I know: I’m still in grad school. But this post is meant to capture some of what I learned while working toward my Master’s degree. To that end, this one is for all the current MA students out there who are beginning or finishing their time in an MA program, especially if they’re considering moving onto a PhD program.
Academic work is not *just* intellectual labor; it involves physical, mental, and emotional labor. Although I couldn’t quite put it in these words at the time, I realized this during about week 5 of my first semester in my MA program. My then-partner was slowly completing a cross-country road trip to get to Maine and still wouldn’t arrive for another couple of weeks. Without a car, I had been biking to the grocery store and attempting to carry back bags of groceries on my bike with mixed success. I was finding, as most first-year TAs do, that commenting on student work and planning for a 50-minute class takes hours, which sometimes meant I didn’t get to my own coursework until later in the week or on the weekend. In short, I was exhausted and lonely. (The picture attached to this blog post was taken on my first day as a teacher, so the exhaustion isn’t yet visible.)
Faculty want to work with graduate students (i.e., you). Start reaching out to faculty who seem to have similar research interests or have had experiences that you want to have, too. You’re here to learn how to think and be in a particular discipline, and faculty can offer valuable advice on this front. Graduate students don’t tend to figure out until later in their careers that faculty want to be approached outside of class.
Invest 110% of yourself into at least one of your classes per semester. For me, this meant I bought a sturdy binder, printed all of the readings (instead of reading them onscreen) because I can absorb the material better that way, and kept the readings and all of the work for the course organized in this binder. I’ve revisited these binders at least once a semester since then, to dig up an article that still resonates with me, or to look over an especially well-put-together syllabus to get ideas for my own teaching.
Take the opportunity to conduct research in your MA program. I’ve heard faculty who work with MA students (including faculty here at UofL) say that this is not necessarily an important thing for MA students to do, but I would make a special point of making this part of your MA experience. Conducting original research is a central part of the PhD milestone and, even if you don’t continue on to a doctoral program, you’ll walk away from your MA having had the experience of doing something hard and of getting a sense of what it means to participate in the ongoing scholarly conversations that make research writing exciting. So do a capstone project or find a mentor to shepherd you through setting up and completing a research thesis, especially if you’re not sure about whether you want to go on to get a PhD.
And, finally, speaking of doing difficult things: Faculty and other experienced professional writers still struggle with their writing projects. I tell my students (and myself) that the big difference between these writers and less experienced writers is that the first group has simply developed more strategies for coping with that difficulty (and I’m sure I’m paraphrasing one of my mentors here).
Charlotte Asmuth is a first-year PhD student who has been teaching college writing courses for 3.5 years. Ongoing interests include writing program administration, rhetorical genre studies, and research writing across the disciplines.