Dear Graduate Scholar: Grad Students Are People Too

by Deirdre O'Rourke, PhD

Assuming I can’t retroactively acquire psychic abilities, the two things I wish I’d known before going to graduate school are:

  1. grad school is the time to develop your professional profile in and outside academia, and 
  2. don’t let grad school trick you into thinking your “real” life hasn’t begun yet. 

While in grad school, I focused on being a great student, a role I comfortably filled. Even when I taught courses and mentored students, I always thought of myself as a grad student acting as a teacher or a mentor. I qualified my experiences. Maybe it comforted me to think of myself as a teacher-in-training rather than the real deal. I know now that I taught and mentored just as faculty members do.

In graduate school, you move beyond student towards professional by seizing every opportunity that comes your way. When you attend conferences, you shouldn’t just swarm the free food and gush over sightings of your favorite scholars as a grad student. Take a deep breath and step into the role of professional. You’ll notice that those professionals you might shy away from get excited too when Jill Dolan enters the room. Make no apologies. Graduate school leads to professionalization and attending conferences is part of career development not school; you go to get feedback on your work and expand your network, not because it’s what your teacher told you to do. That being said, do what your teacher tells you to do. 

If a professor suggests how you might adapt a seminar paper for publication, do it. In fact, write your seminar papers with publication in mind. Submit to at least one journal by the end of your first year. Serve your department, but also serve yourself. Get some professional theatre credits under your belt if you can. Directing two university shows is great. Directing one university show and one professional show is better. 

Grad school doesn’t make you too grown up to hold a summer internship. If I had a time machine, I’d hop right in and spend a summer as a dramaturgy intern. You can also cultivate skills beyond the immediacy of your discipline. Why not take a course in the business school or a summer job working for the city? Everything you choose to invest yourself in contributes to who you are on the job market, and more importantly, who you are as a person. In short, think of yourself as a professional and not a graduate student. If you’re in grad school, you’ve probably got the student thing down.

During my time at Pitt, some of my colleagues got married, had children, purchased houses, and held down jobs. They had real furniture and washers and dryers that worked without quarters. Simply put, some of my colleagues lived more than I did. They accomplished or embraced the things I set aside during grad school.

But here’s the secret, all experiences count as real life in as much as anything counts. Don’t wait for grad school to end to start living your life and don’t think of the years spent in pursuit of a graduate degree as wasted years. As a good friend recently reminded me, you only have one life. And believe it or not, life happens while you’re in grad school. You become a professional. You contribute as a member of society and you have an obligation to act like it. You are not just hiding out in grad school and if you are, do some thinking about that, because it is impossible to hide from time.  

Deirdre O'Rourke holds a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. She currently resides in the Chicago area where she's pursuing opportunities in education and women's advocacy. Deirdre is the dramaturg for Pitt's production of Naomi Iizuka's Good Kids, which premieres in November.


Series Editor: Esther J. Terry