In 2007, I gave an undergraduate student who was applying to grad schools some advice that I had gleaned from my own experiences. I’m hardly THE expert on how to survive graduate school, and my advice may not be applicable to everyone. But, in the hopes that it might prove useful to someone, here, with some editing, is what I told the student:
If I had to summarize my advice, it would be the following:
1. Avoid student loans if at all possible. Look for grants, fellowships, etc., to cover expenses. Academia, at least in the humanities, is not a lucrative business, and carrying a heavy debt load isn’t a good idea.
2. Network, network, network. Go to conferences, present papers at them, attend special grad student panels and sessions, etc. If your program has a grad student association (most do), plug in. You need a support network. At my master’s institution, we had a graduate student association specifically for history that met on Tuesday nights to drink and shoot the breeze and on Friday afternoons to talk about current projects and read one another’s papers.
3. Immerse yourself in the intellectual culture of the department, university, and profession. This goes along with #2, but extends to attending conference sessions and lectures that are not specifically geared toward grad students. You should become aware of what professional historians and academicians do, how they do it, what they deem important and why, etc.
4. Learn historiography. You should be aware of the mainstream historiographical schools, as well as the specific schools of your field of interest. I recommend Grob and Bilias’ Interpretations of American History (vol. 1 and 2), Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, and John Higham’s History: Professional Scholarship in America. Historiography is not always a fun subject, but it helps one to organize the interpretations that historians make about periods and topics. Part of the purpose of the M.A., in my opinion, is to acquaint students with the theory and techniques of the profession. By the time one starts the Ph.D., one should have a good grasp of these so that one can concentrate on writing a publishable dissertation.
5. Opinions differ on this advice, but I recommend writing a thesis and picking a topic that can become part of your dissertation. Frankly, I think it makes sense to work pragmatically toward a dissertation by picking seminar topics and writing a thesis that can contribute to that larger project. Others might argue that it makes one too narrow, an expert on one topic instead of a master of many.
6. Publish. Your goal should be to publish an article in a scholarly journal by the time you take your Ph.D. comprehensive exams. This might mean a publication in a grad student journal (there are several) or, if you are lucky, in an established journal in your field of interest. You should also look for opportunities to contribute small publications (book reviews, encyclopedia articles, etc.). You do not want to do too many of these, as they can be time-consuming. They help, however, in networking and in giving you something to put on your c.v. that indicates that you are going to be an active contributor to the profession. By themselves, these won’t get you a job, but they can help lead to other opportunities that can help you find employment.
7. Get some teaching experience. Teaching a class can be scary and intimidating. Even today, I get butterflies in my stomach when I enter a survey class on the first day. Learning how to structure a class, organize and write lectures, write syllabi, exams, and paper requirements, grade objectively, manage classroom problems, etc.–all of these are invaluable skills that take practice. Teaching experience will usually give you an advantage in the job market at teaching institutions. In fact, until recently, all of my interviews were with teaching institutions. Once you have a book published or forthcoming, you are better able to attract more research-intensive institutions, if you choose to go in that direction.