Christine Folch

Ph.D. Advice: How to pick classes in grad school

Much like my anthro article that’s about to come out in print, I’ve been working on this “advice for grad students” for *several* years. It’s time, I think, for it to face greater scrutiny. Nota bene: this perspective assumes that the goal is to get a job in academia and, because I’m in the interpretive social sciences, undoubtedly has that bent, too.

Ph.D. Program Advice for the First Year of Grad School

Key principle: Although “five-year plans” went out of vogue in the 20th century, they’re still really useful for graduate school. Know what’s coming up, manage multiple deadlines, plan ahead years in advance.

Key principle: Be a junior scholar, not a grad student.

Strategizing the Coursework

Coursework is where students get to read widely, get to know the field, improve their writing, build relationships with faculty, try out new areas, and even try smaller research projects. Don’t be a perfectionist to the point of getting incompletes. These will make it very, very difficult to finish.

There are several things to keep in mind when choosing courses:

A) Take the required courses (obvs).

B) Take the classes offered by faculty who you hope to work with, even if the classes don’t sound exactly like what you want to research. It’ll help you build relationships and it’ll give you greater depth in your field in general.

Some considerations:

  • Faculty teach only one grad class a year. This means that you might not have the chance to take a certain class again.[1]
  • If you want an academic job in a certain discipline, you’ll need to become familiar with the debates of that discipline.
  • Departments don’t hire people with Ph.D.s in other disciplines.[2] If you’re so interested in folklore & mythology that you want to take all the classes there instead of political science, then you should get a Ph.D. in folk & myth.
  • Faculty write your letters of reference. You need a minimum of three, but truly four or five from within your department. This means you need to have solid relationships with more people than just your committee.
  • A cautionary tale: Someone I knew during grad school decided that the faculty in her Ph.D. department were less interesting than faculty in other departments and so she took the bulk of her non-required classes elsewhere. When it came time to form a committee, it was very difficult because she lacked relationship with the faculty in her department. Eventually, she burned so many bridges that she never finished.
  • Another cautionary tale: Another peer in grad school came to work in the same area as a junior faculty member in his department. Thus, the faculty member was an obvious advisor/committee member. Because the grad student had already visited the fieldsite previously and, possibly because the faculty member seemed junior, at a department cocktail party, he said “Oh no. I’m not taking your course.” This grad student also didn’t have a good time of it.

Reading Strategies

An unfortunate tactic is to read for critique. That is, to say, “I found this text weak because it didn’t address race fully.” Or “Famous Scholar is a little thin because she doesn’t take into account blah blah.” It’s very tempting to, because grad students feel intimidated by peers and professors and think “the way to seem smart is to criticize and find what’s flawed in a text,” read texts as if the goal is to find what’s wrong with the text. This is a mistake.

Another mistake is to slack off on reading by thinking “oh, this isn’t really very interesting to me or important to the issues I really care about.” (Or by getting wasted.)

These two errors come across as callow.


  • Read to understand arguments and to find how the text is useful.
  • Annotate everything you read from the very beginning (i.e. keep notes, preferably online and backed up,) so that you don’t have to re-read everything and so you remember it.
  • Guiding questions: What’s the argument of this piece? What evidence does the writer marshal to support his/her argument? What’s compelling? What about the text is useful? Write the answers to these questions for everything you read as you’re reading it.
  • I ended up with a one-page summary (including extracted quotes) for nearly everything I read in graduate school. I still refer to these notes.
  • Expect to read 300-500 pages per class per week. If you’re reading a dense theoretical text, perhaps it’ll be less. Perhaps.

Feel free to leave thoughts and questions in the comments!

[1] Not cool: asking faculty to do an independent study with you on the topic of a class that they taught, but you just didn’t feel like taking.

[2] The two common exceptions that prove this rule: political science loves to hire economists; area studies departments will hire anthropologists, historians, literature scholars, etc.


2 comments on “Ph.D. Advice: How to pick classes in grad school

  1. Jan K
    September 1, 2016

    If a faculty member you want to make a connection with isn’t teaching a grad course, consider taking an upper level undergrad seminar with them (with permission).


  2. Jan K
    September 1, 2016

    And all great advice above!


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This entry was posted on September 1, 2016 by in Scholarly Life.
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