Mark Leier (L) and Sam Bradd (R). Portraits by Sam Bradd.

History, Graduate Studies, Students

Surviving Grad School: History’s Mark Leier and Artist Sam Bradd Illustrate Advice for Graduate Students

November 26, 2015

Whether beginning a graduate program directly after completing a BA or returning to post-secondary education after a hiatus, there are numerous written and unwritten rules for surviving grad school. Even the most prepared students are startled by the many idiosyncrasies and stresses of graduate student life. The popularity of Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD Comics)—which has inspired books and a film about grad student life—and the recent publication 57 Ways to Screw up in Grad School, (University of Chicago Press) suggest that the graduate school experience can be as entertaining as it is exasperating.

At SFU, History professor Mark Leier has collaborated with artist and SFU Alumni, Sam Bradd (BA: Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies) to create Grad School: An Illustrated Primer. The project takes selections from Leier’s “Graduate School: Now That You’re Here”—a list of informal advice for graduate students that Leier has compiled over the years—and renders the material in comic form. Leier says the project is a chance to share some honest and humorous tips for staying sane and being successful at grad school. Ranging from the general to the specific, the panels instruct grad students to really “read the graduate handbook,” “eat your vegetables,” and “become a pedantic crank on the accepted style for footnotes, bibliography, italics, serial commas, numerals, newspaper, book, and article titles, ships’ names, quotation marks, and the rest.” The comics also illustrate best practices in grad lounge etiquette, note-taking, and interacting with professors (hint: don’t call them at home!). 

Bradd and Leier first met through The Graphic History Collective, collaborating on May Day: A Graphic History of Protest, a book that “traces the development of International Workers’ Day, May 1st, against the ever-changing economic and political backdrop of Canada.”  As one of the founding members of the collective, Bradd says the group was inspired, in part, by the work of historian, Paul Buhle, now a retired lecturer in American Studies at Brown University who is also the editor of a number of graphic histories and biographies. "One of the goals of the Graphic History Collective," Bradd says, "is to create something that moves beyond historians talking to historians. Our work is about incorporating graphic novels and illustrating history so that we reach broader audience and make the ideas articulated in academic research more widely accessible."

Leier says he couldn't be more excited to have Bradd do the illustrations for Graduate School: An Illustrated Primer. “Sam’s illustrations are just so life-affirming and fabulous,” he says. Of the illustrations Bradd and co-illustrator Trevor Mckilligan contributed to May Day: A Graphic History of Protest, Leier says many the historical events depicted in the book have a (necessarily) serious, heavy, or solemn feeling to them, but the artists’ work does not "compromise the seriousness or impact but adds an element of hope in the content […] Sam has this lovely ability to express truth within the lines that he draws and complexities within the shading and delicate details.” 

About his own artistic practice, Bradd says, “One model for social change that inspires me has three parts: change happens by changing structures, behaviours, and hearts/minds. You need to activate all three parts to create change in people, and we all have a tendency to favour one area over another.” 

The truths expressed within the grad school comics are pointed, but also subtle and laugh-out-loud funny. The panel, “Become a Pedantic Crank,” explains that being accurate with your grammar and/or citation is “especially important,” to both please your professors (who might resent correcting small mistakes), and to show that you can do your job well (impressing even library staff who are experts in formatting theses and adhering to style guidelines). The panel “Nobody Likes a Jerk,” points out that while “being smart is a GOOD THING,” showing off your knowledge of complicated theoretical terms and references will not garner you respect or admiration among your peers.

Bradd, who also has a Masters in Education from UBC, says much of Leier’s advice resonated with his own experiences. “I would say the notion of librarians being on your team was a panel that really rang true for me. Also, the “Nobody Likes a Jerk” panel, because we’ve all seen that person or (worse) been that person. But, rather than just ridicule the jerk for being a jerk, I think the panel tries to slowly introduce the idea of the self-reflecting moment, using humorous truth.” 

When asked what his “grand vision” is for the project, Leier laughs and says, “for it to be published, sell millions of copies, and become a best-seller, of course.” Leier says what he really wants is to see academic communities “move forward progressively, working together to be more human and more democratic.”

The world of graduate school has the potential to be intimidating and isolating. In terms of welcoming students into that world, Graduate School: An Illustrated Primer takes multiple steps to humanize that experience: to encourage laughter, hard work and dedication, but also self-reflexivity. As Leier puts it, “Sam’s comic panels are small windows into situations that really do have the potential to open hearts and minds.”