Grad School Essentials: A Crash Course in Scholarly Skills

Grad School Essentials: A Crash Course in Scholarly Skills

by Zachary Shore

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What’s the hardest part of grad school? It’s not simply that the workload is heavy and the demands are high. It’s that too many students lack efficient methods to let them do their best. Professor Zachary Shore aims to change this. With humorous, lively prose, Professor Shore teaches you to master the five most crucial skills you need to succeed: how to read, write, speak, act, and research at a higher level. Each chapter in this no-nonsense guide outlines a unique approach to acquiring a skill and then demonstrates how to enhance it. Through these concrete, practical methods, Grad School Essentials will save you time, elevate the quality of your work, and help you to earn the degree you seek.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520288300
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/05/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 492,601
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Zachary Shore is Associate Professor of History at the Naval Postgraduate School and Senior Fellow at the Institute of European Studies, University of California, Berkeley. He is the winner of Harvard’s Derek Bok award for teaching excellence and the author of four previous books. He can be reached at

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Grad School Essentials

A Crash Course in Scholarly Skills

By Zachary Shore


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96326-9


How to Read, Part I

Dissecting a Text

Have you ever had the following experience? You are hunched over a book, reading steadily along. The monotone monologue in your head is encountering a stream of sentences. You are turning pages. You are in a trance, when suddenly, as if shocked by an unseen cattle prod, you are jolted out of your semiconscious state to discover, "My God. I have no idea what I've been reading for the past twenty minutes!"

You are not alone. Nearly everyone has been a Book Zombie at some point, probably at many points. This is the result of reading passively, and you must never do it again.

Passive reading is the act of opening a book without direction and attempting to comprehend it by starting at the beginning and reading through to the end. To read with no method, no plan, and no targeted objective makes no sense. We call that "linear" reading, and it cannot help you when you are actually searching for something very specific. It would be like looking for Mr. Zachary Z. Zypster in the New York phone book and saying, "Gee, whiz. This is an awfully big book. I guess I'll start reading from the beginning, at Aaron Archibald Ababa, and keep reading until I find Mr. Zypster. He must be in here somewhere."

I have good news. It turns out that not only do phone books have a way of organizing their information for easy searching, so do scholarly texts. You just need to know how they are structured, so you can find what you need.

I have two goals for this chapter:

1. To save you a great deal of time.

2. To boost both your reading comprehension and retention.

You will achieve these ends by reading actively, not passively. I'm going to offer you a five-step method for active reading. Once you learn it (and this method will admittedly take some time to master), your scholarly performance will dramatically improve — as will your mental health, emotional well-being, and overall shine.

Before we turn to the method, I need to stress some important caveats. This reading method is not appropriate for all texts. It can work extremely well with most scholarly books and articles in the humanities and social sciences, and to a lesser extent with comparable works in the natural sciences. It is not appropriate for canonical works from the premodern and classical periods — the kind we use as original sources, such as Plato's The Republic, or Machiavelli's The Prince. This is because the method is designed to help you jump around within a text, locate the most salient points, and skim over the less pithy parts. Most modern scholarly writing should lend itself to this process. Less-contemporary and classical writings often are not structured in the same way. They also are probably being assigned so that you will give them a very close read. And that brings me to another crucial caveat.

Read closely and carefully. I am about to teach you how to move in a nonlinear way through a text, but this does not mean that you should not try to read it all. If you have the time, you should certainly read a work in full. That's what I do. But I also use this method first. I jump around inside the text until I have a strong grasp of the author's main point. Only then do I go back and read the text more fully. Naturally, if you don't have time to read the entire work — and often in school you simply won't have the time you really need — this method will at least equip you to find the work's essentials, so that you can follow the discussion in class.

Here is the most basic concept to absorb: you must read for the thesis, not just the content. The thesis is the author's main argument, and everyone has an argument. If you are drinking at a bar and listen to people's conversations, you'll find that where there is debate, there are theses. Picture a conversation between two loutish, drunken sports fans. One extols the virtues of the Yankees; his interlocutor is praising the Red Sox. At root, the Yankees fan is arguing that the pitching staff makes his entire team superior. That's his thesis. And in order to support his thesis our slobbering enthusiast sputters out in slurred speech the statistics of individual pitchers in the starting rotation. Those stats are his evidence. They form the backbone of his thesis. Part of your job as an undergraduate or grad student is to spot the backbone of every thesis, locate its weakest links, and break them.

There are two main reasons why you must read for thesis, not just content. The first is that academia is all about arguments, and students must learn to critique those arguments. Spotting and dissecting an argument (which we call a thesis) is your primary task with any text. You might be assigned five different books on the French Revolution. How many times do you really need to read that a king lost his head? Isn't once enough? You have five different books because each author has a different interpretation of those events. Your first task, therefore, is to identify each author's particular interpretation as expressed in her thesis. Your second task is to take that thesis apart by finding its weakest links. (Starting to get it?) In essence, you are on a search-and-critique mission when you read. You are searching for the thesis, and then you aim to critique it. The "critique" part means that you will be assessing the book's strengths as well as its weaknesses. Your critique must always be balanced. But it helps to begin with a critical eye. No one writes a perfect book, and that's okay. The aim is to advance our understanding. The question is whether any given author has moved us in the right direction. Do her thesis and her evidence stand up under close scrutiny? If they do, then we can consider it a meaningful contribution to the scholarly literature, because it brings us closer to the truth.

Just to be extra clear, since this approach is crucially important to your success, let's try a simple example of active reading. We'll do it by identifying and critiquing the thesis in a brief clip from an old movie. In a scene from the 1982 comedy film Airplane II, we see two different news broadcasts. On the American news, the anchorman states that a terrible fire raged through downtown Moscow, leaving death and destruction in its wake. Next we see the Soviet broadcast of the same event, in which the anchorman says something like: "A glorious fire blazed through downtown Moscow, clearing the way for a brand new tractor factory." Although you were probably born long after the Soviet Union collapsed, you might know that Soviet news was highly censored, downplaying or concealing any problems in Soviet society. So let's imagine that we had to critique both interpretations of this event. What would we do? Let's start with the Soviet broadcast.

First, you need to identify the anchor's thesis. The fire was a positive event for Moscow, and perhaps for Soviet society more generally. In contrast, we can say that the American anchor's interpretation was that the fire was a negative event, leaving death and destruction in its wake. Fortunately, both anchors agree on one basic fact: that a fire occurred. The rest is open to interpretation. Just as with the French Revolution, each author provides a different interpretation of the event, whether it's a king losing his head or a fire in the city.

So how would we critique the Soviet anchor's thesis? Start by listing the assumptions he is making.

1. The fire was glorious.

2. It cleared the way for a new tractor factory.

We can question each in turn. The assertion that the fire was glorious is subjective. There is nothing intrinsic to a fire (or almost any event, for that matter) that makes it positive or negative. We typically judge an event's nature based on its effects. In this case it seems that the fire's gloriousness is evidenced by its effect: it cleared the way for a tractor factory. So if the claim about the factory turns out to be suspect, then the fire's gloriousness would also fall into question.

To challenge the second claim, that the fire cleared the way for a tractor factory, you would ask whether there is evidence of preexisting plans for a factory on that location. Had funds been earmarked for such a factory? Are there written records proving that someone of influence previously decided to build such a factory? If not, then the Soviet claim smells fishy to me.

Likewise, if we were to critique the American anchor's claims that the fire was terrible, we would seek evidence of death and destruction. How many people actually died? Can we prove that they died as a result of the fire? Was anything actually destroyed by this fire? Did buildings collapse? You get the point. We are searching for hard evidence to bolster a claim. And if we cannot find it, if the author does not provide it, or if the author's evidence is more assertion than fact, then we can probably break the back of this thesis.

There is a second reason why you must train yourself to read for thesis, not just content. In some undergraduate courses, and in most graduate ones, you will be quickly overwhelmed by the amount of reading. If you try to read every word of every book assigned, you will drown. You will not sleep. You will not eat. Instead, you will become one of the many Book Zombies — gaunt, sullen figures who haunt their department hallways. They appear as apparitions, weighed down by the mass of books loaded in their backpacks, creeping from class to class, unable to articulate a coherent thought. We call this condition "logolapsia" (I just made that up), and it afflicts unsuspecting students who failed to read this slender guide. Sufferers cannot express an author's thesis, because they have not learned to read in an active, targeted manner. Here comes the cure, or the prevention. It is a five-step process with one key technique. I'll give you the overview first, and then I'll explain each step.


Step 1. Analyze the title and subtitle.

Step 2. Scrutinize the table of contents.

Step 3. Read the last section first.

Step 4. Read the introduction.

Step 5. Target the most important chapters of the book, or sections of an article.

Your most useful tactic in this process: restate what you have read in your own words and write it down.

Always remember: restate and write down.

Step 1. Analyze the Title and Subtitle

Titles are clues to the author's thesis. You are on a search-and-critique mission when you read. Your first task is to seek out the author's thesis, and the title and subtitle will often serve as shortcuts. If the title is generic and bland, like A History of Russia, then it won't help you much. But if the title is something like The Clash of Civilizations, then you have a pretty good idea that the author's main argument has something to do with conflict being along civilizational lines. From that you might deduce that previous works in the field have offered different interpretations of how international conflicts can or will occur: perhaps between states, or within states as civil wars, or along racial, ideological, or class divides. Who knows? The point is that from the main title alone you can begin to extract useful information about the author's thesis. By actually thinking about what the title really means, you are saving time by priming yourself to spot the thesis.

Subtitles, which are the phrases that typically follow a colon, are your next helpful hints. If the full title and subtitle are something like Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, you might guess that the author is arguing against the notion that great ideas arise from solitary brainiacs contemplating gravity under an apple tree. Or consider Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. You can expect that the author is making a scientifically based, probably biologically based argument that humans have an inherent tendency to be good, or perhaps merely a capacity to be good. You don't really know, of course, until you read further. You are just priming your brain to be on the lookout for the thesis. What you don't want to do is gloss over the title and subtitle without taking a moment to envision the likely thesis. Defeating the Book Zombies begins by actively thinking about everything you read, starting with the titles.

Step 2. Scrutinize the Table of Contents

Chapter titles are also clues to the author's thesis. Authors are using each chapter to buttress their main thesis. Each chapter serves as a subargument supporting the overall thesis. So take the time to read each chapter title carefully. Go through the same process I just described regarding the book's title and subtitle. Ask yourself what the author might be trying to convey in each chapter. Again, a bland chapter title like "Introduction" or "The Early Years" won't help. But often chapter titles can be highly suggestive of the author's point of view. By the way, subheadings (which are those little titles that separate the sections within a chapter or within an article) can serve the same purpose as all other titles. When you spot them, think about what clues they might be offering.

Consider the book Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965. From the title and subtitle you might guess that the author is arguing that America, or someone, could have won the Vietnam War, but someone chose not to win it. When you explore the chapters in the table of contents, you find titles such as the following: "Insurgency," and "Commitment," and "Attack," but these don't tell you a heck of a lot. Then you spy some other chapter titles, including the following: "Betrayal." Hmmm. I wonder what the author is suggesting. I guess somebody betrayed somebody else. But who could it be? Here's another chapter title: "Self-Imposed Restrictions." Humph. Who the heck would impose restrictions on himself, and why? And another one: "Self-Destruction." So we think back to the main title, Triumph Forsaken, and we can surmise that someone had a triumph available to him in this war, yet he defeated himself (or itself, if the culprit is a government or a country). Again, you don't really know anything about this book, and you have yet to read a single sentence. Nonetheless, you have a reasonable sense of where the author might be heading with his thesis. So now it's time to delve into the text and find out.

Step 3. Read the Last Section First

Now that you are primed to locate and identify the author's thesis, go immediately to the last paragraph of the book or article. I do not recommend this method with a mystery novel, but it can be tremendously helpful with scholarly texts. The author typically wants to leave you with her most important idea. If she is thoughtful, in more ways than one, she will encapsulate her main idea in the final paragraph. The thesis is not always there, but it shouldn't be far away. At least it will be in the final section, whether that is a subsection or a concluding chapter. You are searching now for that one golden paragraph, the one that contains the big idea, crisply summarized. When you find that paragraph, restate it in your own words.

There is no technique more important than restating the ideas you read in your own words and then writing them down. The more you do this, the better you will comprehend what you have read, and the more likely you will be to remember it later, namely during class discussions. So get in that habit. Restate and write down. And when you do, try using simple words. Don't think that you need to be poetic or highbrow, deftly peppering your synopses with rarified words drawn from your GRE vocabulary list. Forget that. That's not important at this moment. Just crystallize the author's ideas in the simplest terms necessary. Note that I did not say "the simplest terms possible." It is always possible to simplify an idea to the point of making it simplistic, and thereby lose its meaning. You must learn to craft pithy syntheses of others' ideas in the simplest terms necessary — necessary to capture the author's meaning. Naturally you will not do this for every sentence in the text; only for the most important sentences and paragraphs.

Next I recommend reading the first paragraph of the conclusion. If you are dealing with an entire book, this will be the beginning of the chapter entitled "Conclusion," if you are lucky, or simply the final chapter, whatever it is called. If you are dealing with a scholarly article, then there might be a subheading labeled, "Conclusion," or there might be a line break with some white space separating it from the main body of the article, or there might be no clear indication of a concluding section at all. In that event, where no clear concluding section is apparent, you will have to skim backward from the end, looking for key words or phrases that indicate a conclusion. I'll say more about this in a bit.

The first paragraph of a conclusion might contain the thesis, or it might reinforce the thesis that you already gleaned from the final paragraph. Again, you might not find the thesis in either the last paragraph or the first paragraph of the final section, but you are most likely to find it there.


Excerpted from Grad School Essentials by Zachary Shore. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Skills You Need
1. How to Read, Part I: Dissecting a Text
2. How to Read, Part II: Critiquing a Text
3. How to Write
4. How to Speak
5. How to Act
6. How to Research

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