At some point, you’ll reach the “senior year” of grad school—that last year in which you may not count down to “graduation,” but rather to the degree conferral, and soon after that, a job, likely in academia. For those in PhD programs, particularly in the humanities, senior year is monumental because it likely has been so long in the making. Senior year also assumes special importance because academic jobs for newly-minted PhDs may not materialize, and so the final year as a grad student can be rather nebulous.
Combine the mad rush of finishing the degree with the looming pressure of job hunting and it’s easy to lose sight of the moment. Because when the paperwork is finalized and the full graduation regalia donned, the sand has run out on your tenure as an official, enrolled university student. And once that happens, your unique access to the benefits, amenities, and opportunities of university life will be forever changed. If taking a position outside of academia is on your horizon, your ability to participate in university life might be severely limited as well.
Make no mistake: I’m not claiming that official association with a university is a requisite for living the life of the mind. I’m wise enough to reject that claim; I also don’t believe one ounce of it. But as someone in the senior year of their PhD program who might, at some point, leave the ivory tower behind and enter the wider workforce, I’ve resolved to revel in what might be my last hurrah at the university. I want to make every moment count. I want to take advantage of new opportunities. I want to meet new people in other fields. Put simply, I want to experience new things for which I normally wouldn’t allot time for professionally, academically, or personally.
If you’re in senior year, I invite you to do the same. In other words, squeeze it like a lemon; soak it up like a sponge. Below, a brief guide to get you thinking about ways to “hack” the university during your senior year:
1. Check out “the other side” of campus (or any seldom-visited building). As grad students, we often are confined to several buildings—or even one floor of a single building. Take a stroll through a new area and look for postings regarding academic and other opportunities you might miss hearing about in your corner of the world.
2. Attend a campus-based conference that you normally wouldn’t. Last year, I attended a social media and marketing conference sponsored by a student public relations group. I’m getting my PhD in English, so my trip to the MBA building was a first. The conference was eye-opening, and I learned quite a bit about branding and blogging and, in turn, how I could use these concepts to communicate my scholarly identity. (I also discovered twitter is far from the evil monster I thought it was.)
3. Same as the above, but substitute “talk” for “conference.” Be bold. Go where no one in your department has gone before!
4. Attend a departmental talk, but do so in a different way. My department partnered with publisher Bedford/St. Martin’s to bring composition and pedagogy scholar Nancy Sommers to campus. With their permission, I live-tweeted the talk in what was my first attempt at that kind of broadcast/communication. Others in my department joined me, and creating a backchannel for the talk allowed me to consider my role as an audience member in a fun, new way.
5. Download computer software and other programs that your school might make available to students at a free or reduced charge. Then, learn how to use it at minimal or no financial risk. Granted, you may have to delete the software upon graduation (or pay a fee to keep it as a non-student); however, six months of free use could be quite a bargain.
6. Get to browsin’ on your campus library’s databases for cool reads and other similar materials. Create your own private mini-library for a rainy day. Just don’t distribute the material publicly. We don’t want another JSTOR hacker scandal, now do we?
7. Find out if your school offers free/discounted computing or other kinds of classes to students. My school provides free technology courses to students (faculty must pay, in fact.) Over the years, I’ve learned everything from XHTML to InDesign to Microsoft Access. Good times and also useful if you’re thinking of changing career plans.
8. If you have another degree from your current institution, consult the alumni organization to find out what services already are available. My school’s alumni organization offers professional development activities, such as networking dinners and job-search support groups. They also sponsor social activities, which also are great places to network.
9. Visit the campus gym or health center to find out if they offer free- or low-cost nutritional consulting or fitness testing. Why pay more later as a faculty member (or member of the public) when you can pay next-to-nothing now as a student?
10. Avoid the most common grad-student trap of all time (all work and no play). Visit a new coffee shop. Instead of your standard lunch-time item, go for something different on your favorite restaurant’s menu. Try the new smoothie shop in town. Visit your winter (indoor) farmer’s market. You get the idea.
The point I’m making, then, is that it might be worthwhile—and hey, even fun—to also attend talks, conferences, and classes that don’t directly, immediately connect with your research or teaching. You never know: you might learn something new, understand your work as scholar or teacher in a different way, or even win an iPad2. (All of that happened to me.)
What have I overlooked? Tell me your suggestions for hacking the university during “senior year.”
[Image by Flickr user kalyan02 and used under Creative Commons License]
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