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Graduate Matters

‘Unplugging’ or ‘plugging in’ elsewhere: reflections on building an extracurricular profile in grad school

Taking the time – even if it’s a few hours a week – for extracurricular activities can help expand your career options.


Me: “What do you do with your free time?” Student: “What free time?”

I have this exchange at least several times a week in meetings with graduate students and postdoc advisees.

Graduate school is all-consuming, on every level, which might make this question seem frivolous or insignificant to some.

The truth is, I wish I had been asked (or had asked myself) this question more often while working on my own graduate studies. At the time, extracurricular involvements mostly seemed like a half-hearted nod to “balance.” Everything else around me clearly communicated that academic work was the only thing that mattered – research, articles, conferences, teaching, departmental service. I remember proudly trumpeting how ”busy” I was while actively burying everything about myself that did not align with the image of a “serious” academic.

And then, a few years ago, something happened. As I began my first non-faculty higher ed job in graduate career development, I finally carved out some free time to try something different. I started to draw, paint and illustrate. I did not expect a childhood hobby to provide me with a new drive as an adult, but with time, I saw myself getting better at it. While every person in my grad cohort was trained to employ a shared set of tools, with every colleague seemingly sharing the same professional goals, now I began to see myself as unique, and my skill set as diverse. Today, I make custom gifts, prints, cards, and even do some graphic design. While it’s allowed me to flex my artistic and entrepreneurial skills, I also deeply enjoy my personal engagement with art and illustration – it’s meditative, creative, restorative, and pointlessly joyful all at the same time.

Even more interesting, after a pivot from several years of postdoctoral academic positions into non-faculty higher ed, I now find my creativity, imagination, and productivity – all elements of my newly recovered artistic practice – to be as significant in my current career path as my transferable skills, values, and interests from my academic background and training. In my job, I design strategies, approach problems and projects with greater comfort with process, communicate and connect creatively with a greater variety of people, and enjoy the challenge of experimenting with new tools. I might proudly consider myself a late bloomer, but the truth is, I wish I had explored this side of myself earlier on. I might have had a better sense of what work is like beyond academe, or what I could do that wasn’t purely “academic” in nature. Moreover, it would have been good for my mental well-being, and I’d have felt better about my own value when I hit the academic, and eventually, non-academic job markets.

From the perspective of career development in graduate studies, and without minimizing the very real stressors and the deeply challenging contexts for graduate education, I want to make a small suggestion: go do something with your free time, no matter how little of it you have. Every day, I see different ways this observation translates into inclusive career development strategies. Mental health and wellness, skills development, community-building and networking, and self-exploration are all benefits of extracurricular involvements, and are significant components of a robust career and professional development strategy.

First, graduate students in all disciplines face high levels of mental health issues, in large part exacerbated by poor (or toxic) work environments, lack of financial stability and career prospects, lack of effective mentorship, and, across the board, lack of access to mental health services. While extracurricular involvements do not correct these cultural or structural problems, they can offer opportunities for grad students to step back from work, manage stress, practice self-care, and build community. The Graduate Caucus of the Canadian Federation of Students’ 2020 “toolkit” for mental health and wellbeing includes a list of resources for managing common graduate stressors, emphasizing drawing clear boundaries between one’s work and one’s personal time. While doing “other things” offers us valuable and much-needed personal time to unplug or recharge, extracurricular activity may also be a way to “plug in elsewhere.”

Second, while academic training reflects a highly structured and hierarchical sector and path, most careers outside academia, and a growing number in the professoriate, are non-linear. There is no question from the research, and from my own experiences and observations working in the field, that professional and career development benefits grad students on both tracks, often simultaneously. Yet there are many strategies for skill development, network building, and self-exploration – valuable experiential learning experiences like volunteer work, internships, and on- or off-campus jobs, and even investing in a hobby – can help students encounter and practice career diversity and build confidence and clarity on their own paths.

There are many ways to do this. My office supports graduate students who have campus involvements beyond their academic program, but also many who cultivate a solo hobby or private practice on the side. Others embrace co-curricular learning, throwing themselves into internships. Some of my advisees carve out many hours of free time, others can only reserve a few hours a week, or even a month. Whether you are engaging in deliberate professional and skill development or using your involvement to become a more well-rounded human being, doing “other things” can have a variety of positive impacts. Talk to a mentor within or beyond the academy or reach out to a colleague or a career advisor to brainstorm ideas for building up your extracurricular profile in whatever way you are able to.

If exploring and plotting out a career path is a process of crafting a unique and powerful argument about your value to an employer, then extracurriculars – the things you do in your free time – figure as additional evidence for the profile you will one day be showcasing. They will help expand your options and multiply your career stories. One of my advisees wisely pointed out to me that they will also remind you of your humanity, and make you feel good while you are practicing them. I am grateful for their perspective which has also reminded me of the value my “other things” have brought to my own life and work.

While there is no one single way to build your extracurricular profile, here is one question to help you begin: What do you like to do with your free time – or more to the point – what do you wish you could do with your free time?

Erin Corber
Erin Corber is a graduate and postdoctoral career advisor at the McGill University Career Planning Service (CaPS) and a freelance artist and illustrator. She earned her PhD in modern European history at Indiana University.
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