Grad School Summers: How Going “Off Track” Showed Me the Way

by Geffrey Davis, University of Arkansas

Hear me out. I want to suggest that, if you can afford it, if you can gain your advisor’s approval, if you can set the appropriate academic smokescreens, consider going “off track” this summer. I can’t emphasize enough my abiding sense that, by allowing myself to go “off track” during my summers, I left grad school with a greater level of institutional literacy, a more robust network, a more diverse set of professional skills and experience, and a healthier survey of my post-graduation horizons.

By “off track,” I mean to invoke paid (or unpaid, if you can swing it and it’s worth your time) positions that are neither required nor provided by your graduate program. More specifically, however, I’m recommending (especially if you teach throughout the 9-month academic year) that you change things up and gain some alt-ac experience by committing your summer to something(s) beyond the sanctioned scope of your advanced degree program.

In many ways, for academics, mid-May to mid-August are our cruelest months. We pick up as many sections of composition or language courses as necessary to float us financially until the fall paychecks return. Or we relish (mistakenly) in the theoretical abundance of “free” time we have to solve the critical problems threatening what’s viable (or feasible) about our thesis/dissertation projects. And yet, here’s the harsh reality: we rarely get as much work done over the summer as we imagine and/or need. And so, adding insult to injury, we often enter fall semesters feeling both inadequately recharged and rottenly weighted down by all the work we have failed to complete—sometimes quite literally, if we have also tried to fit in a family visit with book-packed suitcases.

Even if we must work during summers, summers don’t have to work like this. I learned this by accident. My first summer as a graduate student—both to sharpen my understanding of grad school (as a first generation student) and to strengthen my pedagogical chops—I stayed in-town and taught composition, and I have no regrets about that decision. My second summer, however, an alternative opportunity came across my desk when our Director of Graduate Studies recommended that I apply for an open position with the Summer Institute for Literary and Cultural Studies (SILCS). Still drawn to the idea of evolving my teaching strengths, I nearly ignored the call. But when I looked more carefully into SILCS—and, especially, when I realized its commitment to addressing a history of ethnic/racial underrepresentation by providing a cohort of minority undergraduate students with vital academic resources and training in literary and cultural theory—I scrambled to gather the necessary job materials, applied, and was offered a residency position as a graduate mentor.

That summer, rather than double down on the valuable training (as a teacher and a scholar) that my grad program was already providing, I spent the month of June engaging a diverse group of undergrad students in a new capacity, working alongside programmers and administrators, and networking with a range of academics from across the country. Furthermore, that experience gave me alt-ac skills and insight that simultaneously broadened my professional vision and yet deepened my sense of the academic structure to which I was committed as a graduate student. I never used my summers the same.

After returning from SILCS, I began realizing year-round “off track” opportunities that were lower commitment but similarly rewarding: I said yes to formal on-campus mentoring of underrepresented undergraduates, to outreach work within my local community, to summer creative writing retreats, and to less traditional summer teaching positions (for graduate students). For starters, I recommend that you visit your home institution’s Career Services to learn about all the summer jobs, fellowships, and internships offered on your campus. You should find out whether your university or college participates in the Upward Bound/Migrant Program. It’s also worth considering residency positions offered at other institutions, such as Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth. If your institution offers graduate level internships (such as Penn State University’s GRIP program), you might consider that option. Finally, I’d keep an eye out for freelance gigs or positions with short-term funding via supplemental pay at your home institution.

Though I understand the real concerns and risks involved with spreading one’s self in this manner, my “off track” activities did not force me to forfeit the timely completion of my advanced degrees or compromise my ability to become an effective college-level teacher—both of which were extremely important goals of mine. Each experience did, however, help me evolve and advance my post-graduation prospects.

By the time I completed grad school, I had a rich professional network (both inside and outside of academia), a more developed institutional literacy, additional administrative and service skills (as necessary for administration or activism as for successful committee work), an ability to communicate to a broader audience (extremely important for grants, job docs, and interviews), a more informed and nuanced perspective on my professional and personal goals, and a refreshed interest in my academic work—not to mention a counter-force to both the pressures of an advanced degree program and the reality of job market uncertainties. As such, I encourage you to break the cycle as a graduate student by using summers to go “off track” in order to gain unique leadership, service, and communication experience.

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