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In Defense of my Year at SFU

By Siobhan Doody

October 01, 2015

A year ago I was one month deep into SFU’s English Masters program. I was navigating my way through two grad courses, one professional development class, and monthly Caucus and Department meetings, all while making time for social events in an attempt to meet the friends that would make a long year possible.  In the meantime, I was trying to find my way around a new campus, in a new city, in a province halfway across the Country from my hometown. A year later, and I am happy to say that I survived, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Now that the dust has settled and I’ve been out of the program for almost a month, I feel rested enough to recommend doing a Masters to anyone that can afford to make the commitment.

I was one of two students in my year of twelve MA candidates that completed the program in one year. We were the only two who had travelled to SFU from outside of BC, and it just made sense fiscally to complete the degree in the one year. That being said, my world for the year consisted entirely of SFU and I had no other commitments in the city to which I had to devote any time. That cannot be said for many of our cohort, who marvelled me daily with their ability to balance the MA workload while simultaneously devoting their time and energy to commitments beyond the English department. I’m still convinced they are all superheroes in disguise. 

Most days felt like I was living, breathing and sleeping English, which was hardly something to complain about. And when there was something to complain about, I never had to search very for a sympathetic ear. I am grateful for the opportunity I had to immerse myself in the world of literature and books as both a student and a teacher. It was a lot of work, but with the help of professors, supervisors and my brilliant cohort, I got through it, learning a thing or two along the way.

I’m not sure I’m the best mentor for how to survive a year in the life of a Master’s student because I know the halls of SFU are brimming with astute minds that are more than capable of bestowing wisdom on those who seek it. But if my year in academia taught me anything, it’s that people will tell you what’s on their minds even when nobody asks for it. So here’s my advice:

Establish a support system

When I started at SFU, I didn’t know anyone in my program, at the school, or even in the city. I was starting fresh, with my support system of friends and family scattered throughout Ontario and the rest of the world. I made it a priority to befriend my cohort because I knew we would see each other at least 3 of 5 days of the week. The cohort became a group of friendly faces that were all going through similar struggles and triumphs. I was also lucky to find kindred minds and hearts in my cohort, who grew to become some of the closest people in my life in the past year. I know I would be much less intact today if not for the people at SFU who provided laughs and support inside and outside of the classrooms.

Find time for yourself

I am grateful for the people in my life that let me vent and gush about my year at SFU, but I am equally grateful that I learned to find solace in myself as well. In Ontario, I would run to let off steam, but in the hills and mountains of Burnaby my heart was not up for the challenge. Instead, I made time to sweat away the stress at SFU’s gym. It wasn’t as idyllic as the great outdoors, but at least I could turn off my brain and take time for myself. 

Embrace academia

When I started the MA program, I was quite certain I wouldn’t be pursuing a PhD afterwards.  Despite my aspirations for a short-lived academic career, when you’re a part of the community, it’s hard not to be motivated to jump all in. My fellow MA candidates were publishing in their first year, attending and planning conferences, working as Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants, and networking with fellow academics all while working through the motions of life as a grad student. I can’t say I did it all, but by the end of my MA career, I was confident in my ideas because I had presented them at grad conferences, I gained valuable research experience working as a Research Assistant and I learned the satisfaction that comes alongside the frustrations of teaching. Embrace it; these skills transfer far and beyond academia.

Find fun in the work

Not every second of grad school will be fun. I worked almost every day on coursework throughout the year, and in the summer I worked on coursework as well as my capstone to be able to complete the program in the year. And yet, sometimes, it will be fun. I became passionate about my final project, and got excited when I unearthed seemingly transformative evidence. Even if the evidence was really only transformative in my mind, my supervisors and fellow English students met my enthusiasm with support and encouragement. The fun made the work sustainable.

Enjoy yourself outside of the work

Find time to enjoy yourself outside of the work. There is time. I can’t remember every word of every article I read for class, or the plots of every novel I read throughout the year, but I can remember the things I did to stay sane throughout the work. Whether it was bowling on a Sunday night, embracing my fears at Fright Night, or eating my way through Vancouver’s food scene, I happily avoided the work and did my best to ignore the persisting student guilt.

So where do I stand a month out of grad school? Employed and back in Ontario, missing the people I met and the words I read at SFU. 

Siobhan Doody is a graduate of the MA program at SFU, with a specialization in print culture and a focus on Canadian literature. Her MA project focused on the importance of Canadian literature and authors in Historica Canada's Heritage Minutes. Currently Siobhan resides in Ottawa, but the West coast will always have a piece of her heart.