DIY Scholarship: Strategies for the WPA PhD

By Virginia Schwarz, University of Wisconsin-Madison

 

During my academic hiatus, I learned how to be a do-it-yourself scholar, and I 

think that approach can be helpful in PhD programs, especially for future writing 

program administrators (WPAs). The six years I spent in teaching and administrative 

roles at various community colleges helped me form a strong identity as a WPA, and I 

also learned to be very creative in finding—and making—opportunities. If you’re a new 

graduate student looking to craft yourself as a WPA, here are some strategies that have 

benefited me the most:

  • build a professional identity around teaching and scholarship; 
  • collect administrative experiences that further your identity; 
  • learn your institution, communities, and national organizations; 

There are certain perks we can take advantage of as students; namely, we can 

discover—sometimes through trial and error—our teaching and research interests. 

Therefore, if you’ve only taught one kind of class thus far, try to teach a range of 

courses—or at least shadow. As a community college instructor, I could bounce from 

multiple subjects (reading, writing, research) and multiple levels (beginning, transfer, 

advanced). This helped me discover where I best fit. When you start to narrow your 

interests—read: obsess over the same problems over and over—deliberately build your 

professional identity around those interests by reading widely, attending/ presenting at 

conferences, and making graduate student and professional friends who share them. A 

range of teaching experiences will help you as a scholar but also as an administrator. You 

will better understand how the series of courses connects to form a writing program. 

When we graduate, there will be tremendous competition, and many job searches 

require years of WPA-related experiences. Start collecting that experience now! Waiting 

will cause you to limit yourself because most leadership positions require multiple years 

of commitment. Field research also takes years, so plan now. Make your enthusiasm, 

expertise, and availability widely known so that if a project or position becomes 

available, your department is already thinking of you. As a future WPA, voice interest in 

having a tutoring/ admin/ curriculum development role in the writing center. Exposure to 

department governance or committee work can be important, too. Many people don’t 

enjoy writing assessment or placement, so try putting your foot in the door there to learn 

about program design. When FYC is assessed or revised, volunteer. Also, meet with the 

WPA or WAC/WID coordinator once per term to talk shop, even if there are no current 

administrative positions. If no one at your university can provide you with the 

opportunity you’re looking for, maybe your advisor is bff’s with the person who can. 

Ask. Be scrappy! 

 

Additionally, some opportunities might be obvious and some might necessitate 

clever digging. I recommend googling. For example, by searching “poverty studies,” I 

discovered that my university hosts a Poverty Studies Institute every other year that 

perfectly aligns with my dissertation topic. No one in English knew about it. So right 

now, imagine others on your/another campus or your/another community who might be 

invested in your WPA scholarship and who could perhaps collaborate with you in 

creative ways. Reach out to them. Maybe the Downs to your Wardle will be at 4Cs or 

CWPA, or at a conference you have yet to google. While exploring, I also encourage you 

to investigate how your writing program functions at an institutional level and how policy 

impacts educational outcomes for specific groups. Understand your campus culture. See 

how other disciplines view your writing program. This isn’t easy, and it may take you 

years to cultivate trust and productive relationships with people to really assess these 

things on a deep level. As graduate students, we can also contextualize our WPA interests 

in other fields. Outside coursework has been important for me, particularly in education. 

There are numerous ways to be involved; in fact, learning when and how to say 

no becomes very important. On the one hand, it’s important to earn favor; on the other, 

it’s important not to burn out. Teaching, especially, can be a time suck. We always want 

to do more, be better. Fall 2013, I taught five classes and served on four committees at 

three campuses—couldn’t say no—while applying to graduate school. For dinner, I ate 

raw hot dogs and red wine. There are no easy answers for declining opportunities, but 

graduate school is a wonderful place for discovering one’s professional interests (and 

limitations!) in a relatively low-stakes environment so that prioritizing becomes much 

In sum, find what you love and create a WPA identity around that, and then 

deliberately seek out those experiences that will best shape your research—and C.V. Be 

assertive and dig in unexpected places because these years will go by quickly.