Tag Archives: networking

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.

Free job counseling at the annual convention

CSGSP member Shane Peterson has written a helpful guide to using the free job counseling at the MLA convention.

The lack of feedback one receives while “on the market” can be frustrating. Ever wonder what the committees are thinking when they look at your documents? I know I did. Here’s your chance to find out!

The Basics: Bring a copy of your cover letter and/or CV for review by an experienced departmental administrator. Make an appointment in advance at the Job Information Center (located in the Imperial Ballroom, level B2, of the Fairmont). Appointments last 25 minutes and will take place on January 10 and 11 from 10:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. And best of all: it’s completely free of charge!

My Experience: During my first job search, I remember wondering whether I was doing something wrong. The longer I waited for interview requests, the more I began to second-guess myself and my application materials. I had received detailed feedback from faculty members and students in my graduate program and read plenty of books and articles on the subject, but were we all overlooking something? Or were other candidates a “better fit” or simply further along in their dissertations or professional careers? For me, the free job advice session provided at least three benefits:

1. Fresh pair of eyes: Having someone who doesn’t already know you look at your CV and cover letter can be enlightening. The advice session helped me be more specific in my cover letter and work on framing my dissertation in a more widely accessible manner.
2. Networking: Don’t miss out on the opportunity to meet a senior professional in your field and enjoy their undivided attention. I chose to meet with a faculty member in a neighboring field to simulate how modern language departments and/or specialists in other fields might react to my application materials. In the end, I made a contact and discovered that we had two professional connections already.
3. Peace of mind: It’s nice to hear “really, your documents look fine” from someone outside your home department and institution. And if there is a problem, it’s better to catch it now when there’s nothing at stake! For me, the reassurance that my letter and CV were generally in good shape was the best part of the job advice session.

And don’t forget: You don’t have to be on the market to use this free service. If I had it to do over again, I would have gone the year before my first job search. It’s never too early to start thinking about how to communicate your academic persona in an effective manner.

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.