From The Archive: Rat Race: Grad Student Life-Get Involved

This Rat Race was originally posted in March 2010 by Monica Sklar. Here, she speaks from personal experience on getting involved as a graduate student.  Advice extends beyond the common internship to reveal helpful ways of setting yourself up for a rewarding career during your studies.

This is probably the last semester of my graduate studies (although I may chip away at that dissertation for a few months into the summer) so I figured it was a good time to reflect on what grad school was like. We receive a lot of emails to the blog from potential and current students, as well as faculty discussing grad school issues, so why not jot a few thoughts down in some posts. On a monthly basis I’ll write this new column that will probably be passed onto a current grad student come fall.

To start….One of the things on my mind this semester has been the idea of getting involved in your institution or other arenas within the field during grad school. I’ve been thinking it over lately as my calendar is packed with meetings of committees I’m on, societies I belong to, and whathaveya. Sometimes these things prove themselves highly significant, and other times one has to wonder…I’m writing this from a student point of view, not a many-years-on professional’s point of view, so I have to speculate what will prove valuable in the long run. But, some things have already proven themselves worthwhile or not in the short run and I think I have a decent take of the direction things are moving with some of these endeavors.

Overall, I think getting active and trying out a bunch of things during school is really fab because it gives you some first hand experience and simultaneously is doing service within your community which is generally a good thing.

Speaking from the point of view of an aspiring professor, there are no would-be professor internships. You cannot go off to NYC or London for the summer and give being a professor a try. Yet much of grad school, particularly at the PhD level is training would-be profs. So the best you can do is get as involved as possible during graduate school to see which angles you like within the field, trying to weed through the pros and cons. Try to figure out if you like research, teaching, committee work, advising, administrative stuff, grant writing, and other tasks. Also, it is good experience if it turns out you’re not interested in being a prof, but like certain aspects, you can grow those aspects in other careers incorporating say grant writing for a nonprofit, or costume history research into museums, publishing, or design.

I thought I’d address a handful of ways to get involved, but obviously there are tons.

1.) One way to get really involved is that you can teach adjunct, which I did for a few years and strongly recommended as a great trial period. It’s a good way to get your feet wet, focus on the classroom, and develop some teaching skills. It’s also a route to get a feel for what style personality you want to be show as a teacher, i.e. how involved or detached, how nice or strict, supportive or distant, etc. Let’s be real, that stuff takes figuring out. You also get practice at projects, syllabus development etc, in fairly low risk situation as there’s no tenure, promotion, or advising involved, you’re just responsible for that one class.

Being TA or instructor via your grad program is highly recommended as well, and often is good because you get tossed into classes you may not have hand picked and have to learn to teach anyway. Adjunct work sort of takes it to another level because there is little supervision and advice the way there is with TA work. It’s all you. I’d say do both if you can.

2. Being on committees at your school is another way to get some experience. This is only an option at some schools, but it might be worth asking if your school doesn’t offer this option up because they may let you sit in. My school PhD school encourages grad students to sit on committees; my Masters school did not. Since I didn’t get this chance during my Master’s I’ve soaked it up during my PhD to mixed results. I’ve served on 4 committees and often it’s been more than one at a time. I don’t know if I’d suggest doing that. One a year is plenty. They can be quick, or surprisingly time consuming.

Basically, they are groups of faculty, staff, and sometimes students who meet regularly on a topic such as curriculum, events, budgets, etc. Honestly I haven’t loved all 4 and have found that like everyone else there are aspects of university life I enjoy more than others, and hopefully when I’m a full-time prof I can pick and choose my committee work wisely based on these experiences. Committees give a grad student huge insight into politics, budget, competition, and repetitiveness throughout the universities and the organization and disorganization that is throughout. They also help you develop a higher profile and build your relationships within the institution and sometimes with outside parties that often are on them like alumni and local design professionals. This can be a great way to make networking connections if you haven’t worked in those arenas.

But, note that you should try to be on those that are at times the truly work for you and on topics that honestly interest you because these can also be a huge waste of time as you struggle to fit meetings into your calendar on a topic you don’t want to work on. If you can, scope out who is on the committee first, as there is sometimes a vast difference in whether faculty and staff see you as a interactive adult with valuable contributions representing the graduate student perspective, or an interloper or child taking space who is stupidly doing this for free (remember-this is part o what they’re getting their salaries to do, and we’re paying tuition for this time).

That said, some committees are extremely worthwhile and you’ll come out of that time feeling accomplished, well connected, and newly educated in the intricacies of the field in ways the classroom cannot prepare you for. Student groups, honor societies, and the like can prepare you in some of the same ways as you mingle with peers and get some resume lines, but if you can be part of something with people who are at many points in their careers, instead of exclusively your peers, it’s a good birds-eye view of your potential future.

3.) A third way I wanted to chat about getting involved was participating in research beyond the classroom. Whether you want to be a research school or a teaching school, there’s going to be some research involved. Plus, you’ll be teaching aspects of research within many of your classrooms. If you decide not to go the prof route, there’s often still some research involved in lots of other careers in our field.

Taking research you’ve done in a class and extending it is one option. Try to present it at a conference, write it into a manuscript for publication, or if it started a little rushed or thin, consider the class project a pilot and redo it bigger and better. But only do all this with projects you actually care about. I’ve gotten a little stuck extending some projects I’d be fine with letting go of, and let go of some projects I wished I published on (but now the data is a pretty old), so be careful with how you manage your time.

Another option for research is to get onto team projects that professors or classmates are working on so you can participate without over-extending yourself. Careful again of time management, as team projects require lots of meetings etc, but, often you can get a lot more done in a group than on your own, and it’s a way to delve into some topics to broaden what themes you pursue and what methods of research you’re familiar with.

One final way to get into research is to be a participant in other people’s research. I’ve done this a bunch. It helps others out as everyone is always looking for human subjects, and gives huge insight into the research process from many angles. It has made me a better researcher to have occasionally been on the other end of the interview questions, the survey scales, the camera, and the body scanner. Careful what permissions you give, because if these are your colleagues you may see your name or image up in lights at a national conference alongside a quote you wish all your current coworkers didn’t see. So make sure to be thoughtful about your privacy, but, again, participating can really give you an empathetic view of your future subjects and ideas about what you’ve liked and disliked about others’ research strategies.

So there’s a ton of other ways to get involved. Graduate assistantships, national and regional societies, jobs, blogs, are just a few. Find one or two each year and mix it up. You may find you are surprisingly perfect for something that was unexpected, or a terribly fit for something on paper you thought you’d love. You’re paying a ton for this time, and probably not getting much in salary in return (trust me, I know how much those RA positions pay…urgh) and so you want to maximize your tuition dollar. It’s not to say you cannot try things out throughout your entire career, I certainly plan to, but it’s nice to do it while in grad school with the limited risk and more of a trial-and-error attitude. Perhaps it can help us zero in on where we’ll be our most successful. And again, much of this is service work, which is a contribution to making the general community of our field stronger and how can you not support that.

For future Rat Race posts I’ll talk about things like choosing a research subject and collaborators, maintaining your personal life during hectic schedules, and whatever else is on my mind. If you’ve got a subject you’d really like to know about drop me a line.

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