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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Improv-ing Grad School Life

Channel your inner comedian in order to tackle the challenges of grad school.

August 23, 2015

Shira Lurie is a doctoral student at the University of Virginia researching early American political history. Follow her on Twitter @shirby9 and on her blog.




Watch any comedian's commencement address and you'll learn that improv rules also make for great life advice. In fact, Tina Fey devoted an entire chapter to the subject in her autobiography, Bossypants. The unique demands of grad school make it unlike almost any other job or course of study. And so, as a grad student, I often feel as though I am literally making it up as I go along. So what better way to hack the new school year than with a few principles of improvisation?


Act As If

To do improv is to "act as if." That is, to pretend that whatever situation you are in is normal for you. Act as if you are on a spaceship to Mars. Act as if you are interviewing the Queen of England. Act as if you ARE the Queen of England. In grad school, it is easy to feel as though you don't deserve to be there. When I went to my first conference and met scholars that I admire, I felt completely outclassed and intimidated. To combat these feelings of inadequacy, try to act as if. Act as if it is easy to discuss your research with the leading figures in your field. Act as if you are comfortable giving a job talk to a room full of potential colleagues. Whenever you feel overwhelmed or outclassed, just pretend that what you're doing is natural for you (and soon it will become so).


Yes, and

This is the most commonly referenced improv principle. Never deny. Always affirm and add your own contribution. Of course, in academia it can sometimes be important to disagree. What's important here is the 'and.' During coursework, comps, and in your own writing, it is important to support your critiques of others with opinions of your own. Don't merely say that you didn't like a given work's methodology, also state how you would have improved it. The 'Yes, and' principle reminds us to bring our own ideas to the table when expressing an opinion on another's work.


Be. Here. Now.

In improv, the current scene is the only thing of importance. The audience is not meant to care about what these characters will be doing a week from now. Their backstories are also somewhat irrelevant. The actors should be primarily concerned with their characters’ immediate needs. In grad school, it can be almost impossible to maintain this level of focus. There is always something to worry about down the line - comps, defences, the job market. The "Be. Here. Now." rule is a helpful nudge to concentrate on what is most important at that particular moment. There is no use worrying about your dissertation defence if you can't pass your qualifying exams. While being prepared for the future is important, this principle is a useful reminder to prioritize the present.


Make Your Partner Look Good

Improv rookies are often anxious to outdo their scene partners and be the funniest one on stage. But nothing kills a scene faster than a selfish actor who is going for the big, unearned laughs. The best improvisers set up their partners; this lets the jokes occur more organically. We've all been to talks or in classes in which someone tries to bolster themselves by taking a particularly aggressive stance. But as we know, these people usually seem unprofessional and insecure. And, more importantly, they tend to put others on the defensive and ruin the chance of a fruitful conversation. Just like in improv, the best way to make the whole situation work for everyone is to try to help others. Ask a presenter to clarify a point that was unclear. Expand on a classmate's argument. Remember, this rule isn't about sacrificing your views in order to be conciliatory; it's about fostering a respectful discussion.



Being only partially committed to a scene is death in improv. Nothing is less funny or engaging than an actor with obvious inhibitions or other things on their mind. Grad school is hard and time consuming and requires commitment. Like a good scene, if you're not all in, it likely won't end well.


And as Amy Poehler told the Harvard class of 2011, “If you are scared, look into your partner’s eyes….the answers to a lot of your life’s questions are often in someone else’s face.” Academia, like improv, is a conversation. We all need to listen to and learn from each other to create something worthwhile.


Please provide feedback on these tips and add your own in the comments! But remember to make your partner look good!!!

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jorge Gonzalez and used under the Creative Commons license.]


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