A lack of tangible results.

12 03 2011

Reason 49 at 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School is particularly good:

When you build a house, paint a painting, bake a cake, or clean a room, you can step back and see what you have accomplished. Whether you work alone or in a team, being able to contemplate the finished product of your labors is a satisfying experience, a reward for your work. When that labor is further rewarded by a paycheck, it is all the more satisfying. Many modern occupations come with few tangible rewards but at least provide an income. Graduate school offers little in the way of either.

Instead of being able to see the work of your hands or the product of your ideas, you can reflect upon the thousands of hours that you spent reading in preparation for your exams, and how quickly the impractical things that you learned in the process slipped from your mind the moment that you completed them.

How much did you read for prelims? I tried to average a book a day and have no idea how much of it stuck. I am certain of one thing though: I read lots and lots of things that I never used during that test or afterwards only because someone said it might be necessary. I make no claims to know everything. That’s why I have notes.

So why exactly did I do all that reading again? To show off my library? Not in the age of e-books, you don’t. Graduate school in history still works on the coverage model (otherwise it wouldn’t have prelims). Maybe it shouldn’t.

Of course, graduate school does produce a dissertation, but what’s the first thing you have to do get your work published? Translate it into language that somebody outside of your committee might actually read. The dissertation itself is fleeting, and often embarrassing compared to the final product of your research.

If I could be 23 again, I’m not convinced I’d do it all over because I have no confidence that I would achieve the same result. Besides, since I went to Wisconsin I wouldn’t even have a teaching assistants union to help me out anymore.


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3 responses

13 03 2011
Matt_L

Yes, most history pedagogy is still stuck in the days of ‘coverage’ although I would say that grad seminars did a pretty good job of socializing me into the discipline. Through sheer repetition and writing lots of historiography essays I did get a handle on some of the historiography. But the prelim should be abolished, or at least the study period should be shortened to a semester.

Better still, we should just recognize the prelim for what it is: hazing. The PhD Prelim should be administered by ambush. At some point during your third or fourth semester of coursework, your adviser and the chair of the committee should lock you in a janitor’s closet with three pencils, a blue book, and a list of questions about your field. You can’t come out until you’ve answered two of them. After you are done they read the exam and within 24 hours they sit you down in a conference room and ask you to defend your answers. Its pass or fail. If you fail you get to go do it again the next semester.

I had friends who took a year to read for their exams. I knew that was too much time and I wanted to get on with writing the dissertation. I spent a semester reading for PhD prelims and I would still consider it a waste of time. The most useful thing I’ve heard of doing for a PhD prelim was to write a course syllabus for a survey class and then annotate it to explain why you made the choices you did for readings, lectures, assignments, etc.

13 03 2011
Jack Rip

We under use oral exams. With orals, you can concentrate on understanding and analysis rather than on memory. As one of my undergraduate teachers, and later a Nobel laureate, asked: “what kind of exam do you want? puking or thinking.”

15 03 2011
Historiann

Matt L. is right: exams are important but they’re small potatoes compared to the dissertation. Make them less of a big deal, and give students the opportunity to help shape their questions and we’ll get better answers. (At least, back in the dark ages at Penn, I thought that my exam questions were quite focused on what I studied and my interests–and I actually enjoyed both the written and the oral components.)

But as for the dissertation: do you really want to read books that are crappily revised dissertations? I think that it’s perfectly fine and reasonable to expect people to work for more years on revising their complex intellectual and historical arguments. I think the profession–or publishers’ market forces, or whatever–has done well to weed out the phenomenon of the dissertation-y monograph.

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