Keeping the Plates Spinning: Surviving as a Graduate WPA

By Katherine Daily, Arizona State University 

 

I’m sitting on the plane headed back to Wisconsin, throttled forward to a land of

cheese-shaped hats, my favorite beer (New Glarus Spotted Cow), and some of the 

nicest, most genuine people you will ever meet. I’m looking ahead to eight glorious 

days with family and friends: the baptism of my nephew and niece, an ugly sweater 

party (or two), meeting up with friends at my favorite cigar bar from my undergrad, 

and hopefully a snowstorm on Christmas eve. However, there’s a feeling of dread 

that seeps into my rush of excitement, gnawing at me and constantly (if latently) 

present. It is the thought of how much I’m not getting done while I’m home for the 

holidays.

 

The prospect of a week-plus away from my “real life” as a PhD student is, in my 

opinion, more stressful than my busiest week back in Arizona. It’s really tough for 

me to tear myself away from my routine—particularly because I just have SO. 

MUCH. GOING. ON. Let me give you a brief list of what’s currently on my plate this 

academic year:

 

  • Full-time graduate student (4th year; PhD Candidate in RC/L)
  • Teaching Associate for the Writing Programs
  • Associate Director of Second Language Writing, ASU Writing Programs
  • Co-Associate Chair of the 2014 Symposium on Second Language Writing
  • Coordinator of Second Language Writing Fellows, a new initiative for M-TESOL and TESOL Certificate internship class
  • Co-creator and initial instructor of a new graduate-level second language writing course for international students at ASU
  • Vice Chair, Writing Program Administration Graduate Organization
  • Adjunct FYC and developmental writing instructor at a local community 
  • college
  • Other projects: co-writing a FYC textbook, planning an edited collection, writing blog posts (like this one, among others)
  • Oh yeah… and taking dissertation credits

 

This blog post is in no way meant for me to toot my own horn. It is also not meant to 

be a complaint; no “woe-is-me” mentality going on here. I thank my lucky stars 

every day for the opportunities that have come my way, and I am proud of how hard 

I’ve worked to get to this point in my academic and professional careers. I have 

simply come to realize in my four years as a PhD student how paralyzing it can feel 

to keep all the plates spinning. I’ve had to compartmentalize a lot of different 

responsibilities. For example, when the Symposium on Second Language Writing 

(SSLW) was taking place in November, all other responsibilities were pushed to the 

back burner. I gave my grad students a work day, and the Chair of WPA-GO, Al, 

graciously allowed my delinquency on emails while I ran around like a crazy person 

for the Symposium. I think when something big comes along, it is natural to let the 

here-and-now events take precedence over other tasks. For me, the key is to be sure 

that all my major events happen in as orderly a fashion as I can make them. Does 

that always happen? Nope. But here’s for the old college try.

Yet, apart from scheduling, there is one other major thought that constantly stresses 

me out:

 

When are they [colleagues, students, my dissertation committee] going to find 

out that I’m not as awesome as I look on paper???

Yes, I’m talking about the Imposter Syndrome. During the SSLW, plenary speaker Dr. 

Deborah Crusan presented on the Imposter Syndrome, and the tagline of her talk 

was “Fake It 'Til You Make It.” I felt like I was the only one in her audience—she was 

speaking directly to me. I started to realize that must be why I make myself so busy 

as a PhD student. All of this service—the new programs and initiatives, the 

administrative duties, the adjunct hours—could be because if I’m doing a lot of stuff, 

that is what people will see instead of me. 

 

So how do I get over it? Perhaps the most important nugget I took away from Dr. 

Crusan’s talk was to establish connections and foster relationships with colleagues 

and mentors. These not only help me to hold myself accountable for things (writing, 

setting and meeting deadlines, giving advice when you feel overwhelmed or lost), 

but also because doing so helps me realize my own legitimacy. If I’m well connected 

to other young professionals, I feel supported, bolstered by the fact that there are 

other crazy people out there who are doing the same things I’m doing, feeling the 

same things I’m feeling, and (gasp!) realizing that yes, we actually are doing a damn 

good job at it.

 

And, they make you feel less alone. 

We’ve just begun our descent into Milwaukee, and I’m feeling thankful for the 

opportunity to think about the many kinds of work that I do and set a few intentions 

for the new year. This spring semester is the one where I really get down to writing 

my diss. Thanks to the network I’ve created for myself, I’ve realized a few things 

about the service work I do. I’m taking time off from adjunct work. I am using my 

winter break to get ahead on planning for my administrative duties and finish 

transcriptions for my study. I’m also hoping to set up some accountability measures 

for myself and with my colleagues, whether it’s face-to-face study groups, Skype 

dates, or even emails. It has truly been a valuable lesson to look at all I have going on 

and to have a chance to prioritize the many responsibilities I (and many other 

graduate students) have in our academic lives.

 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my four-year tenure as a PhD student 

(thanks, Dr. Crusan!), it is to share your experiences with others. Commiserate with 

fellow TA’s when you have two days straight of student conferences. Let your 

significant other in on what’s going on in your academic life—and allow yourself 

time to hear about his or her life outside of academia. (It’s refreshing not to talk 

about heuristics and ontology for once. Trust me.) And if there’s nobody to hear you 

directly, write it out. I can’t tell you how refreshed I feel even after writing just this 

one expository blog post. Often academia can feel like a solitary endeavor. However, 

it doesn’t have to be. Creating a network of friends, colleagues, and mentors might 

just be what the doctor ordered. Or maybe Santa brought me an early Christmas 

present. Either way, I’m grateful.

Comments

You are awesome.