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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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A Day in the Life of Robert Young, a graduate student in English

My name is Robert Young, and I’m a graduate student in the master’s in English program with a concentration in creative writing. When I first came to graduate school, there were many myths and preconceived notions I had. Some of those myths were dispelled and proven false; others were confirmed. As part of the series, A Day in the Life of a Grad Student, I’ve kept a diary of my day. Hopefully this account will give those considering graduate school an idea of what to expect out of a graduate program. This is a day in my life as a grad student.

Monday

9 AM – 10 AM

Mondays are one of my better days. Typically, I don’t have any obligations until 11 a.m., unlike other days of the week where I can start as early as 10, 9, and even 8 a.m. Between 9 and 10 a.m., I wake up at my leisure. The first thing I do when I wake up is check my phone and clear all the notifications—some text messages from friends, but also a slew of early morning emails to check through. After that, I skim the headlines on my “New York Times” app, read an article or two and then get out of bed.

My morning routine is always the same: shower, breakfast (cereal on busy days, but today I start early enough for eggs and toast) and start to plan ahead for what’s on my plate for the day. I start thinking about all my obligations, the ones I know about, for the upcoming day, but inevitably, more will arise.

10 AM – 11 AM

Do the dishes, get my backpack loaded up with the books I need for the day—this is my miscellaneous hour. With about a half hour of extra free time, I’ll answer some emails, check my social media, write or read a bit. Around 10:30 to 10:45 a.m. I leave my apartment and walk to campus. It takes about 15 minutes walking through the cold morning to get there. I bundle up, of course.

11 AM – 12 PM

I walk into Robert Bell a few minutes before the hour and make my way to the second floor. For half of my assistantship hours I teach a section of English 104, which is in an hour, but for the other half this semester I’ve opted to tutor in the Writing Center. My assistantship stipulates that I work 20 hours a week, and 10 of those hours are in the Writing Center where I tutor and assist students with their writing and school work. Most of my hours fall on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday—I’ve only got one Writing Center hour scheduled for Monday.

I deposit my backpack and jacket in the break room and then go sit in the main room, waiting for my client to arrive. A Writing Center session is usually about 50 minutes long. I assist the client, usually undergrads but sometimes grad students, in any way I can. We read through their essay together, talk about it as we go and correct mistakes.

When the session ends and an hour has past, I bid farewell to my fellow Writing Center tutors, gather my things and march on to my class.

12 PM – 1 PM

I was lucky this semester and got a nice classroom in the David Letterman Communication and Media Building. The other half of my assistantship involves teaching a section of ENG 104, and when I walk into the room on the second floor of Letterman, most of my students have already made it and are sitting down. I walk up to the front, drop my things in the chair and  pull up Blackboard on the projector.

Teaching is usually the aspect of my day that I put the most work into. Last night, I spent a good one to two hours planning my lesson, creating my activities and organizing my class’s Blackboard page. I try to keep things fairly streamlined, but there is still a lot of work involved in uploading assignment sheets, readings and rubrics. When I’m all prepared, I start.

Teaching is something that I used to get really nervous about, but not so much lately since I’ve had more practice. This will be my third semester teaching, but I still get some butterflies immediately before starting. They all go away once I get into it though. I start out with a brief recap of the last things we’ve talked about, remind my students about a few upcoming deadlines, and make a joke. They laugh at it, and I test my luck with a second joke. They laugh less at the second joke, but I still call it a win.

The lesson is a mix of some lecture about the upcoming assignment, then discussion. I get the students into small groups of three to four students each to discuss some questions I wrote last night. I walk around as they discuss, popping into conversations here and there, and when I feel like they’ve had enough time, I move into whole class discussion. The discussion goes well; they bring up good points and make some decent arguments about the topics of the day. A 50-minute class period goes by faster than expected, and I notice that it’s almost time to let them go. They’re hungry for lunch, and so am I. Making an executive decision, I wrap up, give them their homework assignment and let them go two minutes early. I attribute this to my hunger.

1 PM – 2 PM

Some days I pack my lunch while other days, like today, I get lunch at a dining hall. To avoid the initial rush, I walk back to the Robert Bell Building and go up to my office on the third floor. I sit down at my desk, look at social media on my phone a bit, chat with my next door office neighbor and then get back to the task at hand: lunch.

The Atrium isn’t so crowded today, so I wait in line for a sandwich from Boar’s Head Deli. When I get my sandwich, I grab some napkins, fill up the water bottle I carry with me everywhere, wait in line to pay and then grab the latest issue of the Ball State Daily News on my way back to my office.

During my lunch hour, aside from eating, I read the paper, do the crossword and/or Sudoku puzzle and then with any time left, surf around social media.

2 PM – 3 PM 

This hour is when I have office hours, so for the next hour I’ll sit alone in my office. Most of the time, students don’t come to my office hours, though it does happen occasionally. During this hour, assuming no students of mine come by asking for help, I work on some homework. Later on in the day I’ll have night class. There’s some reading I haven’t quite finished yet, so I use this time to do that. When I finish my reading, I answer more emails, work on any other work that I’ve got to finish for later in the week and if I get all that done, I’ll write or read a bit from a book in my backpack.

3 PM – 5 PM

At this point my day is almost done—on hold rather—until my night class later. I walk back to my apartment from my office. When I get home, I sit down for a few minutes to relax. I then break out the vacuum and do a few chores, tidy up the apartment, take out the trash, get the mail—that sort of thing. When all of my chores are completed, I’ll play a video game or watch some TV to relax.

5 PM – 6 PM 

Around 5 p.m. I’ll start dinner which, depending on the how stocked my cupboards are, might be more elaborate than usual. Since I’ve got class creeping up on me, I keep it simple: a salad, some pasta, a piece of chocolate for dessert. When I finish dinner, I clean up the kitchen then get ready to leave.

6:30 PM – 9:30 PM

This class, ENG 667, one of only two classes I’m in as a student this semester, only meets once a week for three hours. It’s in Teacher’s College, so the walk is a little bit further, and with it being extra dark and cold, I hurry to get there. I’ve prepared for the class, and it’s a topic I’m interested in—Victorian Literature. The prospect of a three hour class isn’t so daunting. We get a break at the halfway point, which is when I bust out my snack: a pair of granola bars. After the class finishes, I say goodbye to my friends and start the walk home.

10 PM – 12 AM

When I get home I prepare another snack and retire to my room. I snack as I get back to work. At 12:30 p.m. tomorrow I have my second class as a student, so I spend these two hours doing the reading and preparing any and all homework assignments. I could have gotten a head start earlier during lunch, but I wanted to watch a YouTube video instead. When I finish homework, I get to work on any other assignments I’ve got in the coming week like lesson planning for Wednesday and Friday classes I teach. I even start to get a dent in all the grading I’ve got to do.

12 AM – 1 AM

I start to wind down. I’ve completed all the work that needs to get done, so I relax a bit. I write some more, read some more and practice guitar. Around 1 a.m. I start to get ready for bed, though sometimes I don’t fall asleep until later, especially on days where I’ve got a lot of work that’s piled up. Today I manage to get to bed at a decent hour though. Tomorrow I do it all over again!

*

That’s a typical Monday in my life. Some days are easier. Some are harder. One thing that grad school forced me to start doing was manage my time better. With the combination of my own classes as a student, the class I teach, the hours I tutor and the mountain of work that I have to take home with me as both a teacher and a student, there’s a lot to do. Once I started to manage my time and use a calendar, things got easier. Grad school is hard and time consuming, but I managed to find a nice life/student/work balance. Finding that balance was necessary for me. I not only survive grad school; I enjoy it! If you have any questions about my day, about my program, or about grad school in general, feel free to email me at rjyoung@bsu.edu