1.2 Where do we go from here? Graduate perspectives on next steps
Cindy Chopoidalo , Catherine Melnyk & Leah Skinner
Ralph Waldo Emerson is commonly credited with giving the following advice: Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. The truth is, however, that graduate students with degree in hand are often compelled to rely upon pre-existing paths and established networks for guidance. We have just spent several years in graduate school forging our own academic path, working on individual projects that, in the end, we alone know better than anyone else. And yet, when finding a place in the world beyond the university is the subject in question, we turn to others, to individuals and organizations, aiming to fit into a new environment. To do so, the learning must start all over again, and as is often the case, with a new sense of the importance, and sometimes the difficulty, of securing meaningful employment that makes the most of the skills and characteristics developed at graduate school. Beyond the recognition that graduation signifies the end of one path and the beginning of others, the post-CL transition is a process that involves practical planning and down-to-earth decisions, as well as the confidence to remain open to new possibilities.
For Leah Skinner (MA, Comparative Literature, 2011) this meant attending career development seminars and one-on-one sessions with a career advisor offered for graduates from the University of Alberta: “Although I was very confident in my research, through the successful completion of my defense and my ability to communicate and execute projects that require an advanced skill set, I felt very unsure of how to translate these skills into the workplace. I needed to learn how to fit into the professional world.” She explains this transition as essentially a work of translation: in other words, showing companies that academic experience is directly relatable to professional situations. Whether this means using the term ‘stakeholders’ instead of ‘supervisory committee’ or developing a skills-based resume rather than simply listing research projects and publications as on a curriculum vitae, Skinner is mindful of both the challenges involved and the persistence necessary to succeed: “There was, and still is, a lot I need to learn about how to fit into this environment. Every cover letter I write is better than the last. I feel that, right now, I need to follow the paths of other advanced degree holders who were successful in the professional arena to effectively promote myself and get noticed. It’s such a competitive scene.”
When prompted with the suggestion that one needs to continue to learn post-graduation, especially when looking for a career outside academia, Catherine Melnyk (MA, Comparative Literature, 2011) responded: “I think it’s important to get creative with your degree. Yes, you have a Masters – but what next? Don’t sell yourself short. Instead, I always think positively about my skill set. As Comparative Literature graduates not only do we have interpersonal skills, we can research, we can write, we can present, we have time management experience, and we can think critically. Personally, I am going to take the time to congratulate myself on ‘surviving’ grad school and then I am going to start applying for work in the communications field. I’m making a promise to myself that my education will not end and that I will succeed in the work place just like I succeeded in grad school.”
Graduation, nonetheless, does not necessarily mean leaving the academic path and setting off on a brand new one. Cindy Chopoidalo (PhD, Comparative Literature, 2009) sees it this way: “Graduating from the program doesn’t mean putting aside academic interests. I have continued pursuing the interests I developed during the graduate program and will continue to do so. At the risk of sounding cliché, graduation is also called ‘commencement’ because it’s meant to represent the beginning of your academic work rather than simply the end of your schooling.” For Chopoidalo, this means keeping up with her position as editorial assistant and typesetter with the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, teaching courses in Comparative Literature and English at both the University of Alberta and Lakeland College, and planning a continuation of her graduate research: “I plan to expand on my dissertation work in future research, perhaps applying the work I have done on Hamlet adaptations to those of other Shakespearean plays and even other authors, as well. During the writing of both my MA and PhD theses I have written and drawn Shakespearean adaptations of my own, which I hope to have published in the future.”
Melnyk also sees her graduate experience as playing a large part in determining her next move: “With my graduate studies coming to an end I am left to wonder ‘what next’? Perhaps the Rolling Stones said it best: You can’t always get what you want/But if you try sometimes/You might just find/You get what you need. Entering my Master’s program, I was not sure what exactly I wanted from it besides, honestly, the title Master of Arts. I knew that I had a topic I was interested in writing about, that being Disability Studies and how the disabled individual is represented in Young Adult fiction. Now, I am leaving Comparative Literature in the sense that I will no longer be attending the classes, but I know in my heart that the methodologies of Comparative Literature and how I will be reading myself into the working world will remain.”
Perhaps this is one of the core concepts of graduate school: what we learn is that the learning never stops. Maybe this is how we can make use of Emerson’s advice, to begin the process of leaving our own mark in the world, even if it requires the flexibility to adapt to the practical situations that lie ahead. As Skinner explains, “I am taking all the things I have learned during my Master’s program, like my in-depth research into social media, as well as the advice of career counselors into consideration, absolutely. However, in the end, I will choose what works best for me, even if this means making a living during the day while following my own academic and professional interests in my spare time.” Accordingly, as we pursue our next steps, graduate students of Comparative Literature should remain conscious of the foundations forged in graduate school, including the remarkably diverse, useful and important skill sets applicable across a broad range of employment possibilities and life paths, and let those experiences influence and enable future directions. The skills and characteristics developed as successful graduate students ensure that we have the means to make old paths new and to create new trails, regardless of the direction.
Jagger, Mick and Keith Richards [The Rolling Stones]. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Let It Bleed. Decca, 1969. LP.
Cindy Chopoidalo earned a PhD from the University of Alberta in 2009. She has taught at the University of Alberta and Lakeland College, and has served as an editorial assistant for the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature and Victorian Database.
Catherine Melnyk graduated from the University of Alberta in 2011 with a Masters of Arts in Comparative Literature. She has since published works in Westworld Alberta Magazine. Catherine is now a student of the French language continuing her studies at Alliance Française in Bordeaux, France. Catch her trail-blazing spouse musings at travelismyheartbeat.com.
Leah Skinner recently graduated from the University of Alberta with a Master of Arts in Comparative Literature and is an Associate Editor with Inquire. Her thesis is entitled: “Young Adult Literature 2.0: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and Digital Age Literary Practices.” She is currently preparing to relocate to Northern California.