The Basics: Graduate Seminars

by Anna Blanch on July 21, 2010

The Basics series consists of general and introductory advice for research tasks and professional development, like using research libraries, reading and notetaking, submitting and presenting conference papers and journal articles.

This post offers some suggestions on how to progress gracefully through Graduate level coursework, especially seminars:

1. Read Intelligently
If you don’t do the bare minimum of the assigned reading you are selling yourself short. (If you’re not doing even this, that’s a good place to start!). Moreover, rather than just skimming over the chapter you’ve been given, read intelligently. Pick out a couple of points in the chapter that you could disagree with, or that relate to something the class has already studied. Write down any questions you have that the reading gives rise to, especially at points of contention. Look at the construction of the syllabus and think about why your professor has constructed the class and the reading – think pedagogically.

Ask the professor for the syllabus prior to commencement of class – do not wait until the first day unless you know that’s the way that particular professor likes to do things. Sometimes the departmental office will already have copies 4-6 weeks out. Get your reading list early so you can get good deals on second hand books (by ordering from half books, book depository, even amazon) and get a start on borrowing library books and reading. The hour of extra reading you do each day in your break may help you stay connected and it will certainly ease the load come semester time. Do make sure you actually take a break though – you are not a machine!

In addition to completing the assigned reading for your classes according to the syllabus provided by your Professor, you should be seeking to gain a broad overview of the subject area. Don’t be afraid to refer to Dictionaries and basic level encyclopedias (including Wikipedia) to make sure you understand the terminology in the article and syllabus. It may be useful to compile your own glossary of terms for the class to help you keep the concepts straight. It may also be useful to seek out major pieces of secondary criticism. At least having a basic biography of the author in question to hand in class is a good way of keeping the historical context in perspective. If you are in Graduate school because you are thinking about academia, now is the time to also think and gather the materials that may enable you to teach this material in the future, so read and research and explore with this in mind.

When it comes to the seminar itself, think of this as an opportunity to learn from the professor and your class mates – this isn’t just about showing you have read the material for your class, it is about trying to understand the larger picture as well as engaging with the perspectives of your professor and class mates.

2. Volunteer to go first (or early) in the semester
Will you need to give a presentation as part of this seminar? If so, volunteer to be the first one in the running order for the semester. When you were an undergraduate your professor will be impressed that you had the the courage to go first, but now you need to think strategically – firstly, the expectations will be (only) slightly lower if you go first because you haven’t had as long to prepare, and secondly, it’s one less thing on your plate as the semester heats up.

You’ll also find that it’s easier to work on producing a great presentation at the beginning of the semester, when you don’t have any other deadlines, instead of towards the end when assignments are piling up. Make sure you don’t volunteer for the first presentation in each of your graduate seminars though, you might end up in a pretty bad place with an untenable workload. It might be helpful to have a series of monthly calendars with you at these earlier classes to ensure that you’ve spread out your workload.

3. Speak in the first 10 minutes
If you can speak up in the first ten minutes of your seminar, it’ll be much easier to remain an active participant throughout. It’s so easy to sit there silently, trying to work up the courage to speak – but the longer you wait, the harder it’ll be. If you’re like me, be aware also that you are not dominating the conversation – i try not to sit exactly opposite or next to the professor, if i sit there i talk too much. If you have trouble speaking up, sit directly across from the professor – it will help you speak more.

Some Professors will use a strong Socratic method at the Graduate level, while others will guide (or not) the conversation as the class progresses. Either way, know yourself and the way you are most comfortable contributing in class – and do that. But be prepared to push out of your comfort zone. This is graduate school. You got some learnin’ to do, and it ain’t just from the books!

4. Keep the conversation going
One thing most professors hate is a long silence during a seminar. If you can, do your best to keep the conversation going. That doesn’t just mean answering questions when no-one else is volunteering, it also means listening carefully to the points that other people are making, and then chiming in with something that offers a new angle on what they’ve said, or that takes their point further. Be generous to your class mates and show them that you are listening to them. My classmates have usually been incredibly smart and I’ve learnt so much from them. Listen and learn – this isn’t about showing how smart you are.

Don’t be afraid to disagree or offer an alternative point of view – but don’t ever suggest that fellow students are being stupid. A seminar is a safe environment for you and your classmates to learn and explore ideas, and your professor will appreciate it if you help foster that supportive atmosphere. Play the ball (idea) not the man. Be aware of your tone and body language (as well as verbal tics). It is common for people to raise their voices and become aggressive – both men and women – when they are passionate. Be aware and in control of yourself.

5. Thank your Professor
You might be surprised how few students ever bother to thank their professors – taking ten minutes to do so could make all the difference when it comes to asking for a reference, or negotiating an extension to your essay deadline. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice about conferences or for further feedback on essays.

6. Think about instigating some after-seminar dinner or drinks ritual
Sometimes the best learning takes place over dinner or drinks after the graduate seminar as you and your fellow graduate students talk about the discussion which took place in the seminar. This was one of the suggestion in Things we wish we knew when we started graduate school.

Anna Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD student in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland. She is currently working toward her third graduate degree in as many countries!

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  • Brenda@PeekatMyPaper

    Hello – Thanks for stopping by Peek at My Paper today and linking up!
    Your List Post is great. I love writing in lists – It is easy to write and easy to read too!
    Great job.

  • @thecoastalchick

    Great list post. You covered all the bases and not just the "in the box" ideas. It's a great read for all students…not just graduate students.
    Nicely done!

  • Carrie

    I like that I just clicked myself right smack dab in the middle of a smart blog. Keep up the intelligence. Thanks for your comment on my blog. I love making new friends.


  • Goannatree

    I'm glad you think it more widely of use. Is there anything you particularly liked? A.

  • Goannatree

    Thanks Brenda! your link up is quite an ingenuous!

  • Goannatree

    You too Carrie! I was pretty happy finding your blog too today and i'm glad you liked it! have a great day!

  • Marc

    Thanks for posting these tips. I've passed them along to my Th.M. students, who always appreciate all the first-hand advice they can get. As someone who teaches seminars regularly, I especially appreciated the third one. Nothing is more frustrating than having good students in a seminar who won't speak up.

  • Goannatree

    Marc, when i read over my original post I was horrified by the grammar mistakes and that the tone wasn't where i wanted it to be! Thanks for thinking this worthy of passing on – but i would love for you to pass this version on – rather than the badly written, messy, version 1.0. Are there any tips that you would give to students seeking to be successful in graduate seminars in your discipline that I haven't mentioned? I always appreciate your comments!

  • Marc

    No worries, they were and are great suggestions. And, I really like the revisions you've made. They've helped me think through my own expectations as a professor.

    On your first point, you might want to say something about the importance of taking initiative and ownership of your learning. In a seminar, the syllabus often presents the basic shape of a class, but as a professor I'm looking for students to demosntrate that they're becoming independent learners and are pushing themselves into new areas/questions

    Another thought on going first (from my experience as a student) is that it frees you up to participate in the rest of the seminar without always thinking about your own presentation. Granted, the drawback is that you spend the rest of the semester second-guessing yourself, but that's the trade off.

    Your revisions to #4 are spot on. Nicely done.

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