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Stay Bold: Creative Pursuits While in Graduate School

What do you do to stay creative during grad school?

April 9, 2017

Florianne Jimenez is a PhD student in rhetoric and composition at UMass Amherst. You can follow her on Twitter @bopeepery.



Do you remember spending hours making art when you were younger? That was one of the biggest joys of being a kid: our “work” was always creative. Make a hand turkey, paint your family in finger paint, stick macaroni onto a sheet of paper in the shape of your house – these were the kinds of projects that we’d get excited about as kids. And remember the sense of accomplishment you felt when you were done? You’d take your artwork home, and even if it wasn’t very good, you were proud of what you’d made.


This same sense of accomplishment over creation can be elusive in graduate school. We create articles for publication, but an article can take over a year even to be accepted, let alone printed and distributed. We slave over our dissertations, but they will likely remain unread outside of our committee. With the glacial pace of production in the academe, the making that we do can start to feel pointless. There are larger structures at play here, such as the peer review process and limited audiences for our writing, and we should definitely address these in our scholarship and community-building. However, what can we do about the everyday feelings of ennui and anxiety over our work?


The answer I offer is this: grad students, go forth and make some art.


But why bother?


In the humanities, a creative pursuit is what drove many of us to our respective fields. I majored in literature in college because I wanted to be the next Joan Didion! In the 10 years since my freshman year of college, my career goals have shifted toward more academic writing, but I haven’t forgotten the snarky teenager who stayed up late writing on a clunky IBM Thinkpad. In a way, creative pursuits help us remember why we entered graduate school in the first place: because we wanted to build our ideas and put them into the world for others to see.


The mundane work of graduate school may not seem creative but, in reality, we are always making stuff: journal articles, book reviews, experiments, fellowship grants. I view artistic pursuits – writing for GradHacker and writing creative non-fiction, in my case – as cross-training. Just like an Olympic runner might do strength training, yoga, or swimming to strengthen and stabilize other muscles in their body, academic writers need outlets that work different parts of our brains.


Having creative pursuits can also help your professional development. While we never put our hobbies and interests on our CVs, especially if we’re not in the humanities, being a well-rounded person can help you make connections at conferences, and can also make you a great person to network with during interviews, job talks, and campus visits. When committees meet potential hires, they’re looking primarily at your credentials, but they’re also looking at your personality: nobody wants to talk to the person who has nothing going on but work.


What kinds of creative pursuits can I do?


Everyone has one creative talent of some sort or can find at least one creative thing that they enjoy. If you live around a university, there are plenty of opportunities to explore different kinds of art for free or for a very low price. For example, art schools sometimes have open sketching and painting days for the community, or a university dance troupe might be hosting an open ballroom dance class. Check out bulletin boards and Facebook pages for events that might interest you, and commit to actually going to an event. Bring a buddy if you’re nervous about going alone!


If you prefer to make art solo and not leave the house, there are still lots of things you can do. You could pick up an instrument that you learned and enjoyed as a kid and start playing it again. Check craigslist for people who are looking to give away their old instruments or sell them for cheap. Or you could take your cooking and baking skills to the next level and start experimenting with unusual flavor combinations and new recipes.  You could also pick up a funky adult coloring book, put on some music, and do some coloring, which a lot of my friends swear by as a therapeutic release.


When am I supposed to find the time?

You could ask that question about anything, really – going to the gym, grading student papers, service work, independent reading – and the answer is pretty much the same for everything: you make time for it. For a creative pursuit which might not be directly relevant to your research, the amount of time you devote to it has to match how seriously you’d like to take this work. During the semester, an hour or two per week of knitting, baking, picking up an instrument, or coloring is enough to get you started. If you want to go beyond a hobby (e.g. turning your knitting into a business, or trying to get your short stories published), you’ll have to be more disciplined about time for your art. No matter how seriously you want to take your art, it all starts with committing to a time and place for it.


But what if I’m terrible at it?

So what? No one is asking you to be first chair of the orchestra, or to join Top Chef! Allowing yourself to be bad at coloring, cooking, or sketching can be a nice break from the high-stakes world of academia.  When we’re forced to perform all the time, it’s refreshing to just try something out for fun.


Ultimately, art is about rising above the mundane, which is why doing some art during graduate school is a great idea. The job market, the White House, and deadlines might not change because of your art, but you’ll definitely see yourself, your work, and the world with new eyes. So pick up a paintbrush, buy some needles and yarn, grab a friend and go to a dance class -- the world of art awaits.


What do you do to stay creative during graduate school? Share in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Mirjana Veljovic and used under Creative Commons licensing.]


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