Thirteen people talk in small groups amongst rows of chairs.

GSAS students and faculty dive into conversations at January's PhD retreat.

Photo Credit: Becky Prigge

February 1, 2024

Abigail Arnold | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

On January 12, 2024, GSAS and the Mandel Center for the Humanities co-sponsored a daylong PhD student retreat. Aimed at first- and second-year PhD students in the Divisions of Creative Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, this event followed last year’s successful pilot, which was funded by the Connected PhD grant. Organizers Ulka Anjaria, Director of the Mandel Center for the Humanities, and Becky Prigge, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs for GSAS, planned the retreat as one that would address the crucial skills that PhD students need to succeed in graduate school. In her email inviting students to the event, Anjaria wrote, “The thinking behind this day-long retreat is that when students enter the PhD program, there is often an assumption on the part of faculty (and sometimes even the students themselves) that they are coming in already equipped with the skillsets they need to get the most out of their PhD programs…The retreat aims to provide a basic overview of the skills required in graduate school, from critical reading to writing a seminar paper to making a five-year plan and thinking about career options after the degree…This retreat will also provide you the chance to share a meal and socialize as one step in creating cross-disciplinary intellectual and collegial communities in our PhD programs.”

Fifteen PhD students from the Anthropology, English, History, Music, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Politics, and Sociology programs participated in the retreat’s programming. Lunch and panels ran from 12 to 5 PM, with panels including “On Reading and Critical Engagement” with Professors Yuval Evri of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Derron Wallace of Sociology, “How Do I Write?” with Professors Sarah Mayorga of Sociology and John Plotz of English, “The Ins and Outs of Professionalization in Academia” with Professors Jonathan Anjaria of Anthropology and Amy Singer of History, and “Making a Five-Year Plan” with Professor Ulka Anjaria of English. Following this programming, participants gathered for appetizers and drinks at Brewer’s Tap and Table in Waltham.

Students who participated in the retreat spoke enthusiastically about what they learned. Selma Dogmaç, a first-year PhD student in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, said that the retreat was “very very beneficial” and added, “As a student from abroad, this seminar was very enlightening, as I could learn about a PhD system that is different from my country.” Carl Weinstein, another first-year Near Eastern and Judaic Studies PhD student, said, “I appreciated that the professors shared their experiences and discussed strategies that did and did not work for them over the years. The overall message: It's a matter of understanding when a current approach isn't working, knowing alternative approaches, and figuring out what works for you.” He also appreciated the opportunity to meet faculty and fellow students.

Eric Miller, a second-year PhD student in Politics who also attended last year’s pilot, felt that he gained new benefits from participating in the retreat a second time, as well as new advice he could put into practice. Miller said, “Listening to the diversity of experiences that professors from other departments share with us accomplishes two things for me: it creates a sense of solidarity in that no PhD student ever travels the same road to reach candidacy, and it helps me further develop and upgrade my own strategies for doing so. Also, making connections outside of my department and outside of Brandeis with students in a relatively similar stage in their programs as myself has been extremely beneficial for boosting morale, improving mental wellness, growing my professional network, and facilitating friendmaking.” He was able to get guidance on topics that were important to him as well: “I was hoping to get advice about reading for external research this time around, which I received plenty of during the panel with Professors Yuval Evri and Derron Wallace. The advice that resonated most with me was simply to carve out one day per week to research outside of coursework, which I intend to do this semester.”

The PhD retreat provided early-stage GSAS students with the chance to build new skills and get advice from the faculty who have gone this way before them. It also helped bring students in smaller programs together, facilitating cross-program connections.