Matt Balk is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at Ball State University. He graduated Ball State with an MA in Creative Writing in 2010.
My big piece of advice about grad school is this: be open to new opportunities. I’m currently a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition, but when I started my MA in Creative Writing at Ball State University, I had never even heard of Rhetoric and Composition before. At my small undergraduate college, creative writers and literature professors taught freshman composition, and I just assumed that was the way it was done everywhere. And at that time, I just knew that I was going to be a creative writer for the rest of my life.
However, for one of my electives, I took Dr. Donnelly’s ENG 690 class on the rhetoric of the public forum, and was immediately hooked on the history and theory of composition. Additionally, everyone in our class (all four of us) wrote papers and presented them at an academic conference in Illinois, which was my first experience with academic work outside of the classroom (and also a lot of fun!). After finishing my MA, I applied and was accepted to the PhD program in Rhetoric and Composition here at Ball State University, where I’m working on my dissertation on writing center histories.
Graduate school has also given me a love of teaching, which was something I never even knew I had. Before I came to Ball State, I had exactly zero teaching experience, and was petrified by the idea of being in charge of a class of students that I was barely older than. But after going through the teaching seminar with Dr. Linda Hanson, I felt far more comfortable than many of my peers at other universities, some of whom had only a workshop session’s worth of instruction the weekend before they started teaching composition classes.
One of the scariest things about starting grad school for me was the future after grad school; people were always asking, “What are you going to do with your degree?” And to be honest, I didn’t have much of an idea. I might be alone in this assumption, but I had no idea what to expect from graduate school. I came to Muncie in 2008 from Iowa, where I had lived my whole life, and felt a bit like a fish out of water (or in my case, the cornfield). At that time, I just really liked writing, and was grateful to be in a position that gave me time and opportunity not only to write, but also to get feedback from instructors and peers.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s okay if you don’t know what you are going to do right away. The professors at Ball State, especially in the English department, are great guides; don’t be afraid to ask them for advice. I’ve been fortunate to have many instructors at Ball State who have helped me find my path. Lean on your peers as well. Unlike the majority of undergraduate classmates, your graduate student colleagues are people who share your research and creative interests. The English department at Ball State does a great job of fostering an open, engaging environment for all students, and I have been fortunate to spend so many great years here.