Is it summer yet?
I am sure I am not alone in daydreaming about summer on those overwhelmingly busy days during the spring semester.
But I have learned that summer break must be used wisely to avoid feeling as though I have wasted this time. Since this is a generally unstructured time, it is important to fight the temptation to put off all of our work until late August. For graduate students marching toward an increasingly competitive (and generally depressing) job market, it is particularly important to use the summer months to at least continue, and hopefully broaden and extend, their training between academic years.
Make a plan.
Before summer arrives, I suggest taking some time to assess what you need to do before the next academic year begins. Are you behind on any tasks or milestones in your training? Where could you gain the most by getting ahead? Where do you feel your training is lacking, especially relative to your ultimate goal? If you plan to participate in some sort of summer program or coursework, the deadlines to do so are quickly approaching or may have even passed by now.
I agree with advice to view graduate school as a yearlong job. In other words, some vacation time is good, but it may not be ideal in the long run to put off work the entire summer. But it’s important to assess your personal needs first. Many of us neglect our health, relationships, and other aspects of our personal life during the hectic academic year. While getting ahead would be great, the other side of wasted summer is returning in the fall still exhausted.
Be honest with yourself. Do you need to work to save up money? Do you need to take a substantial amount of time off to, first, address any health issues you have ignored, and, second, to effectively relax and recover? Do you need to put in more time into attending to your partner, kids, and other important relationships? The summer is a decent time to escape or disappear for a short time. Remember, this job (whether grad school or beyond) will not take care of you.
Get ahead in coursework.
If your graduate program offers courses, or will accept credit from other departments or universities, the summer may be an ideal time to get ahead in coursework. In my second summer of my doctoral program at Indiana University, I attended the summer program at Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at University of Michigan. These outside courses counted toward my graduate minor in research methods at my home program. Courses are useful, but there is no harm in completing this part of your training so that you can start working on independent research and the dissertation.
Aside from formal coursework, I also recommend making progress on theses, qualifying/comprehensive exams, and other important milestones. I devoted much of my first summer to making progress on my master’s thesis, and studied for my qualifying exam over my third summer. For these more unstructured tasks, it is important to find out in advance whether your advisers will be available over the summer to provide feedback. This would also be a good way to stay visible over the summer months.
Broaden your research training.
Besides getting ahead, I found that the most important use of my summers was to broaden my training. In my first summer, I attended the summer institute of the Center for Research and Education on Gender and Sexuality, a program at San Francisco State University.In my fourth summer, I attended the summer institute in LGBT Population Health at the Fenway Institute. Both of these summer programs provided a great deal of training on sexualities that was not available in my home department. Also, it was nice to spend an entire month in San Francisco and Boston (respectively)!
Whether within one’s department or outside of it, grad students could use the summer to serve as a research assistant. This (hopefully) means a source of income. And, it provides an opportunity to work one-on-one with a professor. I served on a small team of research assistants for one professor in my department in my fourth summer. I found it refreshing to see that professor, who was my #2 adviser, working as a researcher. We were able to see how she made decisions along the way, how she dealt with obstacles and frustrations, and how excited she became as we made progress on a rather large interview project. In other words, we saw her as a human, rather than a professor who was always polished and organized.
Broaden your teaching experience.
There are also some opportunities to teach at other institutions. In my third summer, I taught at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee as a diversity fellow. I taught sociology of sexualities – a course I had already taught; however, I was challenged to make course material accessible and relevant to a different student body. My students at UWM were more likely to be black or Latina/o, working-class, first generation, parents, and working part- or full-time than the mostly white middle-class students I had at my home institution (Indiana University). This experience was useful to broaden my pedagogical focus and toolkit.
The summer might also be a useful time to teach at different types of institutions – private vs. public; liberal arts vs. research-intensive; community college vs. four-year college – to gain more experience, and also begin to get a feel of where you would like to end up if you pursue faculty positions.
Broaden your network.
Through the above suggestions, grad students can also focus on broadening their professional networks. Through each summer program I attended, I made connections with both faculty and fellow student participants that I maintain today. These connections sometimes become friendships, lead to other professional connections, and possibly collaborations. Your committee and other members of your department are important. But, so, too, are the connections you make with others at other departments and universities. It is who you know, right?
I cannot say whether these summer-became-lifelong connections led to a job offer or some other opportunity. But I do know that I have benefited from advice and support from these contacts. In general, I think it is useful to avoid falling into the trap of thinking exclusively of other members of your department as your colleagues.
Happy summer! Enjoy it, but also make the most of it.