Graduate Student Profiles - Slavic & Eurasian Studies
Karen Chilstrom - Applied Linguistics/Pedagogy
Graduate Program: Ph.D., Slavic and Eurasian Studies – Applied Linguistics/Pedagogy, Minor: Slavic Literatures and Cultures, The University of Texas at Austin; Research Interest: Second-Language Acquisition Among Adults
Other Degrees: M.A., Spanish, Middlebury College – Middlebury, VT; B.A., French & Spanish, Ripon College – Ripon, WI
What is life like for a Slavic and Eurasian Studies graduate student?
Like a lot of graduate students, I find it challenging to balance my personal life and study/work responsibilities. In addition to full-time studies and teaching five days a week, I have responsibilities to my family at home. Unfortunately, I don’t get to see my family and friends as much as I’d like. I often get home just in time to make dinner, and as soon as dinner is over, I retreat to my home office to read, work on assignments, answer e-mail, and prepare lesson plans for the following day. During my first master’s program, I was responsible for no one other than myself. This makes my current studies particularly challenging. On the other hand, being responsible for a home and family keeps me from becoming obsessive about my courses and research and forces me to spend time away from the University.
What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
A typical day for Slavic & Eurasian Studies grad students depends a lot on where those students are in the program, how many credits they’re taking, whether they are working at the same time, and their family circumstances. Students who are working on their dissertations may spend the day writing. Those who are taking courses spend most of their time reading. And those who have teaching duties have to prepare for the classes they teach in addition to the ones they are taking.
What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
One of the coolest things about my graduate program is my colleagues. I work and study alongside the most fun, supportive and well-read students and faculty around. We are a small department, which allows us to get to know one other well, and instead of being competitive, we work to help each other in any way possible. In addition, the faculty are very approachable. They always make time to meet with graduate students whenever we need help or advice.
Another cool thing about my graduate program is that it allows for extensive travel. Do you feel like spending a year in Kazakhstan? Apply for a fellowship and study there! Can you spare only a summer? There are lots of great summer language programs throughout Russia. And studying isn’t the only thing you can do. For the past two summers, for example, I’ve worked as the resident director of Moscow Plus, UT’s own summer study-abroad program in Moscow. What could be better than being paid to spend time abroad?
Can you tell us a bit more about your current research interests?
I am most interested in researching second-language acquisition among adults. I began studying Russian at the age of twenty-five, and since I’ve been able to achieve proficiency in the language, I’m convinced that young children don’t have a corner on the market when it comes to learning foreign languages. The research I performed during my teacher education program indicated that adults are much more efficient language learners than children, in part because they are able to sit down and learn the language systematically. I’d like to help determine, through my research, how to harness adults’ natural language learning abilities in the college classroom.
Where are you in the graduate school sequence?
I began doctoral work in Spanish several years ago, but I realized that while I very much wanted to earn a Ph.D. in order to teach at the college level, I had lost interest in the language. Indeed, I had found my life’s passion during my Peace Corps service in Russia years earlier, where I had fallen in love with the Russian language, culture and people. Since I wanted nothing more than to spend my life introducing students to the peoples and cultures of the former Soviet Union, the part of the world that houses half of my soul, I applied to the graduate program in Slavic and Eurasian Studies at UT. Because I had not completed formal coursework in Russian, I needed to earn a master’s degree in the language before being admitted to the Ph.D. program. I have completed the coursework for the master’s degree and begun doctoral coursework, and I will officially enter the Ph.D. program after completion of my master’s in December, 2010.
Do you have teaching responsibilities in your department?
This is my fourth year working as an assistant instructor (AI) at UT and my third year teaching first-year Russian. I love my work, and many mornings as I walk to class, I think, there is nowhere I would rather be. Teaching Russian to undergraduate students is immensely rewarding. The downside of an assistant instructorship is that you are required to take full-time coursework at the same time. Since writing lesson plans, grading homework, and teaching require so much energy, I often have to sacrifice valuable study time to prepare for class each day.
What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
As an undergrad, I had more time to devote to my personal life. I lived in a dorm and ate at the cafeteria, so I did not spend time maintaining a home or cooking meals. I was also responsible only for myself. Graduate students generally live in apartments or student housing, and they are responsible for their own grocery shopping and meal preparation. These added responsibilities do take up study time.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew as an undergrad?
I wish I’d known that there would be so much reading and more assignments and research to perform than there are hours in a day. As an undergrad, I was generally able to keep up with my studies and assignments, but I find that as a graduate student, there is always more to do. You’re never “finished” at the end of the day, so you don’t feel the same sense of accomplishment. The long hours spent in isolation and without much feedback occasionally lead to feelings of discouragement and loneliness. Nevertheless, the rewards of graduate school far outweigh the sacrifices.
What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a Slavic & Eurasian graduate program?
- Demonstrate your enthusiasm for the language. It doesn’t matter if you’re not yet as fluent as you’d like to be. Determination and love for the language, not your speaking abilities, are what will carry you through the graduate program.
- Start searching now for outside sources of funding. Look at the requirements and determine how to work toward meeting them.
- Write your CV now and keep it current. Think about how you’d like it to look when you’re finished with your program, and seek out ways to fill in the gaps during your graduate studies. Present at conferences and participate in outreach activities as early in your program as possible. Join professional organizations to learn about the latest research and to demonstrate commitment to your field of study.
Had you not accepted the UT Austin offer, which school would have been your #2 choice?
I only applied to UT-Austin, because I knew that I wanted to work with this particular set of faculty. From the standpoint of their reputation, however, I’d have considered applying to the University of Illinois, University of Kansas, and Middlebury College.
What is an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in Slavic & Eurasian Studies to check out?
I am a fan of EnglishRussia.com, because I love to look at photos from Russia and other Russian-speaking countries. I also enjoy listening to RusRadio.ru.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In ten years, I would like to be teaching at a medium-sized university or liberal-arts college and performing research in second-language acquisition. I would like to have published my dream textbook: an English-language phonetics resource for students and teachers of Russian.
Do you have a “grad school survival tip” you would like to share?
I suggest you not compare yourself to others in your program. There will always be people who are more accomplished or less accomplished than you. Also, make an effort to maintain your personal and social life. Your outside interests and activities will nourish you and help you feel balanced.