How should I spend the summer before grad school?
April 14, 2005 11:11 PM   Subscribe

Knowing what you know now, how would you have spent the summer before you started grad school?

I'm looking at several weeks of unemployment starting in May. I haven't had a vacation in years. I suppose 'travel' will be a popular answer, but I'll be anchored in suburbia (ah, the ever-popular, not-so-proverbial parents' basement) with no car, a job (eventually) and roughtly a thousand dollars of debt per year spent on earth.

I'm hoping for fun, cheap ideas at least vaguely related to academics (but not necessarily the MA in Political Science I'm about to embark upon).

posted by onshi to Education (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I am just finishing up a year-long grad program and I would say spend as much time with your friends as possible, however you may want to go about that. When I got to grad school I rarely saw my family or friends because I was working so hard, and often very tired when I arrived home at night. On the weekends I pretty much just wanted to sit around and rest (or finish up work I couldn't get done during the week). I found myself out of contact with a lot of people I knew.

So my best advice? RELAX!!! Because you won't get that many opportunities to do so when school starts. A lot of people told me this before I left, but I didn't beleive that grad school would be that much harder than undergrad, and I was wrong. And don't travel, that's exhausting.
posted by ebeeb at 11:27 PM on April 14, 2005

The summer before I started grad school I was a hiking and backpacking machine. It probably cost me two grand to get all the gear, but after that, the sport was cheap and every weekend I'd go up to the local mountains with friends and take long hikes. I was in great shape and had a great time.

If hiking isn't your thing, maybe it's cycling or running. Just find a cheap hobby that gets you outside and exercising and you'll feel great, look great, and have a relaxing summer doing it.
posted by mathowie at 11:57 PM on April 14, 2005

I would say spend a couple of those weeks at the bookstore and library reading all the money management books you can lay your hands on. You may have had perfectly legitimate reasons for accumulating these debts (e.g. student loans), but if you don't take control of them now then they will control you for the rest of your life. The financial savviness you gain will be well worth the time investment.

But do something fun in the meantime too, of course.
posted by randomstriker at 12:14 AM on April 15, 2005

Read. Read novels. Read comic books. Read whatever you want. Why? Because in all likelihood it's the last chance you'll have for the next 2-8 years to read something purely for fun.
posted by stet at 12:44 AM on April 15, 2005

I guess we all have different definitions of fun... If I were in my pre-post-grad summer, I'd make sure to take a lot of LSD and watch funky animated films. You say you are in your parents' basement, that's a great location for this sort of activity - safe, free, cosy...

Alternatively, San Andreas is porting to the PC in June, that could easily eat all of your July and August if you're a gaming type...
posted by Meatbomb at 1:12 AM on April 15, 2005

Other than the "have fun, earn money" recommendations... you might want to spend a few hours doing something practical.

If you're going to be doing a thesis, I'd spend a few days learning LaTeX. It's free. It knocks the socks off word as a thesis preparation system. It handles references and bibliographies SO EASILY. If I'd have known about it for my masters thesis I'd have saved myself 2 days of torment at the very end (when I was in quite enough torment already, thank you very much). Now I'm doing a doctorate and have spent the time working it out, the actual thesis preparation part of it is trivial despite the fact that thesis.tex this time round already has more pages and references in it than thesis.doc did last time. It really comes into its own with mathematical formulae but it is worth it for so many other reasons - one of which is that it's native format is plain text so memory and processor requirements for the actual writing of the thing are really minimal.

There is quite a learning curve but you should be able to master it in a few days. If you're interested, drop me an email and I'll send you some pointers.
posted by handee at 1:33 AM on April 15, 2005

I'll second LaTeX. My PhD looks beautiful. LaTeX does (near-as-dammit) proper kerning, so you can do a full justify and not kill the readers' eyes with the 'orrible snaggly spacing Word uses.

Also, spend the summer reading stuff you mightn't usually read, it may spark an idea or two that comes in handy later.
posted by Wolof at 1:42 AM on April 15, 2005

Read only books you want to read. Be as lazy as you'd like to be. Spend a little time with your grandparents.

Look forward to winter break.
posted by elisabeth r at 5:31 AM on April 15, 2005

I'll third LaTeX (though I am rather fond of troff). A LaTeX primer. And, yeah, hang out with the family and friends. You won't be seeing them for a while.
posted by wackybrit at 5:59 AM on April 15, 2005

Again with LaTeX.

Also, reading for fun - I nearly stopped during post graduate studies.

And, working out - I have this fantasy that if I had gotten into that habit before school, I could have stuck with it. It was much easier to stay in shape in undergrad for some reason.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:33 AM on April 15, 2005

LaTeX is indeed your friend, and a friend well worth making. Yes, you will have use of it in political science. Even if you're not putting math into your papers, LaTeX is well worth learning just for bibTeX, its bibliographic engine.

But I'd spend the time reading novels on the porch, if I couldn't get hold of a car and spend the summer bumming from one national park to another.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:40 AM on April 15, 2005

Yeah, LaTeX is nice and all, but you will have lots of opportunity to pick it up as a student. You'll figure it out when you need to do your first paper.

The thing I miss not having done, my one major regret at all really, is not having done some sort of international volunteer thing, Red Cross, Canada World Youth (in my case), Peace Corps, or what have you.

Teaching ESL in Singapore or Dubai is doable too---some of the Japanese schools would even fly you out back in my day. I don't know if they still do.
posted by bonehead at 8:45 AM on April 15, 2005

Good lord, spend your last summer of freedom learning LaTeX? \large \yuck{3}. Wait until you're in school and can ask for help from the pasty nerd next to you who spent his summer boning up on his Metafont.

If I had my last summer before grad school to do over, I'd do exactly the same thing I actually did: a two month road trip around North America. It was totally awesome, two months on my own to do whatever the hell I wanted and see the country. I'd drive for a few days in the sticks, camp out, then drop in on a city and see some friends, then head out again for more camping. It's the most fun trip I've ever had, and something I hope to do again but may never have the time to. It's also how I met my partner.

Look, grad school is a grind. It's fun, but your whole life will be consumed by school. And then after grad school you have to get a job, and work hard, and you may well want to have kids and suddenly it's going to be 30 years before you have a summer free again. Do you really want to spend your last summer of freedom learning LaTeX?

You mentioned having no car and limited funds, so that might make this hard. But bumming around the US is very cheap if you stay in parks. All you need is a ride.
posted by Nelson at 8:50 AM on April 15, 2005 [1 favorite]

Calm down - nobody's suggesting a whole summer of LaTeX. Christ, if you spent a summer on LaTeX you could write a book about the thing. It's just something I wish I'd spent the time picking up when I had the time rather than waiting 'til I needed to know it.
posted by handee at 9:16 AM on April 15, 2005

Don't bother with LaTeX unless you're in math or physics, where you are sure to need it. You might need it in political science.

Have fun. Please.
posted by grouse at 9:32 AM on April 15, 2005

One thing to consider might be to work like a dog for the first half of the summer, then blow as much of it as you can afford to in an orgy of travel during the second half of the summer.

Failing that, yeah, read for pleasure as much as possible. Read at least one "great book" that you've always felt you should have read.

Or, ideally, take that great book along with you on your travels.
posted by UKnowForKids at 10:18 AM on April 15, 2005

Don't bother with LaTeX unless you're in math or physics, where you are sure to need it. You might need it in political science

Since I am an actual no-shit real-life political science prof, I can say that pretty firmly that that's just wrong.

No, you won't need LaTeX; if you want to suffer through everything in Word, nobody will force you not to.

But I assure you that LaTeX is useful to me week in, week out, for research and teaching. Even if you're working in political philosophy, the free bibliographic engine can be a godsend, and it still results in far better-looking papers than Word generates. Some of the slide packages are also utterly wonderful for creating PDF slideshows that can be easily transmuted and reformatted to the printed page just by commenting out the \usepackage or changing the \documentclass.

Summer is still better spent reading some fun books. LaTeX is easy enough to learn when you get there.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:39 AM on April 15, 2005

Last summer was my last summer before graduate school. I worked forty to sixty hours a week, studied French and spent a week in Kingston, Montreal and Quebec City.

I suggest trying for reading ability in another language. It increases the number of journal articles you can read and you can spin the international comparisons into your assignments. Academic, but not painfully so. You have four months and journal articles have a reasonably narrow vocabulary and a recognisable format.

(Incidentally, my experience is I have time for pleasure reading, albeit minimally. I am a borderline workaholic with minimal responsibilities, so YMMV.)
posted by philfromhavelock at 11:02 AM on April 15, 2005

If your program is a 2-year one, or if you are planning to do PhD studies, you should start your OGS and SSHRC applications over the summer (presuming that you are staying in Ontario for the first or Canada for the second). The deadlines come up really fast during a crazy-busy time. If you can show your advisor a preliminary idea or even a 1st draft in September, you will be way ahead of the game. This ties in nicely with the reading idea, because you should do a bit of a lit-review for these things.

Nothing beats staring down your student debt like $15 000. Applying to these grants is totally worth the extra effort over the summer. Also, graduate departments have a habit of helping those who help themselves. Showing up the first day with a plan for external funding applications will get you noticed by the people in charge of handing out extra scholarships to promising students.
posted by carmen at 3:45 PM on April 15, 2005

Here's SSHRC's guide for writing a good proposal. A little more helpful than the above link, this time of year.
posted by carmen at 4:02 PM on April 15, 2005

Carmen: it's a one-year program, but I like your instincts - I have already applied for (and have been awarded!) an OGS.

Others: funny you should mention LaTeX, I began exploring it in the middle or March on a whim. For those who suggest finding something more fun to do, learning LaTeX (at least a little) probably qualifies as 'fun'.

Any other good ideas on a simmilar scale?
posted by onshi at 11:24 PM on April 15, 2005

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