Tag Archives: Graduate School

Guest Post: Black Boi Does Grad School—A Couple of Tips for Navigating the Bullshit

When I started my PhD program last fall, my biggest fear was the academic work. I wondered if I would be able to keep up with the other students; imposter syndrome gripped my anxious mind as I rehearsed all of the disastrous moments that were sure to ensue: I would forget a major deadline, fail all of my classes, sound like an idiot whenever I tried to voice my opinions, and ultimately, bring great shame to all of my friends and family who were so confident that I was well on my way to becoming Dr. Smoot. Much to my relief, as I slide into the finish line of my first year of doctoral education, I can confidently say that my initial worries were unfounded. While my work has been by no means easy, it has certainly been manageable. I am brilliant, and slowly beginning to own this as my truth, in spite of copious external forces that try to wrestle this fact from my hands. What has been the most challenging, however, is navigating all of the unspoken politics and quotidian instances of systemic violence that are intrinsic to navigating graduate education as a Black, queer, trans masculine scholar.

From recognizing that my voice has been tokenized in a number of spaces—wherein my actual opinions were completely devalued—to having classmates openly espousing deeply hurtful and problematic rhetoric aimed at multiple of my identities, this past academic year has been fraught with realizations regarding my emotional resilience, as well as the innumerable challenges of graduate education at a PWI. To be clear, I love the work that I am producing—as dorky as it sounds, I can feel myself getting smarter, and sometimes I re-read my papers and think “damn! I wrote this?! I’m lit!” But sometimes I sit in my apartment and cry, wondering if I am right for academia, or if academia is right for me. Thankfully I have managed to make a few, very kind, very supportive friend-peers who regularly reassure me that I am valued, in spite of the moments in which this process makes me feel worthless. That said, below are a couple of things that I’ve learned, all of which I would have liked to know before starting this degree. Hopefully sharing them here will help someone else as they begin their doctoral program journey.

Visit the school/department before you accept admission.

I cannot stress this enough. A PhD program is a marathon, not a sprint. When I did my masters, I was relatively unconcerned about what my long-term future would look like in the city where the school was because I was fairly confident that I would not have a long term future there. However, my PhD was a different story. I figured, having lived in more than a couple of college towns, that I would have a pretty good idea regarding what life would be like here—without taking the time to visit. I was…incorrect. And in transparency, that decision has definitely been one that I’ve thought about often, and wondered if I would make again if given the chance to go back. The answer is, honestly, I don’t know. I am here now, and committed to staying present and enjoying all of the positive things that this experience has to offer me. But, one thing that I know that I would do, if given a do-over, is visit. That way, if I did make the same choice, I would have a very clear understanding of the life that I was signing up for—at least for the next several years.

People are important, but not everyone should be a close friend. Build community, but prioritize good energies; quality is better than quantity. 

This, I believe, is paramount to one’s social success and mental health in grad school. I came into this program assuming that I would quickly make friends, many of whom I would become very close with, based on my assumption that we would have shared interests and/or world views. This was…not the case. My first few months here were lonely as hell. Fortunately for me, I have a large network of good friends and family scattered around the country, so I struggled through that time with copious teary-eyed phone calls to my folx. I did ultimately end up connecting with some people from school, but if I’m being honest, I have yet to develop what I would consider to be a very close friendship. And I’ve come to realize that this is okay. Actually, it’s ideal. The people with whom I get along are great, but I am able to prioritize study/alone time, and see them when I need social time. Plus, having spent almost a full year here, I have come to effectively identify the people that I enjoy, and have identified the people that I enjoy…less. And that might not have happened if we had all latched onto each other from jump, purely motivated by loneliness. Loneliness is okay. It will pass, but surrounding yourself with kind, affirming people takes time. Don’t rush the process!

Advocate for yourself. Be kind to yourself. Take care of yourself. 

This one is hard. Well, harder. Being a graduate student renders one extremely vulnerable. To the powers that reign supreme over your academic/financial fate and trajectory, to your peers, to many sorts of illnesses, and to your own insecurities. There are many instances in which you will be forced to make very difficult decisions: study vs sleep, work outand eat healthy vs eat affordably and take leisure time, stay silent and stew in heartache vs speak up and face the consequences, stay because of all the work you’ve put in to get here vs leave because you are being dehumanized. The choices are endless, and unlike my examples, most of them are not binary in nature—they are nuanced and murky and scary and hurtful. Being vulnerable all of the time is exhausting. But ultimately, I am of the belief that no degree is worth literally destroying yourself for. As long as it remains feasible (and conscionable) carry on, but care for yourself. Sometimes, pick the gym over that hour of Netflix; sometimes pick the Netflix. Make that dentist appointment if you get health insurance through your institution. Maybe decide not to curse out that person in your class that said that heinously racist thing, and instead call a friend from back home to vent. Get some rest—that paper is not going to be A1 if you write it at 4am after staying up for the prior 36 hours. Also, realize that faculty and administrators aren’t gods, they are people just like you. And while you owe them respect, they don’t have the right to bulldoze your emotions or abuse you. Draw that line of distinction for yourself, and if it’s crossed…check them. Again, a degree is not worth your total degradation.

You can’t read everything. It’s literally not possible, unless you don’t enjoy human-ing. 

Get the main ideas, and craft some interesting discussion questions for class. Skimming is not only helpful, but it’s a necessary skill. You have to be able to read something, synthesize information, and make new meanings from it, quickly. That’s literally what this is about. Welcome to Skimming Bootcamp, y’all!

You don’t need to put your life on hold for 4-7 years; this is your life. Here. Now. Enjoy it. 

This past week my niece was born…6 hours away from me. Next week I will be driving those 6 hours to meet her—during finals week. Amidst final papers. Why? Because I value my chosen family, and they are just as (if not more) important to me as finishing this semester with relative ease. I know I can do both, so I will. In the short time that I have been in grad school, I have traveled much, gone to parties, hosted parties, photographed my best friend’s engagement (also 6 hours away), attended 2 funerals, and managed to get my hair done once a month like clockwork. Because I am a whole person, not just a student. And life is still happening around me. I refuse to be that person who denies myself fulfillment and close relationships with the people I love the most in the name of prioritizing school. All of my life is important to me, not just the portion of it that is in front of me on a daily basis. Showing up my best self to this process means showing up whole.

Ultimately, though, you will determine what works best for you. No one’s experience needs to be the blueprint for your graduate school experience. Take what you need and leave the rest.


Kelsey Smoot is a queer, non-binary writer. They consider themselves to be bicoastal but culturally southern, a master at crafting hypothetical questions, and really damn cool. They are currently working on their PhD in the interdisciplinary social sciences and humanities.

Week 13 or How to Write a Comps List

Week 13, or How to Write a Comps List

So, first things first: what are Comps?

Comps, short for Comprehensive Exams, is the next step after you finish coursework, at least in my program. Comprehensive Exams assess your knowledge of your chosen fields of study, whether you know the main arguments, can assess them, weave them together, and explain them effectively. Most people have told me to think about my Comps in terms of fields I would one day like to teach. The number of fields vary, but most people do one major field, and one to two minor fields of study.

Second: How are you tested?

In my program, I create a list of books (the number varies) which you think exemplify the major arguments and discussions of your field and work with a professor or two on each list. Specifically, my major field is African American Literature: as this is a big field, I plan on breaking it up into two lists and working with two different faculty members on each list. My minor fields are Comics and Media Studies and African American Intellectual History Since Reconstruction. When it is time for your exams, each of the professors you worked with on lists will ask you to answer essay questions, to which you will have six hours to respond.

Summary: 3 fields of study, 4 lists, 50-70 books per list, 4 exams, 6 hours each, plus an oral exam.

Third: Wait, so you have to read, like, 200-300 books? How long do you have to do that?

Yeah, pretty much. Technically, I can start reading after I pass my Comps Colloquium which will take place at the end of September of this year, leaving me around eight months to read all 200-300 texts. But I will still be in course work, so reading extra material will be difficult. I’ve been working on my Comps lists all semester in the attempt of getting at least two lists finalized so I can start reading over the summer.

Finally: So, how do you write your lists?

I can’t tell you exactly how do this but what I can give you is a set of advice on how I’ve been going about it thus far:

  • First, think of your lists as a bibliography. Pick a formatting style you like, and list your books in accordance with that style. (I chose to do mine in Chicago. It will also save you time to cite properly the first time when you start putting books on your list. I had to redo mine.)
  • Second, when you first start thinking about comps, the best thing I can suggest to you to do is to open a word document and jot down books that inspire you from class, books that you want to read, books that you think are fascinating and important but didn’t quite grasp the first time through.
  • Third, when it’s time to get serious about writing your lists:
    • Add books from your to-read list
    • Go through your syllabi for books that were particularly relevant to your fields of study
    • Use Amazon! Look through the “People who have selected this book have also liked…” section. I found a lot of great books that way that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.
    • Ask to see your peers and All But Dissertation (ABD) students to see their lists if they have similar fields as you.
    • Check online to see if your school (or other schools) posts sample comps lists and check those out for inspiration.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask professors for book suggestions, even if they aren’t working with you on your fields, specifically.
    • Most important of all, when you start working seriously, don’t forget to put on some music! Putting together what is essentially a bibliography can be long, tedious and thankless work. It takes time and bumpin’ music always helps me get pumped up to work on my lists. (I’ve been listening to Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy while working on my lists.)
  • Fourth, be prepared to go several drafts of your lists. You will work with your advisor to represent your field, which may take more than one try.

So, there you have it. My not at all comprehensive guide to writing comps lists. My main piece of advice is to just keep plugging away at it. It won’t come together all at once. 50 books is a lot, and the texts you chose are important. Set aside a little time every week to update your lists. If you add to your lists little by little each week, your lists will come together in no time.

Week 10, or “Fake News” and Real Mentorship

My professor, Liz Losh, gave the William & Mary Tack Lecture this past Thursday night.

The Tack Lecture series is a pretty big deal. It’s a part of a new W&M tradition in which each semester, a professor is asked to give a public lecture on something that both academics and community members will find engaging, allowing everyone to be a part of the University’s intellectual discourses. This semester, Professor Losh gave a talk entitled “Fake News for Real People.” As the rhetorician that she is, Losh began by discussing what creates a persuasive news story: ethos (an appeal to ethics), pathos (an appeal to emotion) and logos (an appeal to logic). Fake news stories, she argued, include too much pathos and not enough ethos or logos– we need all three in credible news. Losh argued that fake news is not a purely partisan issue, that fake news may have purposes other than deception and the problem isn’t just fake news– it’s a crisis about truth telling in an era of simulation.

Fake news is not a new concern, it dates back to Orson Welles creating mass panic with his radio broadcasts, however our fake news tends to be a simulation, copies for which there is no original– or in this case, news stories for which there is no source. She argues that there are three genres of fake news: Fake News 1.0 (satires of political theatre), Fake News 2.0 (asymmetrical disinformation warfare) and Fake News 3.0 (disparagement that undermines traditional news organizations.) Fake News 1.0 was actually helpful in some sense– it improved media literacy. Viewers of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report tended to do well on news quizzes and were more equipped to identify satire. The problem is that people care less about the source and focus more and more on the content, which is to say that they care less about the context and more about the content.

In our current moment of Fake News 3.0, Losh argues that there is confusion about what fake news is. There is cause to doubt traditional news sources and, therefore, people become confused about basic facts. She proposes three trends which may explain our issue with fake news: authority is replaced by authorization, authenticity is replaced by authentication and veracity is replaced by verification. Finally, she offered a few solutions to fake news: technology companies created the problem, therefore they should be in charge of creating solutions; teach media literacy and news literacy early and often; and fund the humanities, because knowing history, rhetoric, philosophy and foreign languages helps in identifying fake news stories.

Professor Losh ended her lecture by shouting out the Equality Lab fellows (I am one) and the Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities Symposium, which I wrote about last semester. Hilariously, the picture that she chose to represent RMDH with was one of me flashing my conference badge and smiling like a goofball. The picture (which several of my colleagues made sure to take snapshots of) stayed on the screen throughout the entire Q&A section. It was mildly mortifying but also hilarious and had been done with good will.

Professor Losh ending with a picture of me made me start think about her commitment to mentorship. Yes, she is a prolific scholar; yes, she is basically an academic rockstar; but she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the work she does with her students. When Adrienne, Ashley and I came to her with a partially formed syllabus for an independent study on comics, Professor Losh did us one better and turned our independent study into a real class that would show up on our transcripts. She makes sure her students and Equality Lab fellows have access to scholars in our fields so we can ask them questions and share our own work with them. (She’s also willing to give you a little nudge when you might otherwise be too shy to share on your own. [Me. All the time.]) She makes sure that we have a physical space to work and create together. She gives you lengthy, but kind, feedback on your writing with the sole purpose helping you get better. Stick around long enough, she’ll present you with all kinds of opportunities you would have never thought imaginable and, best of all, she gives really great pep talks.

For the last few weeks (or much of the semester, take your pick), I had been feeling completely burnt out and utterly uninspired. I talked incessantly of quitting grad school– taking my MA degree and hightailing it out of her to pursue a glamorous (though admittedly not lucrative) career in publishing or editing in a city like D.C. or Richmond. I hated going to class, I hated reading for class, I hated talking to people, I hated being here. I had talked to everyone I knew about quitting, including my advisor– everyone, that is, except Liz. I had avoided talking to her because I knew if I did, she’d make me stay. Professor Losh was the one person I knew who would be able to talk some sense into me and I wanted to leave so badly I didn’t want to hear sense.

Sure enough, it took a quick chat with her and a week off to help me clear my head.

Ever since, I’ve been trudging along with a little more determination in my heart. I still don’t know if I can finish this whole PhD game, but I do at least know I can finish this semester. This graduate school game is wild, but good mentorship, like what I get from Professor Losh, and a strong support system can pull you through.