Wednesday, October 21, 2015

How to survive an MA program

I graduate from Brigham Young University my MA this December, although I am already at the University of Kentucky working on my PhD. I have been meaning to write a list of advice for incoming MA students since I left BYU.
My specialty was literature, so my advice specifically applies to that area of study, but I think it's general enough that pedagogy and linguistics students could also benefit.

First, don't delay your study of the reading list. As you plan your classes, it might be a good idea to keep the reading list in mind. You might ask the appropriate professors (in advance, while they're planning the course) if they are going to cover the works on the list. If they aren't, make sure you read them on your own, and ask questions. It would be a good idea to keep notes and share them with each other, because the list is long and time is short.
Second, don't think you have to do everything alone. You have a cohort of colleagues, fellow students who are in your same boat, and you are also surrounded by second and third year students who have been where you are. Make time for reading groups.
Third, don't think your professors don't care. Although they are busy, you have amazing professors who have been in your shoes, too. They really do care about you and your progress, otherwise they wouldn't have chosen this profession. If you respect their time and develop professional relationships with them, you will find excellent mentors.
Fourth, do something outside of school that you like, at least once a week. Make sure there is an outside of school, even if it's only a few minutes each day. Do something fun, that makes you laugh. Everyone needs a thing to keep them mostly sane. My thing was comics, and still is.
Fifth, find a thesis topic you like enough to work on for hours on end. Hopefully it will be something you can build on later. Find what you really care about and do it. You don't have to know the answer right away, but at your thesis defense you should be able to answer the question "So what? Why does this thesis matter to you and to academia?" I'm still learning that answer as I think about how I want to build on my thesis for my dissertation. So, study what you want to study. Find mentors who will help you, and don't give up on the days when it's not fun, because there will be other, better days.
Sixth, learn how to write. Keep practicing. Writing is thinking, working out ideas on paper, and you don't have to have a perfect first draft.
Seventh, learn how to read. Again, keep practicing. Reading is thinking critically about the text. Sometimes it's harder than others.
Eighth, know that it's okay if you don't get everything done. Prioritize and do what you can.
Finally, just keep swimming. Some days are hard. Some weeks are hard. But time flies so quickly that by the time you finish, you'll wonder where it all went. Yeah, that's definitely a cliche. Nonetheless, make the most of the time you have to explore interests and build relationships with professors and fellow students.