It’s not always an easy position, being a MA candidate. The program is short, and a lot of department attention and resources are centered on the PhD candidates by default. You really have to learn to be your own advocate, setting your own goals and making your own plans. Luckily for me, I’ve always been overambitious and a little bulldoggish — I’m not really the type of person who is comfortable fading into the background. But even I started my program feeling overwhelmed and a little unsupported until I found my balance, and part of that balance means only doing work that serves me.
I believe in this mantra, “write what serves you” so deeply, to the point where I’m chanting it in the meditative, devotional part of my yoga classes. Write what serves you. This is the idea that makes me feel like I have a plan, like I’m getting my money’s worth for this very pricey education. People of color are pretty used to being their own advocates, I know I am, so going into grad school with this mindset has really helped me not only select the right projects and focus on my long-term goals, but also to trust in my own power and agency. It reminds me that I don’t need to wait around for other people to tell me what to do, that I am capable and people will recognize this, and that I am the one in charge of my career.
With (almost) one year of grad school done, and seemingly no extraneous filler classes or work I’m not totally passionate about under my belt, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to keep this up throughout the rest of my program. This is my very informal list of tips for making your grad school experiences serve you.
- Know your interests.
This one is obvious; how can you shape your program in the right ways if you don’t know where you’re headed? I know I said “interests” above, but also consider your work experience and academic history. If you can build on work you’ve already done, you are that much more ahead.
- Follow the field.
Check out blogs, message boards, listservs, and any other resources you can find that center on what exactly you love. For me, the broadest level of my interests are American Studies, but if I tried to capture everything that happens in the whole field, I’d go crazy. People are out there who have the same niche interests as you, so find them. If you’re into museums or the liberal arts, please check out h-net!
I hate this step. I’m an introvert and a workaholic who would rather do everything myself. However, you cannot write a book of the world all on your own, it takes a village, etc., and there are probably excellent people with great ideas right next to you. I’ve been so lucky to have a great cohort right here with me in grad school who keep me motivated and help support my projects as well as their own. Last week I had two separate people out of the blue send me articles and videos they knew were relevant to my current projects, and I have never felt more valued. Not to mention, the idea for “write what serves you” came directly from people in our group!
- Work and rework.
Personally, I fall more on the “overwork” end of the spectrum, where I sign up for everything and then realize too late that I’ve overcommitted myself, so part of this tip is born purely out of trying to save my own sanity, but save your completed projects so you can incorporate them later. It will cut down on the amount of repeat research you have to do and help build you a cohesive body of work for your resume.
- Shape your space.
Sometimes this means bending the rules a little bit, but if nothing seems to be the right fit for you, try coming at them in a different direction. Find classes, conferences, or organizations that you can adapt to, rather than looking for things that are an immediate fit. By being flexible, you will get different perspectives and new ways to approach your work, which can only give you more nuance when you return to your preferred subjects or methods. And if worse comes to worse, create your own space for the research you’re interested in.
There you have it, my five point plan to making grad school work for you, and one yoga mantra to bring it all together for you: write what serves you. What tips do you have for taking ownership of your work? Share in the comments or reply to us on Twitter! #BGMBserveyourself