Advice for Grad Students, from a Grad Student

Rachel Tindall received her Bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in Literature from the University of Southern Indiana in 2015. Now, she is working towards achieving her Master’s of Arts in English here at Ball State and plans to graduate in May of 2017. 

preview-chat-20160822_132743I’ve always been one of those people who knows what they want to do. I came straight from my undergraduate degree into my Master’s program at Ball State as part of my plan to become a university professor of American Literature. My degree, when I graduate this May, will be a Master’s of Arts in English, with which I hope to become an academic advisor or career coach at a university in Indianapolis or the surrounding area. Not the same as the aforementioned “plan,” right? Well, as I’ve come to realize, sometimes things change.

From the time I arrived at Ball State, the faculty and staff in the English program have been so helpful in helping me achieve my goals. I am a Teaching Assistant (TA) in the Writing Program, which means that once I completed my first semester of classes and observed my mentor’s English 104 class, I was assigned to teach my own. This semester is the fifth English 104 class I’ve taught while at Ball State, and I finally feel like I’m getting the hang of it.

During my time teaching, I’ve learned that my favorite part of being an instructor is actually meeting with students one-on-one during conferences, hence my desire to go into advising or career coaching. Having developed multiple teaching philosophies for pedagogy classes, I have found my core values as an educator. But two years ago, I had never taught a class, and to be honest, couldn’t even really picture myself in front of a classroom. Sure, it was a passing thought for some time in the distant future, but it wasn’t concrete. Thankfully, my professors and mentors saw my potential and worked with me every step of the way to help me become a confident graduate student and instructor.

I’ve also grown in two other important ways through grad school. First, as a student. Second, as a person. In order to really understand this growth, it’s important to know a few things about me:

  1. I live, and have lived for the duration of my degree, an hour away from campus.
  2. I was engaged when I arrived at Ball State, and now I’m married.
  3. I didn’t know anyone at Ball State when I arrived straight from my undergraduate institution.

My experiences at Ball State have shaped the way I act as a student, and how I handle life as an adult. The intensity and learning curve as a grad student have affected me profoundly. As a student, I am much more resourceful and confident than I was as an undergrad. This is partially because of skills that I have learned, but also because of the encouragement I receive on an almost daily basis from my support network. I feel confident that I can achieve my goals, and because of that I do better work. As a person, I am much more aware of my own impact on the people around me. I know that I need to spend time with my friends, my family, my dog, and most of all my (new) husband. All of those people support me daily, and they need me to pull back from school sometimes and just be a person. Probably the biggest (and hardest) thing I’ve learned is how to manage my time. I drive to Ball State an hour each way every day, so every minute I’m home or at school needs to matter for something – whether that’s personal “break” time or school work time.

My story is one of many at Ball State. For the most part, I’m just like any other graduate student struggling through, trying to figure out this whole “life” thing. However, I think there are a few things I can share that could be useful to new graduate students.

  1. Graduate school is HARD. You will be tested in ways you didn’t know you could be tested. You graduated in the top 10% of your undergraduate class? So did everyone else! You love researching and writing papers but tend to procrastinate? Try doing that with a 20-page seminar paper that’s worth 50-60% of your grade – on second thought, that’s a terrible plan.
  2. You will fail at something, and that’s okay. So you didn’t go to every single social event, finish every assignment exactly on time, or build the most fun assignment for your classes. You may have even have lost a library book that you later found stuffed under the seat of your car because you were carrying too many books at one time and it slid underneath the seat. It’s okay, you’re just human! Everyone else around you has also done these things (at least once) and survived.
  3. The people around you, your cohort, your professors, your mentors, your office-mate(s), understand your pain. They get it. Use that to your advantage. Talk through issues about your classes. Ask professors how the heck they made it through their education. These people want to help you – let them!
  4. Take advantage of opportunities. Every semester you will produce some sort of project, whether creative or research based. When your professors suggest conferences or publications to submit to (and then offer to help you get there), go for it! Getting accepted to a conference and then sitting in front of a room full of people who want to hear about your research is awesome (and validating)! Collaborate with your colleagues, go to events, network with people. Not only does that change your perspective about your research interests, but it also might help you get a job.
  5. Plans change. So you had a “set” plan and now you’re questioning whether it’s what you want? You’ve wanted to be a professor for years, but now you like the job description of something else better? Like failing at some things, changing plans happens to most people. Some people “stay the course,” but if that’s not you, that’s okay. Part of grad school is figuring out what you want, and no one will blame you or judge you (hopefully) for making the best decisions for you.
  6. You CAN do it, AND it IS worth it. When you’ve cried 3 times in the past week because you have so much to do and you don’t think that one person can possibly do all of the tasks you know you have to accomplish, life can seem bleak. Finishing your education to get to your goals can seem impossible, and sometimes you will probably feel like you’d rather binge watch Netflix with your dog and a tub of ice cream than read one more article. But, when you finish eating all the ice cream and run out of your favorite show (this definitely happens) you will find the strength to read that last article and write that 500-word discussion board. You will write that 20-page paper and do well, even if you have to ask for help a hundred different times from ten different people.

You may be wondering why (or if) you should trust me. After all, what can a twenty-something year old know about the big world of academia and grad school? I guess my short answer would be: don’t just read about it and silently chuckle at my experiences – come experience all of these things for yourself. Live them, suffer them, grow from them. Have your own crazy experiences. But, if you have the opportunity to go to grad school, if that’s how you get to the job you want, or if you’re still unsure but you love to learn: go for it. Take the leap of faith – it won’t let you down.

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