Category Archives: Matt Murphy

Help for #gradschoolproblems that are outside of grad school

We all know the huge amount of stress that we’re put under as graduate students, and to top it off, we all have other tasks to accomplish that are outside grad school. Some things, like forgetting to file taxes, will likely result in an arrest and hours of interrogation with Chinese water torture – or at least the government calling about an audit. Others, like forgetting to change oil or pay the electric bill can cause other issues. So, here’s a few non-academic resources that have helped me out this year, or at least places where I’ve sought help.

TurboTax – Tax season is already over, but in the future, if you’re independent and your only income is a grad student stipend, you are likely well below the poverty line. Fortunately, tax agencies like TurboTax have agreed to file simple tax forms (1040EZ, for one) for people below a certain income. TurboTax also assists in finding deductions that you would otherwise not think to look for (at least I wouldn’t). Plus, it’s possible to file taxes for the feds and the state in one place. Since I changed my residency from Indiana to West Virginia this year, I had to file for both states, and since those states have both approved TurboTax, I was able to file all my returns with one program (yay!).

Housing/Neighborhood/Infrastructure Issues: By no means am I an expert on local building code, but Morgantown has a convenient online system for reporting everything from building code violations (i.e., if bricks are consistently falling off your building, it’s probably a violation) to burn permits to reporting graffiti to  inquiries about establishing a new crosswalk. I’ve never had any such issues, but I can see how certain problems may come up in other parts of town. Visit the FAQ page for common questions.

Towing problems: Morgantown is notorious for having cars towed throughout the day, whether by the city or by a private landowner (This is one of my alternative careers – open a towing company in a college town. I’d be rich in a week). However, the tow-happy people that summon the truck-of-no-return to your car may not have the right to have you towed. In addition, accidents and incidents can happen, and if you feel you were wrongfully towed or treated, you can contact the Public Service Commission of West Virginia. That information is listed here. But, you won’t get towed in the first place if you use…

#PUBLICTRANSPO: (yes, this is a real hashtag). I’ve posted before about using alternate transportation to get out of town, but in Mon County, the Mountain Line operates a pretty decent bus service that goes just about everywhere. Schedules and routes are on Or, just walk. Both are better for the environment, and a lot better than sitting in traffic waiting for some Jersey or out-of-area driver in their Acura SUV to realize that green means go.

Finally, utilities: In Morgantown, a common list of utility providers are MUB for water and sewer, Allied Waste for trash, Comcast for cable and MonPower for electric. If you live at a residential property in most parts of the city, recycling should come with trash service. If you’re like me and live in an apartment, dropping off recycling is convenient. Some of the more-used locations are at the Wal-Mart at the University Town Center, Wal-Mart off Grafton Road and behind the Star City municipal building in Star City.


The Behind-the-Scenes Work of a G.A.

Like Candace, I also have grad assistantship that deals with students and teaching. But, the difference is that I don’t actually teach. Instead, I grade papers, tests and quizzes; manage attendance; deal with hear from students who contest or challenge grades; and do a lot of the time-consuming work that professors don’t have time to do, since they’re busy doing their own research.

That’s a concept I didn’t understand when I came to WVU – why do professors need GAs anyway? I figured it was because they simply didn’t want to do some of the grunt work. However, now I realize that being a professor is at least a 60-hour-a-week position. So, the professor works 40 hours, teaching, planning lessons, designing assignments and tests and conducting research (which is part of the profession of the professor). The other 20 hours is then delegated to me. So, it makes sense for me to do all the grading, copies and other time-consuming work.

Anyway, back to the point – I came to grad school because I want to eventually be a professor and teach at a university. So, my GA experience has given me a lot of insight into the behind-the-scenes work of college courses. I came from a small college for undergrad, so a 40 to 50-person class was large there, but smaller at WVU. The sheer number of people at a larger university creates different challenges and red tape in assisting with classes.

First, it’s important to be firm with students as far as policy goes. To every rule there is an exception, but those really need to be few and far between. For example, if the syllabus says, “you have one week to challenge a grade,” that policy must be followed. This helps students become more proactive in managing grades, and helps you as a GA stay organized, as original assignments over a week old can be archived and better protected.

Also, try to accomplish as much as you can as early as you can. If it’s Friday, and 50 copies of a 15-page exam need to be done by Tuesday, do that as soon as possible. Likewise, incorporate time-saving tasks, like actively keeping track of attendance throughout the month instead of trying to add absence up at the end of the semester.

Third, keep any and all e-mails sent to you by students. That way, there is a record of communication if a student accuses the GA of not performing a certain task or responding to an e-mail.

Finally, if you have to grade papers that are subjective in nature, make sure to create a sort-of rubric for those papers. After reading 30 of 50, your brain may start to become mush. And, we’re in journalism school, so writing is important. It’s okay to dock grades for poor grammar, sentence structure, spelling, etc.

The Taboo #gradschoolproblem – Going Back to Work (In Journalism)

One of the things that seems to frighten journalism students (at all levels) the most is the thought of trying to find a job at the end of school. For the grad student cohort, many of us will be returning to the field, as in, finding a job after school is not a first-time experience for us. Still, we’ll be competing with hundreds of other grad students and thousands of undergrads across the country for the same positions.

Since the newspaper and larger media industry is in such a state of flux, it’s hard to try and guess how many positions will be available and how competitive those positions will be. I usually check fairly often, and it seems to go in cycles: one month, it seems like there are more openings than can be counted, and the next month, the options are pretty few. Moreover, it seems to me that most news outlets aren’t really concerned about the number or type of degrees a  prospect has; rather, hiring organizations are much more interested in the amount of experience of a candidate. So, a grad student who has recently been awarded his or her master’s degree, but has no or little real-world experience, is less valuable to a newspaper than an undergrad who has completed multiple internships and/or freelancing jobs. Simply put, a master’s degree never guarantees you a job.

Personally, I am one such grad student with prior staff reporter experience. So, in grad school, I am working on trying to keep adding new clips to my portfolio so that when I’m finished next May, there won’t be a two-year lull in my work when I’m trying to find a job. I’ve done this in two ways – freelancing and through classes like West Virginia Uncovered.

Also, it’s important to make new connections and save the connections you left before coming to grad school. Through classes at WVU, I’ve been able to meet editors and news staff at papers around the state, since even meeting or working with someone once can land you a position over another. At the same time, I’ve maintained my professional connections in the Great Lakes region, not just because those people are friends, but also in case I need to look for a job in that part of the country.

But regardless of how you go about continuing to produce new, quality material and/or maintaining connections to the industry, keep in mind that experience reigns king. If you have worked in the industry, be sure to tout it (though not being prideful) – that experience already sets you (and me) above a sizeable chunk of other inadequate less knowledgeable graduates. And that should be at least a little reassuring.

Get out of Morgantown!

We always have something to do in grad school. Always. Homework, research, doing things for our profs, dealing with displeased students…the list goes on. But, it is important to still make time to NOT be constantly doing work, especially for our own sanity. We are constantly given more and more things to do, and seemingly not enough time to finish. But that’s ok, as long as we find ways to relax and keep our cool. One such way is to put the electronics aside and breathe. For me, as a journo major and a grad student, my computer and phone have unfortunately become extra appendages out of the need to keep up with everything. Thus, it may sound difficult, but it really is important to get out of Martin Hall and our apartments (into the really, really, really bright sun – an effect of being kept inside) and get out of town!

Being in wild and wonderful West Virginia, we’re blessed with a great number of outdoor activities close by. Camping, biking, hiking and boating are all available within 20 minutes of downtown (assuming there’s no traffic). Here’s a breakdown of different places to go that aren’t too far, and won’t cost too much gas that would eat up our welfare check  stipend. Each of the next few locations has camping and hiking opportunities, as well as other outdoorsy stuff to do (boating, fishing, etc.) that can be found on each park’s website.

  • Cooper’s Rock is the closest option to Morgantown. The campground is open April to November, but be cautious about when to go – there are only 25 campsites, which may be in high demand at certain parts of the year.
  • Ryerson Station State Park, Greene County, Pa.: Ryerson Station is a bit of a hike  from Morgantown, due to its relative isolation from the main highways, despite being in our neighboring county to the north. However, that isolation (and limited phone service) is also great for escaping technology. But one of the biggest advantages to me is that Ryerson Station is open year-round, unlike pretty much every other state park in the area.
  • Tygart Lake State Park is just down U.S. 119 near Grafton. Obviously, the name gives away that the park is located on a lake, which is also evidently a great fishing spot. Camping is available mid-April through October.
  • Ohiopyle State Park, Fayette County, Pa.: Ohiopyle is one of the more well-known places to go in southwest Pennsylvania, and rightly so. This park has all the normal outdoor things to do, plus whitewater rafting and natural waterslides in the Youghiogheny River. Plus, Ohiopyle is a stop on the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail, which I’ll get to below.
  • Garrett County, Md., also has a cluster of parks around Deep Creek Lake, which is itself a year-round vacation destination. Check out Deep Creek Lake State Park, Swallow Falls State Park, New Germany State Park and Big Run State Park.

But suppose you want to take a biking adventure? All of the above parks have some sort of biking facilities, but there are also nearby rail-trail bike paths in the area. Morgantown’s own is the Mon River Trails system, which extends along the Monongahela River from Fairmont to the Pennsylvania line, and east from Morgantown into Preston County along Deckers Creek. The Great Allegheny Passage is also an option, being just a short drive northeast of Morgantown. The GAP trail is also on former railroad beds, making it relatively level, just like the Mon River Trails. The GAP extends from the Pittsburgh area to Cumberland, Md. (eventually, the GAP is planned to connect to Point State Park in Pittsburgh). At Cumberland, the GAP connects to the C&O Canal towpath, which continues on to Georgetown, Washington, D.C.

Being in grad school though, not all of us have enough money to go out and buy fancy/shiny (expensive) new equipment for outdoor adventures. That’s where the Outdoor Rec Center comes in. The ORC is, I think, one of the best organizations at WVU. In addition to weekend and longer trips the ORC leads during the school year, the ORC also has a large variety of equipment and gear that anyone affiliated with WVU can rent for dirt cheap. The ORC also has longer trips for semester breaks. I went on the Texas trip on winter break and had a blast!

Nevertheless, for those of us who are nature haters city-minded folk, look at getting out of town for the day or weekend. Pittsburgh is just over an hour away, and Baltimore and Washington are around four hours. With the beginning of Megabus service to Morgantown, rides to Pittsburgh or D.C.  start at just $1, provided you book early enough. And, often-overlooked Amtrak provides service at Pittsburgh and Connellsville, Pa. A round trip Amtrak ride to Chicago can be as low as just over $100, and since the train runs overnight both directions, that can save on the cost of lodging.

But regardless of the travel choice one makes, the goal still remains: relax and get out of town!

View Get Out of Town Morgantown! in a full screen map

Is going to grad school better than working?

In most fields, workers get a good start with basic skills in the classroom, but real-world world experience, I would argue, is where the vast majority of learning takes place. This is especially true in journalism, where although class assignments and school-funded student newspapers give students a basic understanding of journalism, real learning takes place at an actual newspaper or other media outlet. Through working ridiculous hours, becoming a local expert on a number of subjects, making friends with secretaries and becoming a community figure (especially in a smaller community), among other things, the real world is where it’s at. In no way do I mean that school is not important – it absolutely is – but the amount a journo will learn in the first six months on the job will dwarf the amount the student journo learns in four years.

I’ll give a little bit of my background to start. I went to undergrad at Huntington University, a small liberal arts school in northeast Indiana. Between my sophomore and junior years, I got an internship at The Huntington County TAB, one of two newspapers that served Huntington County, Ind. That internship led to a job as a staff reporter, which I held during the remainder of undergrad until I moved to Morgantown for grad school last August (thereby working at the paper for a total of two years, three months).

My rationale for getting a master’s is because down the road, I would like to teach, and the left-brained people at universities who are in charge of hiring don’t care as much what experience I have, they want to see a nice piece of heavyweight paper master’s degree before they will consider hiring (Note: no offense to those who have worked hard to get numerous degrees, it’s just that not everyone with a degree is qualified to teach certain subjects, as I learned in undergrad).

In Indiana, it was interesting to me because I transitioned from being a student who worked for a newspaper to a newspaper reporter who was finishing college. In other words, I saw myself as a reporter who was finishing undergrad in order to get the pretty paper bachelor’s degree that apparently indicates that I know what I’m doing as far as journalism is concerned. By my senior year (at least in my mind), I already knew, or had experience in, anything we would discuss in journalism or media classes.

I had a lot more industry knowledge than the people I was graduating with, a good chunk of whom were still engrossed in the ideal world of a college newspaper – that is, being guaranteed a job due to the university funding the newspaper. This is a great video that a former editor of mine at The TAB showed me that sums up this thinking (I’m having issues with the embed code, so here’s the link):

Anyway, no amount of classroom work can serve as a substitute for real-world experience. However, that doesn’t mean that going back to school can’t augment what one has learned already, especially since the industry is changing at such a rapid pace. When I started undergrad in 2007, Facebook had a still fairly-limited usage rate, MySpace was still semi-relevant and Twitter had not yet taken off.

Now, newspapers and other media outlets are wanting, if not demanding, that journalists be able to write, take photos and at least have knowledge of video production. Journalists also have to be savvy with social media, at least the giants – Facebook and Twitter. For me, I had extremely limited experience in video/multimedia reporting, and the West Virginia Uncovered class has certainly helped me with acquiring and using those skills in the field. Also, although I knew how to use social media, I didn’t know how to properly use those tools from a journalism perspective (or blogs, for that matter). So, Uncovered and our blogging class have helped me in that way.

Of course, there are other things to be learned in grad school besides classes related to work in the field, but I’m limiting this post to non-academia jobs outside of universities (which is where one will need to know theories and how to conduct research).

To wrap it up, again, classwork is no substitute for real-world experience. BUT, grad school in particular can help train journalists (and others) to practice the craft in a more refined, up-to-date way. Plus, having a master’s keeps future options, like teaching, open for consideration.

Tackling the Market

Supermarket Sweep

Supermarket Sweep!

When I first moved to Morgantown in August, I went to buy pots and pans at Target. On my way to the register, this man approached me and said, “Are you sure you know how to use those?,” just joking with me, of course. He didn’t know I’d been eating on my own for several years by that point, but it was funny nonetheless.

Actually, in a way, it shouldn’t be that funny. It seems like most college students (especially my fellow bachelor friends, whose culinary skills are limited to La Choy and frozen chicken nuggets) don’t really know how or what to cook, much less go to the store. When I’m at Kroger, I notice what other people are buying, and (guys especially) are buying garbage unhealthy products (think Cheese-Its, Mountain Dew, Cup Noodles, cake; oh, and sometimes bread, for a Cheese-It sandwich). Furthermore, it’s often much easier to justify spending a few dollars at a fast food place then to spend the same amount and make your own food (but it’s much healthier to cook yourself, and I prefer to know how my food is handled and made).

For us in grad school, one of the biggest problems being a single student on a fixed income is the challenge of eating well at home without wasting leftovers or spending a ton of money. Most food in supermarkets is not packaged for individuals, and it is hard to justify paying more money for food that can go to waste. Obviously, this topic could be a blog in and of itself, but here are some simple ways I use to cut costs and at least try to adhere to the food pyramid:

-Go to the store like the rest of the world – often. As grad students, this might be a bit difficult to fit in between our assistantships, classes, individual projects, freelance work, drinking socializing, #gradschoolproblems, commuting, trying to get our old cars and computers fixed…the list goes on. But, it’s good to keep your kitchen constantly re-stocked. This way, you won’t need to buy food with a lot of preservatives that’s meant to last through a nuclear war. Additionally, this enables you to buy fresh food more often, and in smaller amounts, meaning that the bananas you bought earlier in the week won’t get rotten. Sundays and Thursdays work best for me, since I have the least amount of work those days.

-Know what you need, and don’t deviate too much. The key to getting through the market is to have a few basic things in mind that you need, like bread, eggs, chicken or fruit. You don’t need to make a huge checklist, but before you leave your efficiency box apartment in the bad colorful part of town, jot down a few things you have run out of, or what you will run out of in the next few days. Once you get to the store, start by going straight for the things you need, but also look around for other things you buy often. For example, at Kroger, sliced turkey lunchmeat has gotten pretty expensive in the past year or so, but probably once a month, it will be on sale for about $2.50 – or four sandwiches for me (two lunches). When that happens, I’ll snag it.

The same is true for other food that is a bit more expensive, don’t buy it unless it’s on sale (or if you absolutely need it).

-For fresh produce, plan ahead for how it can be used. Fruit is something that I always can use without it going bad. But vegetables, it’s a bit different, since I tend to not use a whole green pepper or tomato for one meal. So before I buy those things, I think about how I can use each within 2-3 days. A green pepper, for example, can be used in an omelet, combined with hummus and cucumber for a lunch, used in enchiladas or pizza or can be thrown into pasta sauce.

Or, if you’re not sure of how to use something within a few days, instead of buying fresh vegetables, consider buying half-cans of vegetables. They’re the perfect size for a side dish, and usually cost about 65-75 cents each.

-Swap traditional ingredients for something different, cheaper and/or healthier. Last semester, my new thing to try and make was enchiladas. I found several simple recipes online, most of which wanted me to buy olives, chilies, tomatoes and a number of other ingredients that I probably wouldn’t use until at least some of them went bad. So since salsa is basically the same as all those separate ingredients, I just used salsa instead – and it worked perfectly.

Another thing to try to cut the ridiculous amount of fat or calories from certain foods is to substitute ingredients or buy a healthier alternative. This is particularly easy for dairy products. If you need sour cream – buy the fat-free version. For butter, try Parkay or Smart Balance. And with instant oatmeal, buy the lower sugar version instead of the regular version, which is typically the same price.

-Always, always, always buy store brands. Not only are they cheaper, but the majority of the time, they’re exactly the same as brand-name products. No really. For example, Kroger brand ketchup is just Red Gold ketchup re-branded and packaged differently.

-Murphy’s Dollar(ish) Rule. When I first started shopping and cooking for myself in undergrad, I would just go with the cheapest thing possible. So for bread, I would get the store brand wheat bread. However, I realized that buying multigrain bread (which is better for you and tastes better) is about 50 cents more than regular bread, so now, I go with multigrain. We’re always trying to save money, even those two quarters for better bread. But, I’ve developed a system for buying food that is made healthier versus the run-of-the-mill style.

So, my general rule of thumb is that if something I frequently buy is within a dollar or so more, then I buy the more expensive (but healthier!) item. If it’s something that will take awhile to use, like peanut butter or cheese, then the amount I’m willing to pay extra goes up. But, if something is several dollars more, I’ll go with the cheaper, less-healthy item.

-Organic/local food. This is a problem for us as grad students, because organic food is typically more expensive, and we’re broke. But, it’s great because I’m (hopefully) not putting as many chemicals in my body as with normally-processed  produce. I’ve found that in general, Kroger does a pretty good job of not making organic produce  a whole lot more expensive than regular produce (i.e. organic bananas are usually 10 cents more per pound, bagged apples may be the same price). Obviously, it’s always better to eat fruit and vegetables, organic or not, but less chemicals are always good.

And finally…

-Splurge once in awhile. Attempt to make something new or more involved at least every week or two. Men’s Health usually has a number of great, simple recipes to eat well, both on its website and in print. But, since the magazine (and most other magazines) assume you have lots of money and didn’t go to grad school, keep in mind my point about swapping out ingredients. And no, you don’t need basil or oregano.

Do those spices improve taste? Yes, but that’s more money you’ll be shelling out.

And don’t buy Cheese-Its, Mountain Dew or Cup Noodles.

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