On May 4, I graduated with my Master’s degree after two years of hard work. Over the past two years, I have written about the courses I have taken and the books I have read, but in this post, I will try to wrap everything up and offer some advice to those interested attending graduate school in the near future.
One of the first things I learned at James Madison University was that graduate courses are very different from undergraduate courses. Of course, I was told this by all my professors at Missouri Southern State University, but there is really nothing to prepare you for the change. The work is more intensive and the expectations are much higher. The courses are also structured differently as most are seminar style in which a different book is read each week. Grades are handled differently as well. An “A” is still an “A”, but an “A-” might be considered a “B.” A “B” indicates that something was wrong, and anything below a “B” is a failure. In fact, at JMU if you received two “C’s” during the two years, you were placed on academic probation.
Writing is more intense as well. Papers are longer and expected to be more polished. This means that writing a paper the night before is no longer an option. I liked to allow myself several days for proofreading and editing.
With the increased reading and writing, it is important that you be very disciplined and have the ability to make the best use of your time. Most professors will give you a full semester schedule on the syllabus with due dates for all assignments and outline the readings. For me, I liked to keep a copy of each course calendar at my desk and from that I would make a to-do list for the upcoming week. This ensured that I had enough time to go through a book, look up a few reviews, and explore the author’s information. With papers, this gave me plenty of time to research, write, and edit my papers before they were due.
One thing to always include in a schedule is to make time for yourself. Free time is the best stress reliever. Whether you spend the free time at the gym, watching tv or a movie, or going out with friends, it is important you make this time for yourself. Graduate school is hard work and if you devote every waking moment to it, you will burn out quickly. Graduate school is not for everyone. There is a good chance that some of the people you start with will not be around at the end. Do not let that discourage you, however.
Then there is the capstone project….the thesis. Not all majors have this a requirement, but I had to write one. Most students enter graduate school with an idea of what they would like the research and who they want to work with. This will make things much easier moving forward. If possible, try to have a topic picked by the end of your first semester. Talk to your advisors and a possible director to determine the feasibility of your project. That will give you the second semester to begin gathering sources that you will then go through over the summer before your second year. I was lucky at JMU because we had HIST 673 in our second semester, and this allowed us to “test” our thesis topics. Use the summer before your second year to read the secondary literature and begin exploring the primary. Chances are, you will have to write a prospectus shortly after you return in the fall of your second year. In your third semester, you should begin to outline your thesis and put the pieces together. By Christmas break, having at least one chapter done is optimal, but each director has different deadlines and expectations. For example, I had three of my four chapters done before January 1. After you have written all your chapters, you will have a few weeks to edit. Hopefully your director is a punctual as mine was. I always had my chapters back quickly, with comments. The editing phase will be stressful, but you want to submit as complete a thesis as possible to your committee. This will make your final edits much easier. After the text is written, you will then have to put all the parts together along with a title page, table of contents, etc. All of which will be strictly outlined by the Graduate School. After you finish formatting you will feel an immediate release of tension!
As if the the thesis was not enough, there was one last test before I could graduate….the Oral/Comprehensive Exam (JMU’s comprehensive exam was oral, but some schools will have written exams). This consisted of sitting in a room with three professors of my choosing and discussing everything from my thesis to two years of course work and readings. It is certainly difficult to prepare for. Comprehensive exams is why you should take good notes in class and also as you read each book. Most comprehensive exams last about an hour and a half, and they will cover a great deal of information. Some of the information covered depends on who you choose for your committee, however. Some opt to have their comprehensive exam committee to be the same as the thesis committee. I did not go with option because I never had class with them. My thesis director was on my comprehensive exam committee, but the other two members were professors with which I had several courses. This gave them more information to pull from and gave me more to talk about for nearly two hours. The concept of oral exams seems terrifying, but once you are seated in the room, you will get comfortable because you will realize, as long as you studied well, that you know the information well enough.
I almost forgot to mention that while you are juggling courses and writing your thesis, it is very likely you will have an assistantship as well. Teaching assistantships can vary in their degree of difficulty. You may only have to grade and work with students, but some programs require that you also teach discussion sections. This means preparing for two mini-lectures per week. Again, this is all part of the concept of time management. I really enjoyed my TA positons with World History in the fall semesters and working with History Day it the Spring. Whether you have a teaching assistantship or a graduate assistantship, you will have to budget time for that as well.
One of the greatest aspects of graduate school is the people. You will become good friends with a number of the professors, but more important is your cohort. At some schools, the students in your cohort are competitors, but not a JMU. We were encouraged to work together (again, HIST 673 helped with this). It is important to remember that they are going through the same processes that you are, and if you are feeling overwhelmed, and you will, it is very likely they are as well. One of my favorite stress relievers was going out with them and having a drink or two and playing a game of darts. Again, have some fun. Do not let the school work take over your life for two years.
The last two years were full of ups and downs. There were weeks I was overwhelmed with everything, but there was always of the gratification of completing whatever task was causing my stress. Perhaps the most gratifying moment of the last two years was walking across the stage and being hooded at commencement on May 4. I feel that over the past two years I have grown as a historian, but more importantly, I have grown as a person. And I would not trade the experience for anything.