Tag Archives: graduate students

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.

Business cards for graduate students

Although exchanging contact information has become easier in recent years thanks to smart phones, business cards have never gone out of fashion. It’s a good idea to exchange cards after an interesting exchange or conversation at a conference–it might feel a little awkward at first, but it’s a good habit to establish early on as you grow your network of contacts.

As graduate students, we don’t have the benefits of university provided cards, so here are some suggestions for printing cards at a reasonable price.

MOO products provide a great balance between design and practicality. You can pick a regular size business card, or, even better, a minicard. This minicard has just enough space for your name, degree information, email, phone number, and a brief list of your interests without feeling too crowded. Either card can be personalized with photos and/or logos, and you can also select a package of “ready made” cards. You can even pick and choose different cards from different “ready made” packages if you want. MOO charges $19.99 for 100 mini cards and $21.99 for 50 business cards. You can also purchase different card holders (including one that attaches to a keychain for easy access).

Another option for a more traditional business card is Vistaprint. Some of the pre-made designs are a little cheesy, so customizing your own from scratch is probably your best option. The base level pricing is 250 cards for $19.99, but upgrading to nicer paper or other types of customization (such as raised print or making the card double-sided) will quickly increase your costs.

Zazzle is another option. As with Vistaprint, some of the premade cards may not interest you, but they have customizable options as well. Many designs are uploaded by members who have stores on Zazzle. The starting cost is $22.95 per pack of 100, and nicer paper and other customizations will increase your costs.

One last word of advice: make a permanent email address (Gmail or iCloud are both good options) that consists of your first and last name to print on your cards. You will need a  professional email address to give out that will not expire when you’re finished with your graduate program, since many schools do not provide alumni email accounts. Backstreetboys1995@yahoo.com will catch people’s attention…in a bad way.

Tips for first-time graduate student attendees

The first time you attend the annual MLA convention can be a bit overwhelming — I attended for the first time in 2013 as a second year Ph.D. student. The CSGSP recommends trying to attend the convention at least once before the year you go on the job market. Even if you aren’t presenting, consider attending in your final year of coursework or the year you take your comprehensive exams. Having a basic familiarity with the general format and feel of the convention can help you feel less anxious during the year you attend for interviews (we all know interviews are stressful enough!). Consider organizing a trip with other Ph.D. students with whom you can share hotel and transportation costs. Responding to CFPs for our committee’s two guaranteed sessions each year can be a great way to get your foot in the door.

The CSGSP has some suggestions for first-time attendees who are not interviewing at the convention:

  • Don’t burn yourself out. The first thing you must realize is that it’s impossible to attend all of the hundreds of amazing sessions. It’s equally impossible to spend all day, every day, attending session after session from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Pace yourself, eat regular meals, stay hydrated, and don’t forget to get some fresh air.
  •  Support your friends and colleagues. Are other members of your department, former professors, and friends presenting at the convention? Be sure to attend their panels. No one likes presenting to only a handful of people in the audience and seeing a familiar face can put presenters at ease.
  • Check out panels both in and out of your field. Some sessions will be an exceptional gathering of key scholars in your field, but also don’t be afraid to check out panels in fields you are less familiar with.
  • Attend panels relevant to graduate students. Each year, the CSGSP puts together a handy list of sessions of particular interest for graduate students (posted here).
  • Dress the part. Even if you’re not presenting, you’ll still want to dress business casual. Wear appropriate and comfortable shoes though, because you’ll be doing a LOT of walking.
  • Visit the graduate student lounge. Often. Not only is the lounge a place where you can sneak away from the hustle and bustle of the main convention areas, but it’s also a space where you can meet CSGSP members and other graduate students. They’re your future colleagues, so take advantage of networking opportunities. The lounge usually has refreshments and small snacks too.
  • Consider business cards. There are several websites where you can create small, inexpensive business cards to bring with you. They allows for quick and easy exchanges of contact info.
  • Attend the presidential address. The president often addresses pressing concerns facing the future of English and foreign language departments and presents information on what the MLA is doing to respond to them.
  • Explore the city. The annual convention is held in wonderful cities such as Boston, Chicago, and, in 2015, Vancouver, Canada. Block out some time for sightseeing, wandering, shopping, or trying some fantastic restaurants.
  • Most importantly, have fun! The convention is a fantastic time. You will hear inspiring scholarship, meet wonderful new people, and come away inspired.

Graduate student lounge at the convention

A lounge where graduate students can meet for discussion and relaxation will be located in the Chicago Marriott (River North, 2nd floor) and will be open at the following times:
Thursday, 9 January: 12:00 noon–7:00 p.m.
Friday, 10 January: 8:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m.
Saturday, 11 January: 8:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m.
Sunday, 12 January: 8:00 a.m.–12:00 noon

Members of the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession (CSGSP) will welcome graduate students in the lounge on Friday, 10 January, from 5:15 to 6:30 p.m. There will be an opportunity afterward to attend the presidential address and reception or to go to dinner together.

Please do introduce yourself when you stop by and we look forward to meeting you!