of course, there will be some students who find themselves well-read, with plenty of burgeoning research interests, and may find their summer best spent writing. In the next blog post on summer strategies, I will offer advice on writing over the summer.
Happy reading. 🙂
Summer’s here, and as a grad student it’s a welcome break. From August or September until May or June the day-to-day grind of graduate school is mentally and physically draining. Many of us have to balance our course load with the demands of being a TA, a research assistant, or, in some cases, full-time employment outside of the university setting, and the grind only intensifies for students who actively attend conferences in their field or develop personal research projects on their own as well as those who are married, in serious relationships, or have families and friendships to maintain. By the time spring comes around, many of us hit the “trying to get through the rest of the term” phase of the year and we anxiously yearn for the freedom of summer.
However, summer can be an incredibly important and useful time for graduate students if it is used wisely. Based on my experiences, here are three important steps towards beginning a relaxing, rejuvenating, and productive summer.
Take a break. While I think being productive over the summer is important and worthy of consideration, whatever progress you make towards those ends will be negated if you don’t give yourself time to recover from the academic year. I recommend taking the first few weeks of summer for yourself (and I found this to be particularly important when I was still taking coursework. Once you advance to candidacy or are in a phase where your schedule is less structured it might not be as crucial). Read a book that has nothing to do with your scholarly interests. Go to the beach or the mountains. Get a massage. Take in a marathon of your favorite TV show. Spend time with your family (chances are they have only seen the academic zombie version of yourself for the last few months). The point is to lose yourself in something that can give your brain a rest because you’ve been using it nearly non-stop for 9 months.
Get healthy. This goes hand in hand with taking a break. Many graduate students will crash at the end of the year as their adrenaline dissipates and the impact of long periods of exhaustion and prolonged pressure take their toll on the body. It’s happened to me, and many of my peers. In addition to resting, you might consider devoting more time to exercise. Taking care of the body is another important way of to take care of and clear your mind, and the summer offers more time for those of us who may have let our health-related habits deteriorate over the course of the academic year.
Tie up loose ends. Once you have rested, or perhaps in the midst of rest, it is a good idea to tie up any loose ends. When I was working through the coursework phase of my doctoral program, I liked to take time after every term to clear out my binders and notepads and file away course materials and readings. Keep what you might use later, but don’t keep everything. I generally kept the course syllabus, whatever readings I might have printed out for the course, and a copy of the term paper I wrote for the class (if there was one), and little else. There are only so many filing cabinets you can have before you start crossing the line into the academic hoarder territory, and the sooner you develop an efficient and selective system for what you keep and how you store it, the better. Regardless of what system you use, going through all of your “stuff” from the recently finished quarter or semester can be a valuable and effective way to clear your mind of what you might call “academic clutter,” and, if it was a particularly daunting term, it can have a therapeutic affect as well. Sometimes it is nice to throw out a copy of that term paper that
haunted your dreams took way too long to write only a few weeks before. If nothing else, it might be somewhat satisfying to look back at the year and realize how much you actually did accomplish.
Taking some time to rest, relax, and recover from the last academic year is an important first step toward making the most of your summers. Once you’ve taken care of yourself and cleared your mind, it’s a good idea to start looking ahead, and part II of this post will address the many different things graduate students at different stages can do over the summer to maximize their graduate education. Until then, enjoy your rest. 🙂