Ball State Graduate School Blog

Where will graduate school take you?


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A Day in the Life of George Hickman, a master’s student in creative writing

After graduating with my undergrad degree in 2013, I put off applying to grad school for roughly two years. One of the reasons I was hesitant to apply was that I did not have a clear concept of graduate school in my mind. The few people I knew working on their graduate degrees were not in my field, and being unable to conceptualize what a creative writing degree would look like day-by-day was a huge hindrance to my ability to set goals for my future. The aim of this blog post is to pull back the curtain on every day graduate life, so that if you are unsure if grad school is right for you, this will help demystify some of the differences between the graduate and undergraduate experience.

Monday, March 13

8 a.m.

This is my new wake up call, now that I no longer teach 8 a.m. classes. I live in an apartment complex that’s about a 20-minute walk from the English building, the short and cost-effective commute a luxury I could never have in my home city of Philadelphia. Since I always wake up with hair like a god, it doesn’t take long to get ready, and I head out the door to arrive at my first class 10 minutes before it starts.

9 a.m.

As a creative writing student, I teach English Rhetoric & Writing. It’s a required course for all students unless they have passed out of it with a placement exam. My course is themed around the rhetoric of gender, sexuality, family and activism. Unlike some more rigid programs, Ball State gives us English majors a lot of freedom with how we decide to cover our core curriculum. Since I came into grad school with very little experience in English, I was relieved to find that I could channel my experience teaching gender and sexuality into my course curriculum. Being able to talk about subjects on which I had already presented and taught in classrooms really helped boost my confidence. In my class, we use readings about bisexuality, polyamorous families and gender non-conforming people to talk about the strategies behind argument.

Today, we are talking about asexuality. On Mondays, I ask my class if they are involved with or hosting any events this week on campus. It gives them the opportunity to support each other outside of class and, as a bonus, it gives me a sense of campus culture and helps me find fun things to do that weekend. This weekend, one of my students is in a play, another is raising money for a charity through his fraternity, and another is in a symphonic band concert.

Moving forward, we watch a 10 minute video of David Jay, the founder of asexuality.org, give a TED talk. After the video plays, I ask the students if they have any initial reactions to the content. Both of my classes are often talkative, but just in case they aren’t, I always have a few questions prepared to keep the conversation going.

Today’s questions are:

  • What, for you, defines the difference between friendship and romance?
  • Do believe that “checking in” with friends like we do with romantic partners would strengthen friendships? Is it a feasible type of conversation to have?
  • What are some of the struggles that people who identify as asexual or aromantic might face? What does David Jay suggest we do to change the discourse around sexuality?
  • What is David Jay’s intended audience here? Do you think his approach to talking about asexuality was successful?

After filling the remaining 50 minutes with discussion, we close down the classroom for the day. A few students hang back to ask me (already) if I have graded their papers from Friday. No, students, I have not.

10 a.m.

I try to return graded papers about two weeks after they have been turned in, three weeks at most. This is enough time for me, in rare moments of organization, to grade three to five papers a day, or, in a more likely last-minute panic, grade all 50 papers in one weekend. There is a lot of green tea involved in this version of the process.

George’s office

At 10, I hold an office hour between my two classes. My office is only one floor above my first class, so the walk barely makes a dent in my Fitbit goal. I share an office with four other creative writers, though there are rarely more than two of us actually holding office hours at the same time. Coming from a job where I worked in a sea of cubicles, this crammed office is actually an improvement for me. I also really enjoy my office mates, so it’s great to socialize while I work.

I often use my office hour to grade, lesson plan or work on my own homework, even though it is technically an open hour for students to visit. Sometimes students will drop by asking for advice on their papers or looking for me to read over a draft.

11 a.m.

This is my second time teaching the same lesson plan that I detailed earlier. It’s great teaching two of the same classes back to back, and our English department does an excellent job making sure that the graduate students are always teaching the same class (i.e., I teach two sections of 103).

My second class of the day goes similarly to the first one, only after this class I was pleased to have one of my students stick behind to mention how glad they were that we talked about asexuality as part of my class. They explained that they really related to the video and that this was the first time that their identity has been talked about in class. I remember having this same moment as a student, but I had to wait until senior year until the first time I saw the word “transgender” on a syllabus. This quick chat between me and my student is, in all honesty, the reason I am thrilled to be doing what I do. My college professors had such an impact on me—they gave me courage and the power to view my world critically. If I can provide even a small amount of this to even just one of my students, then I have done my job.

12 p.m.

Lunch hour. The lunch facility closest to my office, has options like a Mexican grill, Chik-fil-a, and the bane of my existence, Papa Johns. But at least I can earn that personal pizza with a 15-minute walk, gaining a few ticks on my Fitbit.

1 p.m.

On Mondays, I actually have the rest of my afternoon free, again, another luxury my 9-5 never afforded me. Getting work done on my own time has its privileges, but more often it has its procrastinations. I usually get work done at my apartment since it is nearby, but sometimes I meet a friend at a local coffee shop so that we can commiserate together about the upcoming stresses of the week.

In the middle of the week, I use my afternoons to work private tutoring sessions to earn some extra income. With the graduate assistantship, I don’t have enough time to work a part time job (I tried working at a cafe for about a month, and very quickly realized the poor effects on my schoolwork), but working an extra three to four hours per week on private study sessions is the perfect balance for me.

5 p.m.

Because we are secretly waiting for Ball State to roll out an early bird discount, my friends and I get dinner on Mondays at 5 p.m. We have night class together, so eating a little bit earlier is convenient. We often go to one of the dining halls and try desperately to avoid any students asking us when we will have their papers graded (or maybe that’s just me). Here, huddled around one of the four-person wooden tables, there is gossip, there are sweet potato fries, and there is some last-minute finishing of the reading.

6:30 p.m.

Our graduate night class is called “Victorian Appetites,” and it is a literature course. Even though I am a creative writing major, taking two literature classes is a requirement. This class couldn’t be a better opportunity for me, as I am currently working on what I’m calling a “woke Victorian novel,” and studying the stylistic approach of Victorian writers has been incredibly inspiring. For this week, we have been assigned 300 pages of a fiction book and a critical reading of about 12 pages. The three-hour class is broken up into discussion, lecture and a second discussion lead by one of the graduate students in the class. We have also all uploaded 300 word responses to Blackboard that we can incorporate into discussion as well. It may sound like a lot of work, but since it is a once-a-week class, I’m able to split it up by doing a little bit each day.

9:30 p.m.

George enjoys grad school because he has more time to do what he loves, like writing.

Free at last! Monday is one of my later schedules and my only night class. Usually I am able to be off campus by mid-afternoon, but that doesn’t mean that my work is done. A lot of my time is spent working from home, but a large part of this may be because I live so close to campus. In the summer before graduate school, I remember talking to a current graduate student and saying, “I can’t wait to start school so that I can have more free time.” He laughed at me and then told me the details of his own schedule.

If I could go back in time, I would tell him that by “free time” I didn’t mean sitting around watching Netflix. To me, any time spent reading Victorian novels or editing a poem for Tues/Thurs poetry workshop is free time. It’s time to do what I enjoy most, and advance my career as a writer. Being a graduate student means putting in several hours of work per day; in fact, at times it may seem like all your “free time” is being eaten up by reading books, submitting stories and writing up critiques for your fellow students. I work long days, sometimes going 12 hours without a break, but sometimes my workdays end before 2 p.m. Coming from a job where my eight hours a day were spent doing things for someone else (running reports, taking phone calls and filing papers), I am so thankful to finally be doing work for myself again. During my work days, I am bettering my writing, I am understanding the nuances of critique, and I am honing my teaching skills.

That all being said, Monday nights are strictly reserved for some last minute edits to my poetry, and then tuning into the Real Housewives of Atlanta, a show among the highest art of our era. It’s been a long day; I think I deserve it!


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What Socrates Taught Me

Transitioning to a New Field of Study in Grad School

I have identified with the term “writer” all my life, but I haven’t always had the credentials to prove it. Though I was at first a physics major, then a philosophy major and classics minor, then a customer retention representative, one thing has remained constant throughout my various daily routines:  I always left time for writing. When, at 24, I decided to attend graduate school, I knew it had to be in fiction writing.

As much as I loved Socrates, Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer, I didn’t think I had as much to contribute to the philosophical community as I did the literary world. My passion lies in advocating for diversity. And as a writer, the most effective way I could advocate for diversity was through storytelling. So I began the daunting process of applying to creative writing graduate programs.

The process was daunting because I had very little formal background in creative writing. I remember people telling me along the way, “Oh, don’t worry, you don’t need to go to grad school for the same major that you got your degree in.” No matter how many times I heard this, I didn’t believe it. I was sure that maybe this was true for rare exceptions, but that I would have to put in a ton of work to prove my worth in an entirely new field.

Once I was accepted to Ball State and began my master’s degree in creative writing, I began to see a very different side of the story I had been telling myself. Here’s what I’ve learned

  1. You will need to do some catch-up work, but so will everyone else.

There is no “traditional” graduate student. People find their way to graduate school through many different paths. Some come straight from their undergraduate institution, but many people may be coming from a long-term job, an experience abroad or previous graduate study in a different field.

What this means is that when you’re sitting in class debating whether or not to ask a question, someone else is likely wondering the same thing. Whether it’s been a few years since you’ve cracked open a textbook, or you never had time to fit a particular class in your schedule, there is no shame in asking what may feel like a foundational question. Especially at the beginning of a new program, many people may be glad someone else asked for a refresher.

  1. You can learn a lot from socializing with your peers.

Everyone likes to feel smart, and the easiest way to make someone else feel smart is by asking for advice. If you are a student who switched fields when coming to grad school, you are in a perfect position to make friends by asking for help from those around you.

Within the first two weeks of my program, I heard people mention they were submitting their poetry and fiction to literary journals. I had barely heard the phrase “literary journal” before, let alone submitted to one. One day at the library, I asked a friend in my program if he could walk me through the process of submitting to magazines. He showed me everything: how to write a cover letter, find magazines I liked and submit to contests. Though artists have a reputation for being competitive, I think most of us realize that we are not competing for America’s Next Top Fiction Writer, and that there is room for all of us at the top. In my experience, the joy of seeing a friend published is just as gratifying as being published myself. While I can’t speak for the atmosphere of every academic field, I have always found people supportive and happy to lend a hand.

  1. Your previous degree may actually make you a more valuable applicant.

If I could go back in time, I would never choose to do my undergraduate in the same field as my graduate study. Coming from a different field of study has helped me in ways I never could have imagined. Especially in the arts, I sometimes wonder what people write about if they have only ever studied writing. My philosophical background appears in my fiction all the time; in fact, I am rarely thinking about writing without thinking about philosophy.

A professor once told me that she loved how I could make connections between any two subjects. It took me a while to understand why she thought that was an important skill, rather than just a reflection of my jumbled brain. But eventually I realized she was talking about audience. Having a deep connection to more than one field of study (whether through a major, minor or hobby), meant I could connect to more people when I explained my thoughts. With my classics minor, I can make metaphors that make sense to archaeologists, but also linguists and historians. I can draw connections between Wittgenstein and Hemingway, or between Dungeons & Dragons and composition pedagogy. This has shown up most in my teaching, where I feel it helps my students better understand the material in my classroom.

In short, if you’re like me and are hesitant about switching majors from undergraduate to graduate school, know that it is far more common than most people think. Sure, it may take a little extra effort once you arrive in your new program, but in my experience switching my field of study has been an incredibly affirming, positive experience.

This post was written by Graduate School Recruiting Ambassador George Hickman. George is a graduate student in English with a creative writing focus.


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A Day in the Life of Morgan Gross, a graduate student in English

Hi! I’m Morgan Gross, and I’m a grad student at Ball State. I’m in my third year of the rhetoric and composition Ph.D. program in the English department. For this “Day in the Life” series of blog posts, graduate students are supposed to give readers a glimpse into our typical day… sorry to disappoint, but my schedule doesn’t really do “typical.” I occupy the positions of student, teacher and administrator, so my day-to-day activities are a bit of a juggling act. Every day is different! But I kind of love that.

As a graduate student, I’ve completed my coursework and, as of last month, successfully passed my comprehensive exams (yay!). In the video below—thanks, Jacket Copy Creative!—you can see me reading in my office and in the library. That was in preparation to take my exams. Not captured in the video is me also reading at my favorite café downtown, at home (on my couch, at my desk, in bed), in line at the DMV, while driving in my car… just kidding about that last one. My point is studying for exams involved a lot of reading.

Currently, I’m working on writing my prospectus, which is getting me excited for the dissertation project itself! I’ll be conducting writing center research for it, and writing centers are my area of specialization and the main reason why I chose to come to Ball State for my Ph.D.

I take my graduate assistantship as seriously as I take my schoolwork as a student. That’s because it is helping me become a professional in my field. For the assistantship, I teach undergraduate courses in the English department, usually for the Writing Program, but last semester I also had the opportunity to teach Introduction to Digital Literacies (again, pictured in the video), which was really fun and interesting (robots + writing = YASS). Teaching is a big responsibility, and requires me to spend time designing curriculum, lesson planning, conferencing with students and grading their projects.

I also have the opportunity, as part of my assistantship, to do some administrative work for the Writing Program. This involves participating in various departmental committees, supporting other instructors in the Writing Program and planning and facilitating professional development events, maintaining the program’s digital and print presence, conducting institutional research and organizing the annual Essay Contest, to name a few of my duties.

Finding a balance between all of these various responsibilities and my personal life can be a challenge. Here are the things that I’ve found can help: a high quality agenda book, flexibility and a sense of humor when things don’t go as planned, good friends, regular exercise and a passion for my work. Oh yeah, and tea! (See video.)


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Meet Elisabeth, a PhD candidate researching social media and digital literacy

We are thrilled to introduce you to Elisabeth Buck, a PhD candidate in Ball State’s English, Rhetoric, and Composition program. Originally from Reno, Nevada, Elisabeth moved across the country to earn her degree. She is currently working on her dissertation, “Archives, Access, and Authorial Agency: The Visibility of Digital Inquiry in Writing Center Scholarship.” She spent some time talking with us about why she chose Ball State and what she has learned about herself in graduate school.

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Photo courtesy of Ball State Photo Services

On how Graduate School has transformed her:

“I know that it’s a huge cliché to say that graduate education ‘changes’ you, but I am certainly a different person now than when I moved here: I’ve grown in confidence as a student, teacher, mentor, and scholar. Ball State was truly the right place to pursue my doctoral education, and I’m so glad that I made the decision to come here three years ago!”

On why she chose Ball State:

“From the beginning, Ball State’s program in rhetoric and composition stood out to me: I appreciated the competitive assistantships, the opportunity to work closely with an award-winning writing program, and the potential to take classes with well-known and respected faculty in the discipline. My advisors at the university where I completed my master’s degree thought very highly of Ball State as well. So, even though the prospect of moving across the country to attend a PhD program was daunting at first, it became very clear that Ball State offered the most comprehensive benefits for my doctoral education.”

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Photo courtesy of Ball State Photo Services

On the faculty support she’s received at Ball State:

“I have been incredibly fortunate in that I’ve experienced a very high level of support throughout my graduate career, but that has been especially true here at Ball State. Dr. Jennifer Grouling, the first faculty member that I was introduced to at Ball State—who was assigned to be my mentor during my first semester as a teaching assistant—ultimately became my dissertation chair. She has been so supportive as both a teacher and a mentor. I’ve also had great experiences assisting two fantastic writing program administrators, Dr. Jackie Grutsch McKinney and Dr. Mike Donnelly. I think it’s perhaps rare for a student to say that they’ve emerged from their graduate education with nothing but positive things to say about their mentors, but, for me, it’s true—everyone I’ve encountered here has been incredibly helpful and supportive.”

On what she’s been surprised to learn about herself during her time here:

“I think that all graduate students, to some extent, struggle with confidence and the difficult process of figuring out how and where your voice ‘fits’ within the larger academic conversation. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to publish academic articles as a grad student, but my professors at Ball State have helped me determine how I can contribute to academic discourses. My coursework even facilitated the opportunity to develop one of my seminar papers into a webtext (an article intended for distribution on the Internet), which has now been accepted for publication. I’m surprised not just that I had the opportunity to do this, but that I would, in this process, learn about web design and HTML coding—these were two terms that were definitely not in my lexicon before I arrived at Ball State!”

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Photo courtesy of Ball State Photo Services

On the opportunities the Ball State community offers its students:

“Every program at the university is different, but, in my experiences, Ball State offers many opportunities for graduate students to excel. For instance, I have been able to serve as a graduate representative on a university committee, and the ASPIRE program is a great resource to support travel to conferences and research. Admittedly, though, I was a bit hesitant about moving to Muncie, especially after living in Los Angeles for several years. But there are so many events sponsored by Ball State that offer grad students an opportunity to spend some time away from the classroom. My friends and I had a wonderful time at the Amazing Taste event in the fall, and I love the fact that students can get free tickets to the touring theatrical productions at Emens Auditorium. I’m a huge fan of musicals!”

On how well her graduate education has prepared her for a future career:

“I have been presented with some unique and highly beneficial opportunities at Ball State. I do not think grad students often have the chance to mentor and work closely with other graduate students, but, this semester, I have been able to do this as the teaching assistant for a graduate-level English course. Due to my teaching and administrative assistantships, as well as the capacity to develop seminar papers into publications and several conference presentations, I believe that Ball State has helped me take important steps to prepare for a tenure-track position.”

Thank you for sharing with us, Elisabeth! If you’d like to learn more about Elisabeth’s research, visit her website

If you want to know more about Ball State’s graduate programs in English, register now for an on-campus information session on Saturday, October 17, 2015. You can also check out the English department’s website or contact Deborah Mix, the graduate program director, for more information.