Chris Guillebeau doesn’t call his two-year investment in an International Studies degree from the University of Washington a complete waste of time-just mostly a waste of time. And money. In a guest blog for Powells.com to promote his new book The Art of Non-Conformity, Guillebeau outlines a “One-Year, Self-Directed, Alternate Graduate School Experience” as an alternative to attending a formal graduate school degree program. He includes practical, yet intriguing, ideas like joining your local Toastmasters club to learn basic public-speaking and presentation skills and learning a new language by subscribing to free, language-learning podcasts.
At a time when graduate school costs more than ever, without guaranteeing the graduate a job upon completion, Guillebeau’s idea may sound eccentric, but appealing.
The intention, I believe, is not to discourage anyone from pursuing a formal graduate degree but to make the point that learning is an active, individual endeavor, something to be pursued and relished, and not to be mass-produced and laid out before the student for a price.
My own graduate degree in English from the University of Illinois at Springfield cost nowhere near the $32,000 Guillebeau spent on his degree. In fact, besides the cost of textbooks and two years of my life, my degree was free. I worked as a graduate assistant in the English Department and received a stipend and tuition waver. But in all honesty, I cannot say that my two years might not have been better spent in self-study. Looking back, I can think of several ways in which I might have actively pursued the same course of learning on my own.
If you’re considering a graduate degree in English or writing, but don’t have the time or money to invest in graduate school, I suggest taking the following self-directed actions, which will result in a similar education, based on my own graduate school experience:
Do-It-Yourself Graduate School: English and Creative Writing
1. Buy The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. Read it through several times, and keep it on your desk for quick reference.
2. Buy Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why and Mortimer J. Adler’s and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book. Read through them at least once, and then again every year or so.
3. Get a library card. Otherwise you will quickly go broke on all the books you must read. Then begin by reading one book a week. Read something from The Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels. Then read the horrible clichéd genre fiction someone left at the airport. Read a New York Times Bestseller. Then read a novel by the unknown author holding a book signing at your local bookstore. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. Read books on subjects in direct opposition to your beliefs. Read books that you loved as a child, books that make you gnash your teeth in anger, books that make you cry, books that make you laugh. In no other way will you learn the structure of a story, the themes and characters and conflicts and the many ways authors use these elements, than to feed your brain with a constant influx of writing examples, both good and bad.
4. Write 1,000 words every day. Notebook or computer, essays or poems or stories, whatever. Just write and see what happens. Schedule one time of day to be your writing time, and do not miss that appointment. If, at the end of six months or so, you find you are have made more excuses not to write (don’t have time, energy, ideas, etc.), then prepare yourself to accept the fact that you are not a writer.
5. Join a critique group. Let others read your writing. And in turn, learn to read others’ writing and provide a gentle but sincere critique.
6. Join a book group. Speak out. Don’t let others tell you what to like or not like about a book. Decide for yourself.
7. Attend one writing or book conference a year. Connect with other writers and readers.
8. Attend free lectures at your local college on every subject. Check the college’s website for upcoming events. Many of them are free and open to the public.
9. Buy copies of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. Keep them on your desk. Every time you are discouraged, pick one and let yourself read a chapter. Then put it down and get back to writing.
10. Use the Internet to connect with writing professionals. Hundreds of blogs are kept by literary agents, publishers, book reviewers, published authors, college professors, etc. in which they dispense valuable advice. Start at Poets & Writers and explore from there.
11. Travel. Near or far. Leaving your comfort zone, whether to explore an unfamiliar part of your own city or to trek across the globe, introduces you to new places, people, and ideas, the stuff that creativity thrives upon.
12. Take a long walk every day in silence. Look around you. Let your mind wander. Step away from the page and move your body.
13. Keep a journal. Write in it every day. This does not count as your 1,000 words of structured writing. A journal is a place to daydream, release frustration, and affirm goals.
A passive approach to education, formal or informal, won’t get you far in achieving your goals. Only by taking responsibility for your own education, and perhaps looking beyond the traditional methods of doing so, will you truly learn and encounter new opportunities. For those with an adventurous spirit, and the determination, commitment, perseverance, and discipline to adhere to such an endeavor, a do-it-yourself graduate school just might be preferable.