Mordecai Richler Reading Room, Concordia University. Photo by Lizy Mostowski
by Courtney Church
It’s been just over a year since I crossed Seton Auditorium’s circular stage and, as my first year in graduate school has come to its end, I’m finally beginning to process all that’s happened in that time. One might assume that grad school, like undergrad, can be characterized by a lot of sitting with your nose pressed into a thick volume of essays with many more scattered about—which is, in part, accurate—but, as always, the truth resists simplicity. I arrived at Concordia University last fall feeling the same tight knot of anxiety I experienced when I first began at Mount Saint Vincent in September of 2009. A lot has changed in the past eleven months, though, and I’d like to think I’ve learned a thing or two about navigating graduate school. So, here goes.
Classes and Research
The thing is, as a Mount English student, you’re already well prepared for graduate school. You’ve been given the freedom that comes with questioning paradigms and thinking critically. I’ve been afforded similar freedom in my work at Concordia—and that freedom enables me to explore topics that interest me. In the Fall semester, for example, I was taking a course on American frontiers—the sea, the west, and space. Although I would hardly call myself a western enthusiast, I was incredibly excited about the work I was able to produce in that class. I did a seminar presentation on masculine rhetoric and semiotic theory in Owen Wister’s The Virginian and my final paper was on the body as flickering signifier in Consider Phlebas, a paper I presented at a conference at Oxford University in mid-July. As a graduate student, you’ll be able to tackle questions and topics that really interest you—and, on top of that, conversations with your professors and classmates will open up other areas of inquiry you may never have thought of exploring. Those relationships are incredibly important; your supervisors, professors, and classmates are all right there with you and are excellent resources.
Classes will be structured depending on the professor: some will have a 100% final paper; some will have a presentation and accompanying paper as well as a final essay; others will have multiple smaller presentations, online forum postings, and a final paper. I’ve had a taste of various styles of graduate seminar, and each has its benefits and drawbacks. Some classes with multiple assignments will make you feel overwhelmed with work, and other classes with one or two assignments will add additional pressure the closer you get to the deadlines. That said—and I cannot stress this enough—start your papers early. As an undergrad, you can (sometimes) get away with procrastinating, but your papers in graduate school are often worth 60, 70, sometimes 100% of your final grade and can be upwards of twenty-five pages long. You need to give yourself time.
Again, as a Mount student, you’ve already been given an opportunity to attend the Annual Atlantic Undergraduate Conference (AAUEC), an event structured like graduate and professional conferences. Having been to the AAUEC, approaching my first graduate conference was a lot less stressful than it could have been. For your first conference, I’d advise working with a paper you’ve already spent some time on—maybe an essay that has come out of a class, or a chapter of your undergraduate thesis. Also, most graduate schools will give you funding opportunities for conferences, although sometimes you’ll have to apply to multiple places (your department, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the dean’s office, the graduate student union, etc.).
I’ve been fortunate enough to attend two conferences this year as a delegate: the Concordia Colloquium and the Visions of Humanity in Cyberculture conference this summer. I’ve had excellent experiences and positive feedback at both presentations—if you practice your paper and anticipate what questions are likely to be asked, you’ll be fine. I also attended two graduate conferences as a spectator, one at McGill on masquerades and the other at the University of Ottawa on the printed book. These events are excellent opportunities for learning as well as meeting people and networking. You may also run into familiar faces—at Ottawa I was staying with Lisa Templin (UOttawa masters candidate, BA, BEd, Honours MSVU) and briefly met up with Alicha Keddy (Carleton PhD student, BAH MSVU, MA Carleton). I also attended both the Concordia Colloquium and the Visions conference with Selena Middleton (McMaster PhD student). The academic world, like the Mount, is proving to be small, yet you’ll make significant friendships.
If you’d like to get a taste of a graduate conference, Dalhousie’s English Department is running one on decadence from August 15-17th. More information can be found at: http://www.dal.ca/faculty/arts/english/news-events/dagse-conference.html
At most graduate schools you’ll have the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant or research assistant. Most TA jobs will involve a smaller tutorial or conference that you’ll run as a TA, and then the larger lecture that the professor will give. In the first semester I was a TA for an introductory survey class from the medieval period to 1660. I ran a 45-minute tutorial followed by the two-and-a-half hour lecture. I treated the tutorial as a seminar, preparing by reading the texts for the week and coming with discussion questions and topics. I usually began by asking for my students to offer topics that interest them, though, and tried to use my own thoughts as a catalyst to get them talking to one another. As with everything in life, TAing gets easier as you go along—I definitely over-prepared the first few weeks. As a TA, you’ll most likely mark papers and quizzes. At Concordia, and probably elsewhere, there are other opportunities to TA that may or may not involve a tutorial. In the second semester I worked for the Department of Irish Studies as a marker; I’d attend lectures, but there was no tutorial involved. An important piece of advice I was given, though, is to focus your energy on your own research before turning to TA work. I was fortunate enough to be working with professors who had the same mentality.
Have other passions
Although last on this list, extracurricular activities are no less important than starting papers early or attending conferences. As with undergrad, there’s a culture of stress in graduate school that can consume you and if literature is your only passion you can burn out pretty quickly. Allow yourself to have other commitments: for some that’s partners and families, for others crafts and hobbies, and for me, it was indoor soccer and jiu-jitsu. Having that time away from the library and your work is essential to remaining not only productive, but happy as well.
Graduate school can be daunting in theory, but it really is quite similar to the work you’ve already been doing at MSVU. It’s easy to let impostor syndrome get to you—you’re coming from a small, tight-knit department where people know you and moving into a bigger environment where everyone is seemingly much more prepared and well-read. Try not to compare yourself to others and do your best to add to a collegiate, rather than competitive, environment. If you have any questions about life as a grad student feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you’d like to learn more about Concordia’s graduate program you can contact the Graduate Program Director, Dr. Manish Sharma, at email@example.com.
Courtney Church is an M.A. student at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. She graduated from the Mount with a B.A. (Honours) in English in May of 2013. Her undergraduate thesis was on identity and space in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and her current research on space and cybernetic theory in Samuel Beckett’s short theatre is funded by a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Graduate Scholarship. She plans on continuing in academia and will be applying to Ph.D. programs that begin in Fall of 2015.