5 Tips to Succeed in Social Science or Humanities Graduate Programs

Jun 08, 2022

By Shaquilla Harrigan

As a 5th year Sociology PhD student, I’ve picked up quite a few tricks for how graduate students can succeed in social science or humanities graduate programs. I’ve gained a lot of knowledge from the advanced graduate students in my department on topics such as applying for external funding, designing a syllabus, and navigating the institutional review board process. But I’ve also learned through trial-and-error some organizational and productivity habits I’ve implemented into my routine that have paved the way for my success. 

I’d like to pass along some of my biggest pieces of advice for how you can succeed in your social science or humanities graduate programs. Just as I’ve learned from mentors in my field, I hope I can be a mentor who can help you be the best scholar you can be, and that you’ll also pass this list along to a friend who may need some advice and encouragement.

5 Ways to Succeed in Social Science and Humanities Graduate Programs

1. Use a Reference Management System

As a social science or humanities scholar, you’ll have many texts and sources to reference for your research and coursework. Using a reference management system like Zotero or Mendeley are total game-changers when it comes to organizing your research. Zotero and other reference managers have plug-ins for Microsoft Word to make in-text citations seamless, and even allow users to save sources to specific folders, which you can then export to create a bibliography. 

Personally, I use Zotero to organize my course readings, keep track of sources for specific research projects, prepare for my comprehensive exams, and organize dissertation chapters. I save all of my books and readings for one class into a single folder, which I can then refer back to for class assignments. For my comprehensive exam, I added all of my readings to Zotero so I could access them more easily and have an easier time referencing the material.

2. Dovetail Assignments (With the Support of Your Professors)

The biggest thing that separates you from being called “Doctor” is your dissertation. While you may not know exactly what you want to research for your dissertation in the first year of your PhD, you probably have research interests in mind. Use your classes as opportunities to test out research ideas through assignments. You don’t want to commit self-plagiarism, of course, but through consultation with your professors, you may be able to submit the entire paper in parts. For example, the literature review can become a standalone critique on the state of a topic. 

With such limited time and incredibly high demands in a PhD program, it’s important that you maximize the outcomes of your tasks. This practice will also help you get better at drawing connections between different topics within your field.

3. Apply for Funding Before You Need It

Many PhD programs give students a baseline package that covers tuition and provides a small stipend. You may have to teach or become a research assistant in exchange for these funds. However, social science and humanities scholars may encounter a scenario where your research takes longer to complete than your allotted fellowship time. I encourage all PhD students to apply for funding before you actually need it. This may mean applying for a grant that will fund your 6th year of studies while you’re still completing your 4th year. It’s easier to find money when you already have some, and when you have an appropriate amount of time to find available grants and create a winning proposal

One more tip on funding: While there’s likely a wealth of funding available at your University, it’s also important to look into external funding opportunities! In addition to helping you win more money for your research, external fellowships look good on your CV because they show that others are willing to invest in you and your ideas. It may take a bit more personal research to find this funding, but I assure you it’s worth it!

4. Keep a List of Ideas

This might sound silly, but anytime you have an idea or “brain sparkle” as I like to call it write it down! I keep a running list in my notes app where I jot down thoughts and ideas as they come, even if they are not 100% related to my current research. Try it out  — you might be surprised how often those fleeting ideas become what spurs your entire research agenda!

5. Be Proactive About Managing Your Relationship With Your Advisors

The relationship between a graduate student and their dissertation advisor is unique. This is the person who will guide you through the dissertation writing process, write many of your recommendation letters, and provide valuable feedback on your work. Given this special relationship, you may expect that your advisor will always be available, attentive, and proactive about your needs; however, that is not always the case. University faculty have demands across the University that demand their attention outside of advising and teaching. 

It may feel awkward at first, but being proactive and thoughtful about managing your relationship with your advisor will help them to help you. Share with your advisor your overall research plans and timeline, send emails with clear to-do lists and tasks, send calendar invitations, and take time to chat with them if you run into them in the hallway. 

My professors can attest to the number of emails I send them that include deadlines, links to websites, and attachments of my work. I like to ask them, “Is there anything else I can do to support you in supporting me?” This has been instrumental in ensuring that both I and my advisors are on the same page and that we avoid gaps in communication. Remember, though, to be mindful of weekend and after-hour messages — professors have lives, too, and you don’t want to be too intrusive!

I hope that these tips, which are informed by my own personal experiences as a PhD candidate, are helpful to you in your graduate school journey. Don’t forget to also lean on other graduate students in your program for support and pay forward what you’ve learned!

Shaquilla Harrigan is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on education and training programs for Kenyan youth. Prior to beginning her PhD, Shaquilla was a Princeton in Africa Fellow in Nairobi, Kenya. She graduated with a B.A. in Social Studies from Harvard University.

Want more advice from Shaquilla? Check out her list of 5 Tips for Success for Graduate Students in Any Department.

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