Tag Archives: grad school

Final Thoughts on Graduate School

Do not let the scenic views fool you, grad school is alot of work

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.

Article and Books – the readings for one semester of grad school

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. 

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Course Reviews: Spring 2012

I realized that I went this whole semester without writing about my courses from my final semester of grad school. As always I will describe each course, list the professor, and provide a book list with links to the book’s Amazon.com page. I will write a separate post in which I will discuss the past two years and my thoughts on grad school. For now, here are the courses from Spring 2012:

HIST 533

The United States, 1960 – 1980 met three times per week with a mix of grad students and undergrads.  As with all 500 level courses, we have a separate fourth hour meeting with the professor to discuss our addition work/readings.  For this course, we used fourth hour to watch various documentaries and for grad-only book reviews.  The course had 12 books, but they were optional. We took a midterm and a final, both of which could be easily taken as long as you attended the lectures. The course is taught by Dr. Steve Guerrier, who was recently named one of the 300 best professors in the country by The Princeton Review. His teaching style centers around lectures, a skill at which he is highly adept. His lectures are extraordinary detailed. A course that was supposed to cover events through 1980 only got through the 1968 election, but I learned more in his class than in most seminar style classes. I took this class because I had worked with him on History Day last year and had heard he is a great professor. I certainly recommend Dr. Guerrier to any JMU student with an interest in History.

Books: The Movement an the Sixties, ‘Takin’ it to the Streets:’ A Sixties Reader, Dispatches, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam, 1945-1995, The Struggle for Black Equality, Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, The Presidency of John F. Kennedy, The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, The Presidency of Richard M. Nixon, The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford, and The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr.

HIST 605

The Seminar in Recent American History. HIST 605 changes from year-to-year depending on who teaches it.  This year the course was taught by Dr. Kevin Borg and focused on his area, industry, consumption, and the environment. The reading list for this course was pretty extensive with one book per week. A few weeks we had breakout books where the class was divided in half, or, for one week, into fourths. The course began with the Industrial Revolution and trace the development of American business, environmentalism, and Liberalism. The course was setup in a seminar style with each of us taking turns leading class discussion. I led the discussion for Nancy Cohen’s The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914. For this course we had to write a book and a synthetic book review in which we compared and reviewed two to three books. We also wrote two 7-10 page historiographical essays on a topic of our choosing. I really enjoyed the discussions in this course. The strength of this course was certainly its reading list.

Books: The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940, Mass Destruction the Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet, The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914, Labor’s Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912-1921, Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing, A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness during World War II, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism, Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, and Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies.

HIST 700 

For my thesis, this semester was the most stressful. I wrote chapters 1, 2, and 3 before the beginning of the semester. In fact, I wrote chapter 2 while I was at home over Christmas break. The only things I had to finish after Christmas break was chapter 4, my introduction and conclusion, the abstract, table of contents, and I had to think of a title for the damn thing. My thesis adviser, Dr. Christopher Versen, was very helpful and very detailed in his feedback and was very helpful. I finished the rough draft of my a week before spring break. Dr. Versen read and commented on the draft, and I spent Spring Break rewriting, revising, and conducting some additional research. It was a nightmare! But I submitted the thesis to my committee before the deadline.

As with last semester, I meet weekly with Dr. Versen, and we discuss what I had read, what I had written, and where the project was going.  The members of my thesis committee, Dr. Chris Arndt and Dr. John Butt, provided excellent feedback, and I submitted my thesis to the graduate school a week before the due date.

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Grad School Applications

After choosing the grad schools you wish to attend, the process of applying to the schools will take a great deal of time and effort.  Although the requirements vary by school, most grad schools require the following materials:

APPLICATION

This will be required for all schools.  This is probably the easiest part of the application process since it requires mostly standard information such as legal name, address, major information, etc.  Many schools have digitized the entire application process making it simpler for the student and the institution.  When you fill out the application, you will be required to submit the fee which will range depending on the institution.

WRITING SAMPLE

This is probably the most difficult aspect of applying to grad school.  Most school want a sample that is 10 – 20 pages in length and displays a depth of research.  The first thing to consider is which of your papers to choose.  Choose a paper that has well researched, and, if possible, displays originality.  Once you have chosen your writing sample, edit, edit, edit.  The paper I chose was edited by three different papers and two fellow students.  This gives you a wider audience to help you clarify points that may not be common knowledge to those in your field.  Finally, it is important to choose a stopping point.  At some point, you have to say enough editing; it is ready.  You should then be ready to submit the paper.

STATEMENT OF PURPOSE

When researching schools, you should consider which members of the faculty you wish to work with.  It is important to write a slightly different statement of purpose for each school to which you are applying.  This will show the school that you have researched their institution.  Your statement of purpose should list your intent at each institution, including which professors you would like to work with.  You should also write about what you would like to do after you graduate from that institution.  Do you plan to go on for a PhD?  What type of career are you looking into?  Most importantly, have several people read this as well.  They can find simple error and issues with clarity.  Having a professor read your statement of purpose is a great idea since they probably wrote a statement of purpose during their graduate career.  Again, once you are happy with it, stop editing and consider it done.

LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION

Most people find this to be the easiest part of the application process, but it is probably the most important. Choose professors who know your research habits, classroom participation, and graduate intent.  Most schools require three letters and not all the professors have to be from professors within your major.  However, the majority should be from professors within your chosen major.  It is okay, therefore, to submit one letter from a professor within your minor field.  Once you have chosen the professors, provide them with all the address information they will need to submit their letters and be sure they get them in before the deadline.  Today, most schools accept letters online as well.

GRE SCORES

Perhaps one of the most dreaded aspects of applying to grad school is taking the GRE.  Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to take the test a few times if necessary and have the scores submitted to your chosen institutions.  Registration is all online and the test itself is given on the computer.  Before taking the GRE, purchase a preparation book and study it closely.  There are many books available and it is best to only choose one and follow their methods for preparation.  GRE scores are not the most important aspect to a graduate school when choosing from applicants, but it can make a difference in a competitive program, so take it seriously.

TRANSCRIPTS

This is fairly simple as well.  Have your current and previous institutions send official transcripts to all your chosen grad schools.  Some institutions may charge to send transcripts for you, but these are required to be considered.

DEADLINE

This is the most important!  Be sure everything is submitted before the application deadline.  This deadline will vary by institution and can also vary by program within an institution.  It is important to know all the deadlines for you schools well in advance of the date.  There is nothing wrong with having everything submitted in advanced of the deadline or calling the program to ensure that all your materials have arrived.

Applying for grad school can be very stressful, but it will not be near as stressful as the wait to hear the school’s decisions.

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How to choose the right Graduate School

After a year of graduate school, I decided to look back and share my experience of choosing James Madison University and the process I will use to narrow down my choices of PhD programs.

When choosing a grad school, there are many things to consider.  The school, surrounding community, and cost are just a few.  Here is a more comprehensive list in no particular order.

COST

When choosing a grad school one of the first questions asked is how much will it cost.  There are many aspects to grad school that we often do not think of.  Moving expenses, security deposits, utilities and bills.  The most important, of course, is the cost of the university itself.  How much is the tuition?  Is it by credit hour?  Are you eligible for in-state tuition?  Most schools will include a breakdown of your cost per year including room and board, tuition, books, and fees.

FINANCIAL AID

Most schools will offer some form of financial aid to assist students.  Unfortunately, federal grants are not available to grad students, only federal loans.  Many schools offer different types of scholarships and you should apply to any scholarships you are eligible for.  The most common form of aid offered to grad students comes in the form of assistantships.  There are three types of assistantships.  Research assistants assist professors with varying types of research.  This type is often used for the sciences.  Graduate assistants hold various types of positions including office positions and study groups.  Teaching assistants work with a professor with a large survey class.  TAs may or may not having teaching responsibilities, but will have grading responsibilities and are usually required to hold regular office hours.  The best thing about having an assistantship, however, is that most schools will offer a tuition waiver (for some or all your tuition) as well as a stipend.  This can greatly reduce the amount of loans necessary.  Not all schools or departments offer assistantships and it is important to check with all schools you are considering.

SIZE OF PROGRAM

When talking with graduate coordinators for your specific majors, you should find out how many students are in the program and how many professors are in the department.  If the department only has 10 professors and 50 grad students, it may be difficult to get one-on-one assistance with your thesis/dissertation.  At JMU, the ratio is approximately 1/1, but even a 2/1 ratio is fairly common.

FACULTY

In addition to finding out how many professors are in the department, you should also look at each professors biography provided on the department’s website.  This will provide a lot of information.  Where they went to school, publications, and their concentrations.  It is important to find a school that has a professor with a concentration similar to yours.  That person will likely be the director of your thesis/dissertation and be able to direct you to the correct sources.  You can also look up professors on ranking websites such as ratemyprofessors.com.  Knowing whom you want to work with can help you when you are writing a statement of purpose.

ACCREDITATION

Most students assume that all universities and all programs within a university are accredited, but they are sadly mistaken.  There are stories of students going through a programing and getting their degree only to be told that their degree is unaccredited.  It is important to know, medical programs and other programs are accredited separately from the university since there are different standards.  Luckily, there is an easy way to check accreditation of the schools you are interested in by visiting the Department of Education.

SCHOOL RANKINGS

There are several different ways to check the schools rankings.  The most common is US News & World Report, but there are many other online sources as well as print sources.  Be careful, however, because there are separate ranking systems for undergrad and graduate programs.

LOCATION

We often get excited about a school that we forget to look at several key factors of the schools location.  Is it in a large city?  Rural setting?  What types of stores are in the city?  All this can be discovered by looking at the city’s website or the local Chamber of Commerce.  Often either source will list what is available within the city.

COST OF LIVING

If you are looking at a school in New York City, you are going to pay a lot more for an apartment than someone living in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  There are several websites that list apartments available for rent within a city and you should look into this before considering the school.  This will give you an idea of what types of apartments are available and their cost per month.  Also be sure to find out what utilities, if any, are included in the rent.  Including in cost of living is the cost of movies, groceries, etc. in the city.  This should all be a part of your decision.

CAMPUS

The other thing to consider is the campus itself.  Is it large? Small?  In the middle of a large city?  What building is your department in?  What dining options do you have?  Is there a recreation center?  A campus should be a self contained city.  If you live on campus, you really should not have to leave to do simple tasks.

CAREER ASSISTANCE

Eventually you will get your degree and want a job.  Does the school help you with job placement?  Resume building?  All this professional development should be included within the price of your tuition.  Most universities have a career development center to help with these tasks and also provide job listings.

Graduate school is a serious decision and there are many factors that should look into choosing the right program.  The program is only a part of the full experience of the graduate school experience.  As I mentioned last week, your work load will increase and it is often easy to forget all that is offered to you by the university.  Next week I will look closely at the process for applying to graduate school.  Until then…

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Reflections on the First Year of Grad School

After completing my first year of grad school, I thought I would reflect briefly on what has transpired since last August.

The most important thing that I have gained from grad school is a more in depth understanding of the history field itself.  The courses I have taken have broadened my understanding of history and of Public History.  Learning about the historiography of history has been very important.

JMU’s Quad at Twilight

I have gained an even greater respect for the professors I have worked with, not only at JMU, but at Crowder and MSSU as well.  The professors I have worked with at JMU not only teach classes, but direct thesis committees, oral committees and still find time to conduct their own research.  I have also had a little insight in to the world of teaching when I was given the opportunity to prepare a lecture for my TA course last Fall.  I only prepared one 50-minute lecture, but it took over 2 hours to prepare.  Keeping the material fresh and engaging students are not easy tasks and I am glad to have had that experience.

Finally, some advice, grad school is every bit as challenging and involved as everybody said it would be.  There is a massive amount of readings, and not only for courses, but for thesis research as well.  This summer I have a list of approximately 50 books to look over for my thesis research.  My advise for handling this work load is creating checklists.  I create a checklist each Thursday of things I need to have done before the end of the following week.  This allows me to not only see what needs to be done, but also helps me budget my time.  More importantly, however, is giving yourself time for things you enjoy.  I make time to sit and watch the race each Sunday or watch the newest episodes of my favorite TV shows.  It is important to take time for yourself.  If all I did was school work all day, I would have gone crazy last September!

I have found that I have grown as a professional and a person by moving to Virginia and taking on grad school.  I look forward to my second year and what will follow.

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What are Sanborn Maps?

I mentioned Sanborn maps briefly in posts for both HIST 696 and HIST 593, but I thought I should expand upon their importance to historians.

Perhaps a little history first!  The Sanborn comapny created maps for insurances purposes from the 1860s until the 1970s.  These maps were created for cities across the country and are very thorough in thier detail.  Their purpose was to map fire hazards which, as you can imagine, would have been important in city planning and determining insurance rates.  These maps were important to city devopers at the time because they provided a detailed sketch of their city.

Sample Key for a full color Sanborn Map

The Sanborn maps were created in full color with extreme detail on a building-by-building basis.  The maps are color codes to expreess the types of building materials, uses of a structure, and potential hazards.  The maps are extremely large and were often kept as part of city or county records.  This detail was key in determining insurance values and rates.

Color Sanborn Map of the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan

Sanborns were updated on a regular basis to map growth of cities and changes in use of structures over time.  In Harrisonburg, for example, maps were completed in 1886, 1891, 1897, 1902, 1907, 1912, 1918, 1924, 1930 and 1961.  The detail of the maps tends to suffer as time went by and often the best maps are the earliest. The below map of a block on Liberty street in Harrisonburg (from 1886) shows each building and lists whether the structure was a business or a dwelling.  If a structure was occupied by a business, the name of that business is listed on the map.  Homes are marked with less detail, but on this map lists the occupant’s occupation as a “dressmaker.”  Such details are not common on Sanborn maps, but do sometimes occur on earlier examples.  However, maps from 1961 were still detailed, but primarily for businesses.

Block of Harrisonburg in 1886 – from Microfilm

If you access the Sanborn maps today, you will most likely encounter the microfilm versions that are available in many libraries.  These maps are black and white so much of the detail is lost, but that does not diminish their importance.  The color maps are hard to come by and are large and cumbersome to work with.  For most research projects the black and white maps are  sufficient, but that depends on the research.

How are these maps helpful to a historian?  There are many uses for these maps today.  Local historans use the maps to note the changes in business and industry in a given city over time. In addition to a block-by-block map, there are also maps of the entire city.  These maps are useful in mapping urban growth as well as changing patterns of industry and settlement patterns.  Sanborns can also be used by urban historians to expalin the growth patterns of cities in a particular period of time, or Cultural historians can use Sanborns to map social classes within a city and map their movements within it.

While those are just a few examples of their uses, I have used Sanborn maps to determine how certain structures have changed over time.  Were there additions? Were sections of the house removed?  Were porches added or removed?  All these questions and more can be answered by spending a few hours alone with a microfilm machine in the library!  The Historic Preservation course, along with the Public History course have really gotten me interested in architectural history and preservation.  The Sanborns are a key tool for preservationists, especially those researching structures for the National Register of Historic Places.  Sanborns are an important resource for my potential career and I am glad they are available in an accessible format.

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Graduate School and the iPad

I have owned an iPad since last April, but never really used it to its fullest potential on campus.  Last semester, I took a picture of all the books and articles I read through out the semester.  The fact of the matter was I downloaded all the articles from BlackBoard and recycled them at the end of the semester since I had saved a digital copy on my computer.  This made me realize that I really needed to use the iPad for more than just email, web, and entertainment.  There had to be an app that would allow me to create a folder system for my classes, and there was.  I found the app GoodReader for $2.99.  I figured it would be worth it for an app that worked on the iPad and iPhone (since I have both).  I purchased the app last fall and began to work with it.  I decided it was the best candidate for this semester.

Steve Jobs Unveils the iPad, January 27, 2010

A week before classes began, I created a folder system within GoodReader which broke down the course by week.  This would allow me to download the PDF files from BlackBoard directly to GoodReader on the iPad and place it in the proper folder.  It may sound complicated, but it makes things much easier than keeping track of a paper version of the article.  After all, printing the articles seemed like a waste of paper when I could just as easily read them on the iPad.

When the semester began, I downloaded the readings for week two for my courses and placed them within the proper folders.  I always have my iPad with me on campus, and so now when I have a free moment, I can read articles for class while on campus.  With the paper versions, I would have to bring them with me if I wanted to do that, and there is no guarantee free time will present itself.

After working with the iPad for almost a year, and experimenting with reading PDF files on it for three weeks, I can honestly say it makes my life easier.  I could have just as easily purchased a laptop (or kept my MacBook), but the iPad is much thinner and a pound lighter than the lightest MacBook Air.  The touch interface also make the reading of articles easier as I can easily adjust the zoom using a pinching motion.  As a student, the iPad does everything I want it to do and more.

Screen shot of GoodReader’s Folder System

Apple’s Steve Jobs described the iPad last year as “magical.”  But he was not far off.  There is something more intimate about the iPad over a laptop or even a desktop.  I find that I am using the iPad more than my iPhone!  I may be a little biased, but the iPad is truly a multi-talented product that has changed the way we think about computing.  That was evident at this years Consumer Electronics Show.  Over 40 new tablets were demoed and will be released by the end of this year.  The iPad is making my grad school experience a little easier, and I look forward to using it for years to come!

Next weekend, I will begin reviewing my classes by looking at HIST 696.  Until then…

-Eric

(P.S.  I wanted to take a little space to express my sincere wishes that Steve Jobs get well soon so that he may return to Apple from his Medical Leave of Absence.)

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