Thursday, October 28, 2010

Application Advice: The Introspective Questions

I've been softly avoiding giving out application advice. People interested in my own insane journey through the bowels of the admissions system are advised to go back through the 2009 posts. That said, in a recent conversation with a grad school applicant I came up with three questions that are worthwhile for determining which schools to apply to. Obviously there are an infinite number of questions to ask, but these three are a good place to start.

1) Would I actually move to the place where the school is located?

I flat-out ruled out some schools in places I didn't want to live. If you can't see yourself packing up and moving to New York City, why even apply to schools there? Location is more important to some than others, but do your research on the place, because you will occasionally leave campus. Think about where you'd be willing to move ahead of time.

A lot of applicants treat grad school admissions like undergraduate admissions -- send out a bunch of apps, then go on the prospective student visit and make a decision on the location. Bad plan! Don't waste money on applications for schools you'd never in a million years go to.

2) Is there someone, or multiple someones, to work with at the school?

Online faculty profiles are your friend. Email and phone contact with professors is even better. Sometimes faculty will be interested int the project but simply can't take on new students: they are going on leave, they have 82 students already, there's no room for a new student on the grant, etc. Find out this information before you apply.

My experience is that 95% of professors aren't bothered by a short, polite email inquiring about their graduate advising availability. So long as you aren't spamming them, this won't stymie your application in any way, and in some fields it can radically boost your admissions chances. If there's no professors around to take on your project, most schools won't admit you because there's no advising structure in place for you. Anticipate and take action to prevent this.

3) Is the program what I need, both in the next few years and for my career?

In this insane world of 12% acceptance rates, I understand the desire to gain acceptance to any program and enroll faster than you can say "is there funding?". That's because the regret of attending a school that doesn't have a solid program for your needs comes much later, like 4 years down the road when you realize your department specializes in research and you really want to teach. Whoopses!

This is 100% preventable. Do your research. Ask about placement. Ask about how the program works. Try to talk to graduate students there. If nothing they are saying appeals to you, don't apply.

The end result is this: if you only apply to schools you'd actually go to and do well at, you really only need the one acceptance to be on your way. The only general advice I can give is to try to remain sane long enough to figure out the answers to these questions. Don't worry, I'll have lots of advice on how to make the months pass as you're waiting to hear back!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

My Future Career

My students can attest to the fact that I enjoy adapting well-known songs to reflect important historical events. When it comes down to it, I don't mind if they're all reviewing my raps in their minds during the midterms as long as they can tell me who John Winthrop is and why he's up in Anne Hutchinson's grill.

This, however, takes everything up several notches:

My favorite part is when the wig spins off. This is historically accurate, by the way. Exactly what happened. 1776 represent.

If this academic job market doesn't creep back from the abyss, I'm just going to take to the YouTube channels.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Sneaky Hate Spiral: Taking Students Down, At Least Twice a Semester

Thanks to grad student field correspondent Molly, I bring you the next installment in the "Midterms: Lose Your Mind" series.

Question for you. When you think about midterms, does it make you feel like this?

If yes, then you need to read this. Consider it required reading, but the kind you want to do right away instead of 8 minutes before class begins. You will need longer than that to recover from the hilarity.

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Drop the Dope Beat, Dandies

This just in: fainting has nothing to do with corsets, and everything to do with man-ringlets.

This is a good visual of why people are fascinated with the past. The past was weird! I spend hours explaining to students that they shouldn't identify with the American colonists because if they managed to time-travel to a 1770 Philadelphia tavern, they wouldn't even know what the heck was going on. And if they time-traveled to this fair scene, depending on gender they would either be passed out or wearing a seriously curly wig. See? Weird!

Monday, October 18, 2010

You Put the Lime in the Coconut, Grade it all Up

"If you get your paper back on Monday with some sunscreen or sand on it," I announced to my class last week, "it's because I graded them on the beach in Florida!"

A look of shock crossed with envy appeared on 45 faces. Finally someone uttered, "Why are you going to Florida?"

"For vacation, of course. They do occasionally let us out of the archives, you know."

In this instance, I was visiting some family who happen to live near a beach. I decided to make use of a precious day off, The Three-Day Weekend, for sun and fun and fresh fish sandwiches and boiled peanuts. But I wasn't kidding the students either; I had 45 papers to grade and the red pen doesn't write that well against sand and shells.

I've never quite mastered the Short School Break Vacation. Long breaks, easy. At the end of each semester I would stumble home and stay up for 4 days doing take-home exams while slowly finishing off my family's entire stock of Goldfish crackers and, during Christmas vacation, pie. But then the exams would be done and I would get some quality time with friends and family and digest all the pie.

Not so with the short break, where you go from 0 to 60, then return to school and accelerate to 130. Grading on the plane, writing at the beach, reading at the pool, it all sounds nice until you're on mai tai number 4 and only one chapter into an enormous book on American liberalism, and you're sunburned.

The gist of it is that short breaks are extremely problematic. First of all, the timing can only be described as whack. Fall break falls in the middle of flu-times, and spring break happens weeks before spring is a viable description of what's going on outside. Secondly, the length of the break is just cruel. You have just enough time off to make a trip possible, but not enough time to actually relax.

But my biggest pet peeve of all regarding school breaks has not changed since first grade. Work should NOT be due on breaks, folkses! If there is no school, there should be no school-work. Now, I admit that I tend towards thinking there shouldn't be work if you're away, and some of these situations are dicey. (Brace yourself, Mom, because you're about to get exposed.) In elementary school my mom would always be the chaperon on the museum field trip, and she would do the "museum ditto" for the kids in my group so we could go be kids and stare at the T-Rex bones for hours instead of drawing what "sarcophagus" looks like in hieroglyphics. So I come from a tradition of bucking the extra work system.

Parents of young kids complain a lot about the amount of homework. I don't believe the amount has changed drastically; I think people finally woke up and realized that making kids do math packets instead of going to visit family for the holidays is plain wrong. What has changed is the amount of pressure on all kids to perform not only well, but exceptionally well. And that means making paper machier volcanoes and writing in iambic pentameter all the time, instead of just most of the time.

After thinking about this, I felt better about making my insane trip. I'm a student, but I'm somehow more free of the system that kept me doing summer reading. I can tell you that not a single one of my students will ever turn in an assignment on the 7 days we get off per year...unless the paper is late, then they better get it in before I deduct another third of a grade!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Early American History versus Space Quest

First point: There's something just so hilarious about the idea of "Butterfingers" being the reason for the loss of important historical and cultural documents.

Second point: Is it bad that I think T-Rex might not be 100% wrong? Think, just think for a minute, about the titles of the academic books you read. They fall into one of two categories. Category A is boring as all get-out and might offer you something along the lines of Ancient Greece: a History. Who wants to read that? According to T-Rex, nobody.

Which brings us to Category B, better known as Gone-Ape Titles. This is where you get books called Booty Call: The Treacherous Tale of Treasure and the Scary Stories of Sea Dogs and Scalawags. Now T-Rex would argue that this book won't get tossed out, but it's still not the best idea if you want your book added to class reading lists.

I often struggle with titles. How much alliteration is okay before you cross into obnoxious territory? Should you leave out content for the sake of grabbing attention? Is it ever appropriate to use old-timey insults, like bumwad? (Right now my answers are a bit, no, and yes.)

Third point: The phrase "Meanwhile, in Tudor England" is vastly underused. English historians, get on this.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Application Advice?

Someone asked me why I haven't posted any application advice, since apparently 'tis the season. Being the first fall in quite some time that I haven't personally been freaking out over 12-page biographical sketches, financial information, and listing 8-10 lifelong goals, I have not spent much time thinking about applications. But I'll come up with some good stuff in the next week or so. Side note: I'm always willing to pass along information, but it isn't like I'm an expert or anything. I'm not about to start an advice column to answer such questions as, "OMG I uploaded my app to Columbia on the Brown website what do I do now?!?!?!". It would almost certainly end in disaster for both the adviser and the advisee.

In the meantime, my advice is: don't spend all day looking at this here website full of cute cats or by the end of the day you'll be feeling like...