Amy Strilchuk (MA) – General Manager of Touchstone Theatre in Vancouver, Belle Cheung (MA) – works in cultural policy for the city of Vancouver, Lisa C. Ravensbergen (PhD) (absent due to unforeseen circumstances) 2 June 2019, CATR Conference @ UBC

*The following are some key takeaways from the speakers’ presentations and subsequent discussion.

“Nothing looks like what it looks like when you’re in school.”

  • Especially if you’re going the alt-ac route, it’s likely that your grad school experience will be quite different than your post-grad school working life–and that’s okay.
  • Always remember to take a step back and see cause and effect. The work you do in grad school doesn’t prepare in you in the most literal sense for alt-ac careers, but that’s okay and would be an unfair expectation to place on a time when you’re supposed to be

Both panelists suggest that in grad school you should follow the questions/problems you’re interested in, and examine how else they can be explored.

  • For example, in hindsight Belle can see that her current work as cultural planner with the city of Vancouver (working particularly in Chinatown) is actually highly connected both to her work in her geography MA on the relationship between multiculturalism and cultural policy in Vancouver, and her undergrad thesis on site specific theatre (rooted in place) — they’re all connected by a common thread.
  • Amy recommends: Pay attention to who you’re curious about, and build those relationships pretty soon–this includes people who you write about in your papers, etc. –even doesn’t necessarily follow that academic path you’ve internalized. She says “Grad school is your free pass for relationship building and understanding someone else a little better” (otherwise known as networking).
  • While one panelist (Amy) was fairly certain of the work she wanted to do going into grad school, Belle, in policy, ended up in the role accidentally, but all of her past work contributed to it.

Look for opportunities to make connections/follow your interests during your degree

  • Amy benefited from several internships with several theatre companies
  • Belle got really involved in things that were happening in Chinatown during her degree, which directly led to her current job (the City asked her to apply, based on her experience/networking)

What skills that you developed in grad school are you using in your current jobs (if any)?

  • Both to some extent currently use some of the most directly applicable skills: research and writing skills. Belle in particular mentioned that her job involves a lot of reading policy and using it to develop work that can be understood by a larger audience, building directly off her research skills.
  • Both agreed that grad school built their capacities to take a step back, which has allowed them to consider problems thoughtfully and from a distance, and helped them to avoid knee-jerk decisions and burn out.

Question: Knowing what you know now, what piece of advice would you give yourself as a grad student?

  • Amy: Take the pressure off yourself. Grad school is, ‘just for now,’ the container for what you’re doing for a certain number of years. There’s a lot of intensity and pressure around getting it right. If had been more playful with it, there might have been the opportunity for more connections etc.
  • Belle notes that while from an outside perspective her path might seem dreamy and serendipitous, it was the result of a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. She didn’t know what she wanted to do when she started degree, thought policy was boring, considered leaving grad school, and wasn’t able to pull all the pieces together until right before she graduated. She agrees not to put pressure on yourself to have it all figured out.
  • Amy notes that it’s tempting to turn to others to ask what you should you do with your life–the belief that someone older and wiser can tell you what your life should be–but you’ll just end up that demographic’s type of advice. The only person who can make those decisions is you.
  • Amy’s advice for when you’re stumped: Don’t make decisions based on fear, but whenever you have to make a choice, look at the short term. Ask yourself, “what’s bothering me that I would like to change?” and let that give you direction.

Question: What advice do you have about navigating grad school–particularly since it isn’t necessarily friendly to grad students considering alt-ac routes?

Rather than the more prescribed ‘ladder model of grad school’ where one follows all the requisite ‘steps’ to the next ‘stage,’ both panelists took a more flexible path by following the problems that interested them.

  • Amy suggests, don’t just do things that you think will look good on paper or meet external goals (i.e. picking topics you think will get SSHRC funding); don’t try and fit yourself into particular moulds, or waste time on internalized shame.
  • Belle says: “It’s okay to want other experiences than your department expects from you, and/or to not finish your degree.”
  • If you know what you’re coming in to do and know what your question is find the communities (outside of academia) that care about the work that you do — it reminds you of why you’re doing the work, and can make useful connections in the future.

On choosing an advisor: Look for an advisor who creates space for you and encourages you to examine you impulses and permission to experiment. Pick someone who will let you make your grad school experience the best time possible for you.

On making decisions after grad school: Amy suggests paying close attention to whether you’re being listened to or whether you have a voice. If you don’t have a voice, leave the room immediately.

  • Don’t just do things to legitimize you. Think about your day-to-day life — Will you enjoy doing that?

Speakers’ Bios:

Amy Strilchuk
Amy Lynn Strilchuk makes and markets new Canadian plays. She has over 12 years of arts administration experience at some of Western Canada’s most prominent new creation companies, including Alberta Theatre Projects, Arts Club Theatre Company, Ballet BC, Gateway Theatre, and Green Thumb Theatre. She has dramaturged over a dozen world premieres by
Canadian playwrights and has marketed, publicized, and/or toured acclaimed new works like Onegin (Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille), The Piano Teacher (Dorothy Dittrich), The Men in White (Anosh Irani), Mom’s the Word 3 (Mom’s the Word Collective), and The Code (Rachel Aberle). Amy is also part of the leadership team bringing the newly revived Magnetic North Festival to Vancouver in June 2019. She also loves good coffee and a great outfit.

Belle Cheung
Belle Cheung 張芷彤 is a 1.5-generation settler from Hong Kong and a guest on the unceded territories and traditional homelands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Belle’s work sits at the intersection of arts and culture, and advocates for race, cultural histories, and representation as important factors in arts and culture policies to more accurately represent Canada’s population, and to make diversity part of the “mainstream.” Belle comes from a background in arts administration and stage management for theatre, opera, and live events. She holds a BA (Hons) in Theatre and an MA in Geography from UBC, where her research focused on whiteness in Vancouver theatre and Canadian arts and culture policies. She is currently a Cultural Planner with the City of Vancouver’s Chinatown Transformation Team, part of a specialized team working on a long-term plan for Vancouver’s historic Chinatown, including a possible application for UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for the neighbourhood.