Wangui Muigai and Alex Kaye sit in chairs talking, facing a seated audience.

April 2, 2023

Anna Valcour | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

As the smell of coffee, asiago bagels, and blueberry muffins wafted into the reading room on the 3rd floor of the Mandel Center, 20 PhD students and nine Brandeis professors from across Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences departments cozied up for the pilot one-day “Graduate Student Retreat” on Sunday, March 5. The retreat was organized by Dr. Ulka Anjaria, Director of the Mandel Center for the Humanities and Professor of English, and Dr. Naghmeh Sohrabi, Director for Research at the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Charles Goodman Professor of Middle East History. Funded by the Connected PhD Mellon Grant and the Mandel Center for the Humanities, this program was designed for PhD students in the first 1-3 years of their programs; students learned a variety of essential skills required to successfully navigate a graduate curriculum, fostered networking connections across disciplines, and gained advice in professional development. 

The day was organized around a series of panel talks by faculty across all departments and interspersed with breaks for socializing and eating. Professors Govind Sreenivasan (History) and Jeffrey Lenowitz (Politics) introduced different approaches for reading and explored critical engagement practices with various texts. Now in the second year of my PhD program in Musicology, I remember struggling with the belief that every text needed to be meticulously and ‘sacredly’ examined last year; this retreat helped reassure me that there are many different strategies, functionalities, and goals for reading. Truly, I wish this pilot program had been offered in my first year – sentiments which have already been echoed by my peers. Jessi Brewer, a PhD student in the English department, reflected, “I would have loved to have heard all the wonderful advice on how to read earlier in my graduate school career! It's still helpful for me now as I prepare for my dissertation work, but it might have saved me a lot of time in my coursework.” 

This was followed by a panel on writing strategies, authorial voice development, building good habits, and daily writing practices given by Professors Wangui Muigai (AAAS and History) and Alex Kaye (NEJS). Cat Rosch, a PhD student in History, found the “writing presentation the most helpful; I often struggle to write regularly so the tip about writing a little every single day seems like it will be useful.” I also found the openness and vulnerability of the faculty in discussing their own processes, struggles, triumphs, and strategies a welcome de-mystification of navigating higher education. Joe Weisberg, another PhD student in History, added, “I gained a lot just from hearing our faculty, who are successful and esteemed scholars, speak honestly about their careers. It seems obvious, but there is a reassuring aspect of hearing people who have the job that I hope to occupy speak so honestly about some of the obstacles and challenges that we collectively experience as graduate students. In other words, I felt like I gained some of the hard-to-find oral tradition that often proves vital to success in graduate school.” 

After lunch, Professors Gowri Vijayakumar (Sociology) and Jonathan Anjaria (Anthropology) talked about the “The Ins and Outs of Professionalization in Academia.” They spoke about preparing for life after graduate studies in an accessible, personal, and welcoming manner. Importantly, they highlighted the many different career paths that are available to PhD students – not just the professorial track. They also talked about funding opportunities, including grants and fellowships, as well as the road to publication. Eric Miller, a first-year doctoral student in Politics, said, “grant applications are something that get talked about a lot by PhD candidates with higher seniority and by professors in proseminars, but they are something that never get explained in step-by-step detail early on…its emphasis on funding opportunities walked me through potential networks that I can explore as soon as this semester, making me aware of different scholarships within and beyond Brandeis that I could apply for.” 

Afterward, we were divided by programs into mini-planning sessions. Assisted by designated faculty from Anthropology, History, English, Sociology, and Politics, we mapped individual five-year plans. I thought this was a very useful tool in determining our next steps, how to get there, and realizing future goals in written form. Deniz Kizildag, a PhD student in the Anthropology department, added that “the retreat was a really helpful opportunity to ask questions about the logistics of doing a PhD; it was helpful to have a formal setting to be able to ask about grant applications, timelines, and comprehensive exams.” Additionally, History PhD student Alex Szabo commented that, “the retreat addressed all the parts of time management that as a graduate student I have to face and learn. It was great to hear that professors and senior researchers have had struggles of this sort as well, and that planning helps ease the tension of timelines and deadlines.”

For the final panel, “Things I Wish I Knew in Grad School,” we gathered in a wide circle to discuss, listen, and ask direct questions to our wonderful faculty. The professors were open about their careers, their journeys, and their reflections. They stressed the importance of building community, self-care, taking advantage of opportunities and resources, as well as early planning. Jessi Brewer commented, “I really enjoyed hearing about ‘things I wish I'd known in grad school’ from several of the faculty. It reminded me that building a community and making space to enjoy your life is also an important part of the graduate school experience."

While this retreat helped us dismantle some of the invisible structures operating within academia, there was another beautiful, welcoming part of this experience of immense import – community. So much of our doctoral work is isolating and insulated by our individual departments. It was amazing to learn, share, and talk with other students about their research, their journeys, and their interests. “I really enjoyed getting to meet other graduate students and hear how their experiences compare or differ from my own. Our peers are often really interesting people, but we don't always get to meet them because we are busy working on our own work within our departments and field. I felt like I learned a lot just from talking to other people and hearing snippets of their stories and interests. I think this also extends to the faculty from different departments who were gracious enough to share their Sunday with us,” said Joe Weisberg. Many of us talked about continuing our newly formed friendships beyond this single-day event. 

I wanted to personally thank all the faculty, administration, and students for sharing in such a wonderful, informative, open, and caring day! I hope that future students will be able to share in this amazing experience. And – as if we needed more incentive, the food and dinner at Solea was also incredible!