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. 🙂