Grad School: An Interview with Tara Thomas

Tara Thomas received her B.A. in English from Southern Oregon University in 2012. She is a second year Ph.D. student in the Department of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she studies Victorian-Edwardian literature and queer cultural studies.

EB: What is your graduate program like? What courses do you take and what sorts of things are you reading?

TT: The Department of Literature at Santa Cruz encourages us to do innovative, interdisciplinary, and comparative research. This results in cross-disciplinary collaborative research clusters and cutting-edge dissertation projects that usually develop as a result of our coursework. We all start out doing about two years of coursework and teaching in order to introduce ourselves to new theories and literature. I’ve taken an eclectic mix of courses: “Worlding Marco Polo,” “Greek History and Tragedy,” “Feminism and Posthumanism, and “Poetics of Empire,” to name a few. These seminars tend to focus on theoretical texts, which we sometimes read alongside primary texts. For example, I’ve read Bhanu Kapil Rider’s Humanimal with Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet and Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard et Péchuchet with Frederic Jameson’s The Political Unconscious. Aside from our coursework, the program gives us plenty of pedagogical training. I am a teacher’s assistant for one class per quarter and have taught Jewish literature, Shakespeare, nineteenth-century British, and writing intensive introductions to literature. Each term, I take two seminars and work as a teacher’s assistant, so between attending lectures, grading, reading, and the occasional conference or guest lecture, grad school is a full-time job.

EB: How has your experience so far shaped your career goals?

TT: I have always wanted to teach—I studied English Education at SOU and taught ESL in Ecuador before pursuing a Ph.D. in literature UC Santa Cruz—so it was a matter of figuring out what kind of teacher I would be. Working as a TA has helped me to confirm that I want to teach at the university level. Getting students excited about learning is really rewarding. Today, I helped them understand how Herodotus’s Histories can help us to see the relationship between literature and ideology. Although my students arrived disgruntled for having to read ‘some old history book,’ they left chattering about the essays they now want to write. Graduate school has helped me to confirm that I want to be an academic, because of the emphasis on research and academic service, as well as pedagogy. Developing my research interests into both a short-term and career length research trajectory has also helped me envision making the jump from Ph.D. student to professor. Also, academic involvement in Senate subcommittees and associations in my field, like the Dickens Project, has made me realize that academia is my career choice. I have come to view my career goal—becoming a professor—as not only a career goal but also a lifestyle: vacations now become time to work on fun research projects.

EB: What is/was the most rewarding part and the most challenging?

TT: The first years of graduate school seem difficult: I remember weekly reading lists consisting of a thousand pages of dense texts, gigantic seminar papers, and professors asking questions that challenge my preconceived ideas. At times, it can feel like the plethora of knowledge you’re learning is washing over you without much retention. For me, the epiphany that all of your hard work is developing into a substantial project makes the moments of struggle worth it. For me, the realization happens while conducting and presenting research. Last summer I spent three weeks at the Bodleian Library and afterward attended a few conferences. It was exciting meeting some of the scholars whose ideas has informed my own, and who were interested in the research I was in the early stages of working on. These trips are one of the best parts of graduate school because not only am I researching and presenting, but I’m also meeting and making friends with scholars in my field. Although I haven’t officially started, I expect the process of writing the dissertation will be rewarding as well.

EB: What’s been your focus and how has grad school changed you?

TT: I entered grad school with a focus on British women authors and a vague interest in post-colonialism and queer theory. The faculty and theoretical texts I have been working with at UC Santa Cruz have helped me think more intellectually about the literature with which I work. I began grad school wanting to work on late-Victorian to Modern women authors but not knowing what my intervention would be. Now I am working on queer theory and culture in relation to British women writers. After two years at Santa Cruz, I have discovered my niche, although I am still constantly developing it—last month a read a transformative book, this month I decided to learn Latin, both of which I expect to play a substantial role in my dissertation.

EB: Any advice for students considering going on for more school?

TT: Start talking to your faculty mentors about graduate school now. They will be able to give you advice on how and where to apply, and will be the ones writing your recommendations. My undergrad advisor helped me revise my application essays. Research the schools you’re applying to as thoroughly as possible, and take note of what interests you (Is it the professors? The program? Funding or research opportunities? Their library?). Establish relationships with faculty before you go so that they can advocate for you during the admissions process. It is helpful to know with whom you want to work before you arrive. You might also email current graduate students more candid questions to get a sense of what their experiences have been like so far. When you are accepted, go to the prospective student visiting days. I didn’t decide to choose Santa Cruz until I’d visited campuses and met with faculty.

Once you’re there, remember to be confident and stay focused. Even if you don’t feel ready early on, make commitments: apply for conferences and fellowships, so that you can start forming your project early. Setting short-term goals for yourself (finishing coursework, presenting at a graduate student conference, visiting the nearest archive, forming a writing group) will assist you in achieving long-term goals. Also, come prepared but be ready to change. Coursework is a transformational experience, and I have a lot of friends who changed their research track after taking an inspiring course. Use seminar courses as a way to experiment with your research and as a way to forge relationships with faculty with whom you’d like to work. Take as many seminars and independent studies with them as possible, and don’t feel shy about having them read drafts of your writing.

EB: What’s next for you?

TT: After this term, I am planning on spending the summer in the U.K. I received the Anne and Jim Bay Fellowship in Victorian Studies to present my current project at the “Victorian Modernities” conference in Canterbury and to conduct archival work at the British Library in June and July. Afterward, I plan to enroll in a summer Latin intensive course at King’s College, University of London. I will be writing a journal article based on this work and reading a lot of Victorian-Edwardian literature for my Qualifying Exam, and attending the Long-Wide Nineteenth Century and Dickens Universe conference in Santa Cruz this August. After my Qualifying Exam in April, I’ll begin writing my dissertation.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

TT: You’re welcome.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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