Should I resist the bug juice?
June 30, 2007 4:59 PM   Subscribe

Can I do what I want next summer (namely, be a summer camp counselor) and not kill my options for the future (namely, going to grad school)?

I was a summer camper for seven years of my childhood, and it is probably one of the best memories I have of that time. I thought the counselors were SO COOL--and I really, really wanted to be one when I was in college.

So now I'm in college, and I still really, really want to spend a summer hanging out with kids. It's so attractive--I don't care that I won't be paid a lot, because I get to do something I enjoy AND receive food and lodging while still earning some sort of a salary.

Except this: I go to a school where grad school is expected--and I go here because I DO want to go to grad school. It almost feels like, in order to stay competitive and maybe get into (and get some money from) good schools, I should be spending my summers doing research or internships or something similar. This really scares me, because even this summer (after my first year) I have had to spend the majority of my time working full-time in what amounts to an office-bitch position in the medical center--no real relation to my majors whatsoever. I do have an assistant position in a development and speech lab, but I'm not doing my own research there (yet), nor am I doing the hours I probably should be due to sheer financial necessity.

I'm a double-major in Linguistics and Human Development, with a self-determined focus in developmental linguistics and language processes in childhood. In some way, summer camp SEEMS like it should be a few months of free-range fieldwork--experience somehow related, even if not in a purely academic sense.

What will spending a summer at camp do to my future? I know there are a lot of factors here that would introduce variables, making this question not-so-straightforward--but any knowledgeable advice would be very welcome.

In addition, I'd love guidance from any MeFites with experience in the camp-staff realm. I'm thinking a YMCA camp would be right up my alley--I'm particularly interested in Camp Colman and Camp Orkila (no, I'm not from Seattle, but I wish I were). I'm trying to stay away from the elitist "nerd" type camps and lean more toward the traditional camp experience, though not "roughing it", per se. I'm not into sports and my expertise doesn't really lend well to a kid-centered teaching kind of camp. I'm very interested in a special-needs camp, but I don't have real training with special-needs kids other than anecdotal/volunteer activities. No religious camps, please. I can play the guitar, I make a mean lanyard, I have miles of patience and I kick ass at Capture the Flag. That's what I'm going for.

What do YMCA camps generally pay for a summer? Is there anything special I should know? Any other recommendations for camps I should look into? Anything I should be doing prepare for the application and interview? (I'm getting recertified in CPR/First Aid this fall, and I have plenty of leadership experience, especially with elementary-aged kids.) Seriously. Anything.
posted by rhoticity to Work & Money (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What about working at a language camp? Lots of fun, lots of outdoor shenanigans, but in Spanish or French or something. Here's an example - looks like they have English, too, so you might not need to be proficient in another language. I went to a similar camp just for a long weekend in high school and it was easily the best immersion exercise I've ever had. There are also private language schools that run camps for foreigners who come to the US to learn English.

Furthermore: I imagine that camp these days is probably seen by parents and high school students as something for a college application in addition to being something fun, so the "nerd" camps you refer to might be a really great fusion of the academic rigor you desire and the fun you seek. I would have LOVED going to a linguistics camp had I had the chance, but I'm an English teacher now, so perhaps that makes sense.

I don't have any idea whether you could get field-study credit for this, or even if it's a good idea, but if you're not doing what you love, why are you doing it at all?
posted by mdonley at 5:13 PM on June 30, 2007

I don't know if this will answer your question, but early on in my college career I met someone who've I've based such decisions like this on:

I was at a casual party and I met a bright, fun and interesting girl who was a member of a post-rock, post-garage type of band (which was fashionable at the time). She had deferred her Harvard Law admission, would probably lose it, and "just" to tour with this no-name band and enjoy herself for a year. The good Calvinist in me thought she was crazy, but she insisted that if law school doesn't work it, it doesn't work out, that she was having the time of her life with people she liked and even though she wanted to go to law school, wasn't going to get caught up in any hyper-competitive way of life. This does not mean she was unmotivated, lazy or a stoned neo-hippie, quite the contrary. She probably the most well-read person I know. I still thought she was crazy.

I met her a few years later and she was working a shitty temp-like job. Was I feeling vindicated? That the fact she decided to indulge in some momentary pleasure for half a year ruined her life and future prospects? Quite the contrary, she was literally the most well adjusted, interesting and bright person I've ever met. She's reapplying to schools, admitted that her resume is shitty and top tier law schools will most likely not admit her. I have full faith that wherever she decided to go, she's probably doing a lot better than most of her peers.

I've similarly made a couple of decisions that have brought me out of the very competitive race that seemed to begin junior year of high school. While a lot of opportunities aren't available to me, I haven't regretted it. I have friends who are probably the poster boy of success on the outside but are now at a company whose culture they don't like (because it is perceived at the best), will probably go to a top grad school and then work at another company to get partnership. I am not saying goof around or become lazy, just don't become the type of person whose basing their decisions on long-term 5-7 year plans. There's a world of difference between getting shit-faced before your LSAT because the party looks cool and doing something you like over summer because the alternative is bullshit work that has little meaning except to put you at a perhaps slight advantage over someone else whose doing the exact same bullshit thing.
posted by geoff. at 6:00 PM on June 30, 2007 [6 favorites]

A few of my friends have done NOLS - it's a pretty intense smart-adventure-growing type thing done around college age. You could try snagging an internship or a job and maybe that'll look good - colleges certainly do respect the program, from what I've seen.
posted by tmcw at 6:04 PM on June 30, 2007

Let me take a different angle. Your precise question is probably one that none of us can answer, unless one of us is a grad student or professor in developmental linguistics and can speak to the nature of graduate admissions in that area. In math, it would be strongly in your favor to have spent a summer doing research, but it's certainly not expected (and in fact is really unusual) to spend every summer doing research.

But: this is the perfect opportunity to talk to some graduate students and professors! Talking to grad students is great because it'll help you get a sense of whether a Ph.D. in this field is the route you want to take. Talking to professors is great because professors are the people who are going to be writing your recommendation letters, and your recommendation letters matter a lot more than where you spend your summer. So you want those folks to have some sense of you as an individual. Your question is a 100% appropriate one for an undergrad to ask a professor in office hours. I suspect if you ask, they'll tell you that of course you should work at the camp -- you'll feel more at ease and you'll have started to develop a one-on-one relationship with a faculty member. Win win!
posted by escabeche at 6:17 PM on June 30, 2007

What escabeche said, re: talk to a grad student or prof!

I have friends who work at YMCA camps and they absolutely love it. You won't earn very much, but it's a lot of fun!
(I was a YMCA summer camper, and I completely feel the same way about it - if I weren't a sailing instructor, I would be a camp counsellor.)
posted by Count Ziggurat at 6:39 PM on June 30, 2007

I went to grad school in city planning and spent my summers traveling, working in restaurants, and working at camps.
posted by salvia at 6:49 PM on June 30, 2007

Summer camp shouldn't affect your grad school prospects at all. Particularly if it's just one summer and you have other summers of school-related work. While it might affect career prospects, I'd venture to say you're probably okay. I spent many years at summer camp and was a counselor one summer in college as well. One of my good friends from camp did the same, but continued as a counselor all throughout college up until graduation. I thought she was INSANE for not using her summers productively like me. She got a grad degree right after college and now we work at the same company, where she has the same title and makes the same as me, even though she has less experience. I'm not saying that to be bitter, but to illustrate that it can work out just fine.

I worked at three different camps, including two day camps and one overnight camp. In many cases, it's a lot more watching/parenting than "hanging out with kids." Sure, there are some awesome times and bonding, but you'll be dealing with kids that you didn't raise and many of them are not perfect. Just remember that you're there to work, not to have a great time. You'll probably still have a ball, but don't go in expecting totally awesome. It's hard work and I commend you for your interest.
posted by ml98tu at 6:51 PM on June 30, 2007

I spent several summers working at a summer camp through college (today I coordinate the camp's alumni association). It was the single most important experience I've ever had in my own personal development. It would be hard to imagine it hindering your career, especially since you're only first-year and already have good resume points in your college program.

I currently do a lot of hiring - I'm in the museum field - and when I am looking for people to do exhibit design, public program design, interpretation, or supervision, camp experience is a huge plus in my eyes.

Do make sure that you really agree with the values of the camp you choose. It's quite late right now to get a job at a camp for this summer in anything but a shitty camp. Look ahead to next year, and try to find a camp that is somewhat in line with the type of work you may one do. One suggestion: there are many camps that describe themselves as 'international' camps, where the goals are to take kids from many different cultures and nationalities and blend them into a camp community, the idea being that this is a form of cultural ambassadorship. Some are very traditionally camp-y -- in the woods, rustic - and some are in dorms and the like. THe website I linked is a good place to start a camp search. Also ask friends about their camp experiences. Some of the suggestions I gave for parents in this thread will help you define your search as a staff member, too. Camps are NOT all alike. You need to know what kind of experience you're looking for, and choose a well-run, safe camp with a good program. It can be humble or high-end, but safety, high return rate, and happy campers are paramount in your choice.

Camp can be life-altering in the best way. If you want to do this, don't let anything stop you. And when you want to get into good graduate programs, you won't let anything stop you either. Camp work at a camp with a good program is an easy thing to present as a real positive on a resume.
posted by Miko at 7:18 PM on June 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

While in college I spent two summers as a painter and two summers at a summer camp. I have a master's degree and I'm now getting a PhD in ecology. I don't remember anybody even asking a question about my summers at any point in any admissions process. Maybe linguistics is vastly different, though.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:37 PM on June 30, 2007

Best answer: I can't speak to your situation specifically, but I went to UofC also (checked your profile) and there's this expectation there that your academic program is your entire life. And while this is largely true for many of us, there is a lot to be said for protecting and maintaining your other interests. You'll be happier, saner, and even better off academically for it.

As far as your future applicaiton process goes, worry more about cultivating good relationships with the heads of your lab and your profs - their rec letters will be invaluable. At UofC you have the luxury of being in contact with top members of your field already - you don't need to go outside of the community during your summers to find them. Instead, you should definitely spend those precious months doing something you love and recharging your batteries for the academic year.

YMMV, of course, but I spent my summers doing just enough of that office bitch work to pay rent and lounging on the beach reading Harry Potter. (Unlike your situation, my summers were completely unspinnable into anything resembling field work or experience.) Not once during the interview process did anyone ask about my summers during undergrad, and I start at my top choice PhD program in September.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 8:13 PM on June 30, 2007

Response by poster: Just as a note, since it's such a common misunderstanding, being a linguist does not automatically make me a polyglot (someone very interested in/proficient in several foreign languages). World language is often a route which gets people interested in linguistic theory, but the academic major itself is based on scientific study of language as a human practice, and not on any particular language in specific (unless you're actually a Slavic or Romance linguist or what have you). I am not, and I cannot really say I'm fluent in anything except English--I'm very proficient in Spanish, know enough about German and French to read them, and am taking a year of Georgian next school year. I probably am not the ideal candidate for those language immersion camps, for as much as I think they're really awesome and a great place for kids.

mdonley, I am doing what I love, and I love working in my lab, but I'd hate to miss out on fulfilling a dream just because I assumed it'd screw me out of a summer of not-so-necessary academic work.

escabeche, I definitely will be talking to the post-docs in my lab on Monday if they're around when I'm in. I'll email the two professors who have been helping me out a lot (getting me into the lab and into talks so I can mix with faculty, et cetera). My school also has a really strong advising system, and once my advisor is reachable again (it is summer after all), I'll definitely discuss this with her. I'm sure they will all give good advice, but I also wanted some different perspectives--hence my asking here.

ml98tu, I know it's not all "hanging out"--like I said, I have had a lot of experience working with kids, from day-camp type church programs to Sunday School teacher (see why I said no church camps?!) to babysitting to just plain having younger siblings. I'm definitely up for a challenge and lots of hard work. I'd just rather my hard work come with some enjoyment--watching kids grow and have a good time--than not, like it is right now, where my biggest triumph is fixing Office 2007 compatibility issues between my boss and her secretary.

Miko, thanks for the suggestions--and no worries, I'm definitely looking to start next camp season and not any more this summer.

Everyone else, thank you for the experiences and tips, I really appreciate them. Sometimes it's kind of hard to not freak out about what such-and-such will look like to that Grad School Somewhere. I just would hate to be in tight competition up against someone else, and have the Admissions Overlords go "Oops, just as good--but this girl has half a year less research experience than this other person! Looks like she should have spent her summers more wisely." ::cue dramatic music as application folder is shredded::

And they wonder why we get high blood pressure so early on nowadays...
posted by rhoticity at 10:00 PM on June 30, 2007

Sometimes it's kind of hard to not freak out about what such-and-such will look like to that Grad School Somewhere.

This will be shaped by the discipline. Even at top departments, some disciplines would expect research work by applicants, but in others an undergraduate thesis might be the most that could be reasonably expected.

The big picture to keep in mind is that graduate admissions is utterly unlike undergraduate. Nobody cares how well-rounded you are. Nobody cares about coursework that's not clearly related to their department, except that you didn't fuck up. It's a lot clearer and more cut-and-dried than undergraduate admissions, and a lot less subject to the whims of random people in an admissions office.

I just would hate to be in tight competition up against someone else, and have the Admissions Overlords go "Oops, just as good--but this girl has half a year less research experience than this other person! Looks like she should have spent her summers more wisely."

The only instance where this could happen would be if both of you were very marginal candidates on the cusp of admission or rejection. If neither of you are marginal, any department worth going to will just admit you both.

The real answer is to do bang-up coursework, write solid papers, do a thesis if that's an option or requirement, and get great letters, all of which should be relatively easy to accomplish at Chicago. That way you won't be a marginal candidate. Don't worry about barely crawling over the line from marginal rejection to marginal acceptance.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:47 PM on June 30, 2007

I know rising first- and second-year grad students in theoretical linguistics programs at MIT, UCLA, and UofC, among others. Also know grad students in cog sci (ucsd psych and cog sci depts, rochester) and speech pathology programs (unv of washington), and people doing post-bac research in cog sci at nih/nimh. I think ROU has got it right (at least wrt to these fields); it's my impression that the quality of any work that you submit with your application is more important than whether you spent a summer completing it. Are you thinking of getting a PhD? Do you have an specific programs in mind? Email me if you want to discuss further and I can potentially put you in touch with students or professors who could offer you advice.
posted by holympus at 1:53 AM on July 1, 2007

One thing I haven't seen spoken above: If your current 'research' position consists of 'office-bitch', you need to find a new one. This is supposed to be an exposure to the methods and mechanics of research in your chosen field, as well as a chance to see if you like doing research in your chosen field, not your chance to do some lab's paperwork and make coffee.

Also, while this is field dependent, in my field getting your name on a publication is a huge, huge help in getting into the grad school of your choice. In my incoming class of 30 or so people at [insert ivy league-ish east coast institution here] only a couple of students didn't have at least one publication. One person had 7 (I had 2).

So, while this might not be what you want to hear, if spending a summer having fun gets in the way of you performing some publishable research, maybe it's not such a good idea.

Also, and I know this will generate howls of protest from most of the people here: in my field (biomedicine) we aren't interested in accepting well-rounded human beings as students, we want lab-rats who are going to want to spend 80-100 hrs/wk in the lab. So yes, if you were at all marginal, I would prefer someone who did research at every possible opportunity instead of someone who took a summer off to do something fun.
posted by overhauser at 8:55 AM on July 1, 2007

Also, while this is field dependent, in my field getting your name on a publication is a huge, huge help in getting into the grad school of your choice.

This is very, very, very field dependent. In my field, that's impossible unless you've done independent professional-level research on your own as an undergraduate, since we don't give authorships to research assistants or other moral equivalents of lab workers.

Only someone in linguistics can tell you what the story in linguistics is.

So yes, if you were at all marginal, I would prefer someone who did research at every possible opportunity instead of someone who took a summer off to do something fun.

Best advice is still to not be marginal, and if you find out that you are marginal, to seriously reconsider graduate school. Getting in as a marginal student can easily be worse than just butting out and calling it even.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:33 AM on July 1, 2007

I have a friend who went to UofC and is now finishing up her PhD in linguistics. If I recall correctly, she spent her undergrad summers touring with a ska band, working at a book store, and being a camp counselor. If you are strong, it won't stop you from getting into grad school. And I just can't imagine that one summer of research [especially the kind of research I usually see people helping with] is truly going to matter.
posted by Mozzie at 5:41 PM on July 2, 2007

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