Negotiating WPA Service and Graduate Student Work

By Todd Ruecker, University of New Mexico

 

As the job market gets increasingly competitive, it is important for graduate students to build 

their professional profile in as many ways as possible.  Beyond completing a stellar dissertation 

and trying to get a few publications, students should seek varying service opportunities present at 

their institution.  As a doctoral student at the University of Texas at El Paso, I served at different 

times as the Assistant Director of the Rhetoric and Writing Graduate Program, Assistant Director 

of First-Year Composition, and as a Graduate Associate in the graduate school where I helped 

develop a grant-funded program to support the success of Latina/o doctoral students.  At the 

same time, I also began engaging in national service opportunities through CCCC and TESOL.  

Based on my own experience, I would like to offer some suggestions on how to navigate these 

opportunities.

 

1. Consider your own professional goals.  It is important that you do not just take 

opportunities because they are present.  The administrative and service you do will define 

you as you move forward and leverage this experience in the job market.  For instance, if 

you are not interested in WPA work, do not volunteer to be an assistant WPA and use this 

experience to sell yourself in your job materials.  If you are not interested in professional 

and technical writing, let someone else take that position that involves collaboration with 

the business school.

 

2. Remember that the dissertation is #1.  Others will certainly tell you this, but if the 

administrative or service work you do interferes with completing your dissertation, then 

you need to cut back.  Failure to complete the dissertation is the biggest cause of attrition 

from doctoral programs, so don’t let it get you down.  While it depends somewhat on the 

employer, you will typically first be evaluated on the quality of your scholarship.  As a 

doctoral student, I was always conscious of setting aside writing days or times where I 

would not check email nor would deal with anything that did not have to do with 

forwarding my own scholarly agenda.

 

3. Don’t be afraid to negotiate when possible.  Engaging in service work as a graduate 

student is a tricky endeavor because of the power dynamics present in collaborating 

closely with faculty members who will be writing your recommendation letters and such.  

However, faculty regularly take advantage of this power dynamic in demanding too much 

from graduate students, which takes the focus away from point 2, the dissertation.  If 

you’re engaging in a lot of work, make sure you get the appropriate course releases 

and/or additional stipend.  Remember that one course release equivalent to about 10 

hours/week of work spread over the semester or 5 hours/week spread over the course of a 

year, so if they are working you too much, consider letting them know.  As a doctoral 

student, one year I only taught one course because I negotiated course releases for the 

different positions I served in.

 

4. Both breadth and depth are valuable.  As I mentioned in the introductory comments, I 

engaged in a lot of service throughout my doctoral program.  This breadth of experience 

is important as it gave me the opportunity to work with different people (and navigate 

different political situations) while performing different tasks.  On the other hand, you 

want to spend enough time in each position to get the depth of experience you need to be 

good at it while a graduate student and in the future.  In thinking of depth, you also want 

to make sure you are not just a paper pusher and gaining experience in one niche area.  

As an assistant WPA, I was fortunate to engage in a variety of work as I taught lessons in 

the composition theory and pedagogy course, ran regular meetings for first-semester TAs, 

handled grade appeals, redesigned the website, and organized workshops.

 

5. Balance the local and national.  When possible, seek opportunities in national 

organizations (WPA-GO is a good example) to balance out with local service.  This 

shows your commitment to the profession as well as how you are valued by professionals 

outside your institution.  Make sure the local opportunities you emphasize in your job 

materials are robust and real so it doesn’t look like you’re just trying to bolster your CV 

(hiring committees see through this quickly).  On a related note, and perhaps this is just a 

pet peeve of mine, watch out for those email signatures.  I have seen graduate students 

with 16-line email signatures, which more often then not just look silly and cumbersome 

than professional.

AttachmentSize
Todd Ruecker, Mentoring Blog 80.24 KB