Life in Bloomington

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate–more and more–the many charms of Bloomington.  I think it’s a great place to attend school–for undergrad or graduate education.  There are plenty of arts events virtually every weekend–live music and free concerts courtesy of the Jordan School of Music (one of the best programs in the nation), theater and dance, etc.  Additionally, IU brings many acclaimed visiting artists, scholars and writers (all of whom lecture and often teach a master class as well) to campus every year.  The downtown is attractive and there are plenty of nice shops–from a place that makes its own ice cream to several bookstores to a variety of clothing stores.  Easily navigable and safe, it’s a town that’s really easy to figure out, even if you’re directionally challenged like me.  Housing is affordable here, too–especially in comparison with a larger city.  I’ve been able to find decent apartment options close to campus every year I’ve lived here, and I’ve moved more than once.  Indianapolis is an hour away and Chicago is roughly 3 or 4 hours by car if you feel like taking a  weekend trip.

Getting sick

….is not a good time, especially when you’re trying to complete all of the tasks you’ve assigned yourself.  Just to get this out on the table: I tend not to slow down when ill, even when it’s serious.  Many years ago, while studying in a foreign country, I refused to see a doctor for what I felt sure was a bad cold.  It turned out–when I finally agreed to see one–that I had bronchitis and walking pneumonia, and was about a week away from a collapsed lung.  Since then, when I feel illness coming on, I take a break.  Actually, no, I don’t.  But–the moral of this story is–I should!  And so should you.  If there’s an upside to being sick, it’s that we’re forced to move at a slower pace, to take more time doing things–and maybe even to find balance (see my last post) in our hectic lives.

On balance

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about balancing all aspects of life in graduate school: academics, relationships, health (mental and physical), etc.  While I can’t offer an ultimate solution for achieving a perfect balance between all of these (equally critical) elements, I do think it’s important to try to do so.  I admit that I’ve never been the best at finding a happy medium–and that instead, I tend to swing from one extreme to the other.  However, the older I get (and hopefully, the wiser), the more evident it becomes to me that if you let one aspect of your life overrun all the others–in the end, you’ll “feel it.”  At this point in my life, I try to build elements of everything that I find important into my day.  I don’t always succeed, but I’m determined to continue to try.  Balance is important.

Coffee Joints

Soma Coffee House. Photo courtesy of Indiana University.

I drink it every day.  And since I teach an 8AM (and have for the past two years), I end up having at least two cups per day (one to start the morning, one while working, maybe one later in the day…).  Anyway, here are some of the coffee options around Bloomington…in no particular order:

1) Starbucks – you know what that’s like.  Overpriced and a bit yuppie, but I really do like the atmosphere.  And the leather couches are comfy.

2) Soma – I think Blackbeard’s Blend is the strongest dark roast I’ve ever had.  It’s the only coffee that still gives me the shakes.  Also, their vegan decadence cookies are amazing (dipped in coffee?).

3) Scholar’s Inn – Downtown coffee shop with really good granola pancakes. They usually have a few varieties, most of which are reasonable. I like Highway 57 and the Scholar’s Inn Breakfast Blend.  Lots of families come here, so it can get noisy, but there are also plenty of tables/booths for working.

4) The Runcible Spoon – Very charming.  Cluttered bookshelves (you can pick something to read while sipping your coffee) and excellent Sunday breakfasts. A patio outside for the summer months.  Specialty drinks are really good, especially anything with maple.  Plus it’s named after my favorite nursury rhyme.

5) The Copper Cup – There are two locations — downtown and near the Jordan School of Music.  I frequent the latter and have done so for a while now.  Fairly inexpensive coffee and nice people serving it.  Good selection of teas as well.

6) City Cafe – For some reason, I really really LOVE their City Blend.  Hazelnut’s not bad either.  Tiny little store, but great stuff (including huge cinnamon rolls).

7) The Pour House Cafe – Quiet place to study.  Lots of Fair Trade merchandise, and–randomly–a gelato selection.  Sometimes they host an open mike night.  I like the Highland Grog.  It mostly tastes like caramel and a ton of sugar, which is probably why I like it.

Living on a budget

….is part of life in graduate school.  I haven’t really had an issue living within my means, as I’ve always been fairly conscious of my money and where it was going.  However, there are a few things that are important to consider in terms of budgeting for graduate school.

Many programs at IU offer a part-time teaching contract with your acceptance to their department.  To my knowledge, the packages range in amount and contract years–I think the average is something like 4-5 years of funding.

There are many places on campus where students can research further options for funding, including student loans, scholarships, fellowships, and work-study.

For nearly everyone arriving at graduate school from a paying job, of course, you’ll be taking a major pay cut. But that’s pretty obvious from the start…

In short, if you are smart about managing your money while you’re in graduate school, it’s entirely feasible to get through your program while staying comfortable and happy. It just means thinking carefully about the expenses you know you’ll have to shell out for, and the ones that you know are non-essential, even if you don’t want to admit it.

Thoughts on Visiting a Graduate Program

Visiting the program you’ll be attending makes a great deal of sense for many reasons.  You’ll want to make sure that the department you’ll be working in–and the colleagues and professors you’ll be working with–are a good “fit” for you.  Additionally, it’s important to get a sense of the town or city you’ll be moving to–as you’ll be making it your home for the next several years.  Of course, for many students, a visit is just not possible–for many reasons, financial or otherwise.  In that case,  I think it’s especially critical to be in touch with members of the department–and to ask those essential questions before deciding to enroll.  As I have mentioned in some of my other posts, taking responsibility for your choices in graduate school is a key factor for timely progress towards your degree.  Regardless of whether or not you are able to visit your prospective program, make sure to ask lots of questions.  It’s in everyone’s best interest that you make the right call when choosing where to study.

A way of life

Graduate school is a way of life.  It isn’t like undergrad, nor is it like a 9-5 job.  When you apply to a program, you are also applying for a new way of life that will last for several years. This isn’t a bad thing.  The intellectual freedom you’ll get in graduate school, the ability to engage daily with materials that stimulate you, the conversations and support you’ll have, and the rewards of the hard work you’ll do…all of these are profoundly positive things that are part of the lifestyle change that comes with enrollment in a graduate program.  It’s so close to the holidays that I won’t dwell on the more challenging aspects of graduate school–but of course, there will be times that are simply harder than others.  Know that when you sign on, you’re signing on for a change (academically, emotionally, socially, financially) that will affect how you view the world for the next several years–and likely for your entire life.  What’s most important is the level of commitment you bring to your new life–of coursework, exams, and of course, the Big Kahuna of many programs: your dissertation.  Understand the challenges and rewards of what you’re doing before you start.  I did, and I’m glad I did.  PS: Happy Holidays!

Working and the holidays

Lately I’ve been thinking a bit about the work/life balance that we all hear about in graduate school. At this point in my life, I’ve realized that I’ll always be one of those people who has to tell myself to take the necessary breaks in my work schedule. Coming up on the TG holiday, I’ve set aside some time (not much, but some) for family, friends, food, sleep, etc. It will be interesting to see if I’m able to stick to my “scheduled relaxation” or not (yikes, that doesn’t sound good when it’s typed out!), given that there’s always more to do. That said, there’s real wisdom in taking that break if you need it.  But, as many of you already know, achieving that work/life balance is always tricky in graduate school.  I think it’s a critical life skill–and one that I’ve certainly not perfected yet.  But, I’m getting better with age.

Serious business – your letter of recommendation

(Honestly, this is time consuming).

I was talking to Claire the other day in Soma, and realized that my past few posts may have come across like not-so-fun lectures to recalcitrant prospective students.  I don’t think this one will be any different, but I don’t mean to sound stern, it’s just that topics like, say, securing letters of recommendation (for example) are serious business!  So, continuing on in my Eeyore-like blogging style, here are some things NOT to do when asking for a letter of recommendation:

1. Don’t assume that your letter is the number one priority for the faculty member.  This one is common sense–be sensitive to the fact that faculty are really busy people who have a lot of other things to do.  This means don’t pressure them once you’ve asked, and definitely don’t nag.  Remember, they are doing you a favor by writing for you.

2. Ask well in advance of your deadline.  Related to #1, make sure to be considerate of the faculty member’s time.  Don’t expect a “yes” (or at least, not an enthusiastic one) if you ask for a letter just a week or so before the deadline.  At least a month’s notice makes sense.

3. Provide relevant information about yourself, your program, whatever you are applying for.  Don’t make the faculty member mind-read.  Provide a copy of your CV, a writing sample, a description of whatever you are applying for, and/or any other materials that will help the faculty member to write the best letter he or she can.

4. Most importantly–always say “thank you” and mean it.  Writing a thoughtful letter of recommendation takes a significant amount of time and energy.  Always remember to acknowledge the help you’ve been given in a polite and meaningful way.  Don’t assume that the faculty member knows you are grateful–say it!  Write a card.  Stop by and say “thank you” personally.

“Graduate Student–Know Thyself!”

Think about it….

…Is the best advice I can give, in terms of asking a faculty member to help you–in any way, and especially when it comes to working on an extended project.  In my earlier post, I mentioned the importance of understanding your own work habits, strengths and weaknesses (as a scholar and as a person)–and I would add that a little (or a lot) of self-analysis at this juncture is key.  If you “know yourself,” you will be in a much better position to work collaboratively with your faculty advisor.  You’ll arrive at each meeting prepared to help them to best help you–and to get the most out of the partnership because you’ve respected both parties by thinking about exactly which areas of your project (thesis, dissertation, oral quals, etc.) need the most work. 

If “knowing thyself” (that is, “yourself”) is the best advice I can give in terms of self-development, I urge you to do so because of my next point (which is less advice, and more common sense): Respect the working relationship you have with any and all faculty members.  It is truly a privilege to work with professors who are experts in their respective fields, and who sincerely want to help you to succeed.  It’s up to you to rise to the challenge to do so–with humility, integrity, kindness, and focus.