It was the kind of course you weren’t graded on, and it petered out as soon as the Academic year started. It had the most unglamorous of titles -- “Thesis.” It was one of the "required" courses in my final year. However, in the Fall term it had proved very useful in launching us into our research. From this course, I learned of the importance of applying for scholarships, taking the GRE, getting into graduate school and creating “THE CV.” Though I didn’t use much of this knowledge for over ten years, the information stayed with me, and has been invaluable.
The Thesis course tradition still carries on today at my Alma Mater, where I now work. One of the first assignments I received when beginning this job was to do a presentation to that year's Thesis class, advising them on scholarships and graduate school applications. In fact, I’ve subsequently been invited to present to the second year Psychology Research Methods class, since these professors know that the sooner students get this information, the better.
When I began my position in the Graduate Studies Department, one of my tasks was to create an Orientation Session for the year’s incoming cohort. In my first year I naively assumed that all students would be walking into their Masters’ programs armed with the same knowledge that I had when I left my undergraduate degree. I was genuinely surprised to find that most of them did not know what a CV was, nor were they taking advantage of the many opportunities I was offering them in order to fill it. I promoted obscure scholarships and bursaries, and encouraged them to submit papers at conferences. I sent out a call for moderators at the Research Colloquium to the many students who did not submit a paper or poster. Throughout the course of the year I would schedule meetings in an attempt to inspire them to create a Graduate Students Association. Rarely, if ever, did anyone take advantage of what I had to offer.
What I learned from this, was that:
a) they didn’t know why they should be doing it, and
b) they were so focused on classes and research, that they were finding it hard to look up and realize that there is so much more to graduate school than books and data analysis.
For my second orientation session, I changed tactics a bit. I delivered an impassioned speech, which included a definition of the curriculum vita (“course of life” in case you didn’t know) and all the reasons why it was important, and I practically ordered them to submit an abstract for the Spring Research Colloquium. I created Facebook and Twitter accounts for Graduate Studies and tried to create a sense of community amongst the new group. It’s an evolving process. There was a bit more uptake on the Colloquium front, but still no Students Association. One of my goals is to make these students feel responsible for their education, to make them political!
Even before I began my own graduate journey I could appreciate how time-consuming and daunting the thought of creating an Association would be. The amount of work that they are doing, coupled with the competitiveness of the program and a fear of failure can be pretty overwhelming. I take it as my responsibility to show them that graduate studies can be so much more than just books. It should also be about networking, experiencing other perspectives, and truly enjoying this stage of their lives. I need to find ways to help my students appreciate the beauty of this era and take advantage of the opportunities in their academic careers. That appreciation comes from experiencing everything a program has to offer beyond the lab or library.
Deanna is writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada. She is both a graduate student and a college administrator.