The new year is kicking off and, while grad students feel the grind year-round, the end of summer marks the beginning of routines and normalcy. For all the newbies to grad studies or for those returning after an extended period, you might not know what your routine will look like just yet. The beauty of grad studies is that you get to make your own schedule and routine; this was the advice my Master’s supervisor gave me.
Grad studies was once described to me as a buffet of opportunities. Think of all your favourite foods on one large table. There might be three kinds of chocolate cakes, a mound of mashed potatoes, grilled cheese galore, a massive lasagna, and so much more! You really want a little bit of everything but won’t be satisfied with the small bite that would demand, and if you fill your plate too full, you won’t be able to eat everything you have taken. The sky is the limit with opportunities in grad studies: conferences, scholarships, research studies, teaching opportunities, community engagement, student government… the list is endless.
So how do we choose what to do when the opportunities are endless? Here are some suggestions for things to consider.
We’re grad students. We need money. The truth is that we make less than minimum wage to conduct our research and most, if not all, of what we make goes toward tuition, rent, and groceries. Funding is definitely something we need to consider when adding to our plates. As you should have already received your letters of funding over the summer months, you’ll know that your funding packages often require employment. Your funding is typically comprised of scholarships, teaching assistantships, teaching fellowships, and/or research assistantships. Sometimes, your teaching assistantships/fellowships* and research assistantships supplement your base funding (usually the case if you hold a scholarship), but other times they can compose your entire funding package. There are also opportunities throughout the year to gain research assistantships/fellowships* – check your newsletters, talk to your supervisor and other professors, and read your emails – as well as other money earning opportunities (e.g., during exam season, proctors and graders are needed) – check websites frequently.
*Note: There is a difference between assistantships and fellowships, particularly where funding is concerned. Assistantships are subject to the PSAC 901 agreement (our grad student worker union), and offer an hourly rate of $42.73. Fellowships, on the other hand, offer a flat rate of payment. Teaching fellowships are subject to the PSAC 901 collective agreement, but research fellowships are not. Often research fellowships are offered when there is a limited pool of grant money remaining for a project. See the PSAC Local 901 website for more information.
Personally, I work best when I can be physically active in my routines. While this was much easier when I worked in a lab (I could literally get my 10,000 steps by 3pm each day moving from machine to machine, station to station), it has proven to be far more difficult in my shift to education and the new desk job lifestyle. It is therefore important for me to look for opportunities where I can be active. My current teaching assistantship is with the Outdoor and Experiential Education concentration, allowing me to supervise and participate in camping trips, water skiing, snowshoeing, and other physical activities. I also looked for community volunteer opportunities that align with my work in Special Education, but that also allow me to move around. It is important to consider how your role as a grad student impacts your lifestyle and whether this aligns with the lifestyle you want for yourself. If it doesn’t, consider accessing your ideal lifestyle through your buffet of opportunities.
Remember that your plate should work to build your CV. In some disciplines, this is easier than others. While in my Biochem days, working in the Cancer Centre didn’t come with a lot of opportunities that would show up on a CV. However, I was able to learn to use different equipment and methods until I found my specialty, train other students to use my processes, and mentor new grad students. While these were amazing opportunities and definitely shaped my research abilities, my supplemental activities needed to consider CV building. I volunteered with Let’s Talk Science, tutored university students with exceptionalities and gained part-time employment supporting students with accessibility needs at Algonquin College (both are opportunities for funding as well), and I presented posters at countless conferences. After switching into Education, I have found that a lot of the opportunities available are lines on my CV. I have presented at conferences, expanded my research methods through side projects that I have begun publishing with other grad students, volunteered with community organizations, joined research groups, and much more. Although not everything you do needs to be a line on your CV, it is important to build your CV to be competitive for employment during and after grad studies.
Work-life balance does (can) exist in grad studies… if you don’t overfill your plate. It might be helpful to think of social and family obligations as part of the buffet of opportunities to ensure that you have an appetite for them. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” In other words, you’ll be bored and boring if you aren’t taking care of your mental health needs, which includes social time! Grad students in Education have started a “Fun Friday” routine where a group of us walk over to a local pub on Friday afternoons. My old lab group liked to do lab socials where we each planned a social event based on our own interests, allowing us to try glass blowing, squash, bowling, and many others. Consider pitching these ideas with your colleagues and lab groups!
Written by: Kianna Mau