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
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