Johna Picco: “Don’t go to graduate school without funding,” and other sound advice

Time to tune in, English majors, for another round of excellent advice from Johna Picco. Below, she gives us four amazing tips on graduate school, internships, and Life After The English Major.

Photo provided by Johna Picco.

Photo provided by Johna Picco.

So, what’s up, Johna?

It’s been nearly four years (how?!) since my initial blog post and not only have the years flown by but they’ve also brought about a great deal of change.

Since we last spoke, I’ve left my job at the American Medical Association, applied to and attended graduate school at the University of Illinois, interned at various archives and secured full-time employment (as of October 29th!) as an assistant curator of special collections at The Filson Historical Society.

Yikes. When I write it all out like that, not only does it sound hectic but also ridiculously pretentious. Well, I assure you that it wasn’t all that hectic and that my aim for this post is definitely not to boast about myself but rather share my latest experiences on where an English degree can lead.

Where can it lead?

I should start by acknowledging that in my first post, I wrote of obtaining my masters degree in library and information science. Note to self: never say never. But that doesn’t mean I’d change the order in which things played out.

I’m tremendously grateful for the time I spent working prior to applying for graduate school.

The handful of years between school was pretty ideal, really; I gained an incalculable amount of experience (life, office, etc) that in turn made me a more attractive applicant and most importantly, I felt ready.

So there’s that. That whole when you feel ready thing. Emphasis on the feeling—I’m a firm believer in following your intuition (it exists for a reason, eh?).

Tip no. 1: Don’t attend graduate school just because you have no job options, or, because you aren’t sure what else to do.

Why? Because you might not have job options or know what to do upon leaving graduate school. And ermm, graduate school ain’t cheap, folks!

Okay, so let’s say in this scenario you are planning on graduate school.

My second piece of advice? Get funding.

And yes, I know (trust me) it isn’t easy. None of this is. Nor is it especially fun, it just is what it is. So, to reiterate, I do not recommend pursuing an advanced degree in the humanities unless you have a source of funding (and by funding I don’t mean a bunch of loans), or, a good plan for securing said funding.

For me, funding came in the way of a graduate assistantship within my department’s advancement office. And before you launch into a plethora of excuses as to how that isn’t an option for you or that they don’t exist, let me tell you this: the assistantship I got didn’t “exist”.

I asked for it.

Yes. This is fact. I interviewed for the job, which was listed as an hourly position, and at the end of the interview, I laid my cards out. I told them that I was extremely interested but that I was financially unable to accept a non-assistantship position. They talked it over with the dean, and a few weeks later I was moving to Urbana-Champaign with tuition secured.

Third tip: Ask for money.

Yes. It’s a terribly uncomfortable conversation but you know what? The worst that can happen is that you’ll be told no.

I won’t bore you with a detailed account of my graduate school experiences but I will refer you back to my initial post, as a lot of that advice is applicable here (get involved, get scared, network, etc). What I do want to close with is what I like to call “the internship shuffle”.

We’ve all heard the debate about internships, particularly unpaid, and the issues that arise with the prospect of working for free. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my opinion: unpaid internships are a necessary evil. Yes, you heard correct. The lady that just told you to ask for money is now telling you to work for free.

Let me elaborate.

First, just so I’m clear: I am talking only about internships in humanities-related fields (STEM-related jobs have different rules, not to mention larger pocketbooks, to play by). Second, when I say they are necessary, I say that with the understanding that this free and/or low-paid job is temporary.

These short-term positions allow you to gain experience and get your name out into the field, but they are not for lingering.

Tip no. 4: You cannot work for free, forever.

And sure, you’re probably thinking well, duh! but you’d be surprised just how many people keep working for nothing, or, next to it. So when do you know when enough is enough? That’s hard to say and sadly there isn’t a magic cut-off but what I like to do is give myself deadlines and yep, you guessed it, follow my intuition.

And, perhaps just as important, never forget your value. It’s easy to get overly hard on yourself and assume that because funding is scant you should keep making next to nothing. This, my friends, is NOT true. Know your worth and when the time is right, don’t be afraid to ask for it.

Welp, I’ve most definitely bent y’all’s ears for far too long, so here is where I’ll end it. I am so, so grateful for my time at Ball State, at Illinois and all the other stops along the way where I was lucky to engage excellent mentors. I wouldn’t have made it as far as I have without these places and these people, and I hope that posts like mine and the other “Life After BSU” posts can help make a small difference in your journey.

As always, I’m available! Email me @ johna.picco@gmail.com or catch me on LinkedIn!

Chirp, chip!

Thanks, Johna!

 

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