Improv exercises help Ph.D. students learn to be ‘less cerebral’

You’re an elephant. On a job hunt.

improv, improvisation, academia

Photograph by Cole Garside

It’s difficult to know exactly what Lisa Byers, 36, does wrong in her job interviews. Perhaps she’s just not what potential employers were looking for, but it could also be that sometimes she forgets to breathe or she speeds through her answers when she’s nervous. “I’ve not gotten a lot of jobs, so I must have been doing something not so well.”

That’s why, on a recent drizzly evening in Hamilton, Byers, a Ph.D. student in sociology at McMaster University, finds herself pretending to be an elephant. She’s also swearing like a trooper, and vibrating her arms like a pneumatic drill. The exercises were designed to help people like Byers learn how to be “less cerebral” under pressure.

The brainchild of Allison Sekuler, dean of graduate studies at McMaster University and a professor in the department of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour, the improvisation program paired about 45 students (graduate and post-doc) with actors working out of Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius. The course is one of a series of programs the university introduced this year to prepare students for life outside the ivory towers. Peter Self, assistant dean for graduate student life and research training, helped organize the improvisation workshop. “People often say, ‘Well, now you’ve got to enter the real world,’ ” he explains. “And how do you do that? We’re attempting to help them with that transition.”

Learning how to cope outside of academia has become particularly pressing as cash-strapped universities have sharply curtailed hiring new professors in the last few years. For example, the University of Calgary and the University of Waterloo are only hiring in “mission-critical areas.” Some scholarship money is down this year, as many funds are linked to the stock market, so there is greater need to find outside work, says Sekuler. Universities have seen their budgets fall with smaller endowments, explains Roslyn Kunin, a Vancouver-based economist and job market analyst. “The tenure-track positions just aren’t there and so there’s a greater urgency to consider the private sector or part-time work.”

Competition is fierce, and graduate students can be unaware of the demands of the business world, says Self. After years of not having to deal with the outside world, social skills may have suffered. Consider Alison Bonnyman, a 48-year-old mother of three currently doing her master’s at McMaster in rehabilitation science. Since starting her degree, she’s become a “social recluse,” she says. The improv class taught her the importance of eye contact, which she usually tries to avoid. “You get intense, and trapped in your own world.”

Eugenie Roudaia, 26, in the third year of a Ph.D. program in psychology, neuroscience and behaviour, believes improvisation takes people out of their comfort zone and teaches them how to think on their feet. Or to think a lot less. Several times, the improv instructors warned the students not to analyze, just “do,” because over-thinking was constricting their movements. And it was true that some students had a unique gift for making any action, whether batting a ball or digging a hole, look like they were focusing a microscope in the lab. Others would pause mid-movement, as if they’d had a sudden change of heart (“what am I doing here?”), and their arms would go from enacting something with gusto to falling limp by their sides. “It might not look difficult to sing a rhyming song in front of 200 people,” Sekuler says, before the Maclean’s interviewer interrupts to say that it certainly does. Still, the performances can be entertaining. “It can be like watching a train wreck,” Sekuler explains. “You never know when it’s going to go off the rails.”

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