Over the past few weeks, I’ve been contacted by a few prospective students of the Simon Fraser University MPub program, asking me questions about the program and my experience in it. Last night I was typing another novel-length email and an idea struck: what if I consolidated this information, and built upon it so I wouldn’t be writing the same thing to five different people? Students could read what I (and hopefully my classmates) have to say, then contribute their own questions for me/us to answer.
If there is a subject you’d like to know more about, I hope you will use the comment function to ask more, which I (and hopefully others) will respond to, so future students can benefit from our collective knowledge being gathered in one place. I also hope that my fellow MPub students will feel free to chime in and relate their own experiences as well. MPub professors may not want to read further, as you may stumble across the awful truth as your students see it.
If you’ve been referred here, please know that many of us MPub students really love getting your inquiries and truly want to connect with you and help, it’s just difficult to write detailed emails with all our thoughts when we’re supposed to be working at our internships. 🙂
Here we go!
Q: Tell me about your MPub experience.
MPub is very specifically about the Canadian publishing industry. As a US student who came in not expecting to stay in Canada, this was an aspect I disliked, although I still learned a lot and gained a far more international perspective. I had the choice to attend another publishing program in the United States, but it was at a school that isn’t known for its academic rigor, and there were personal development reasons for me to leave my hometown rather than stay in its safety net. I’ve also heard from a publishing professional since I came back that the other program is seen as more highly literary (and technically, their degree is an MA in English), whereas our program is much more business-oriented. That’s definitely something I prefer.
The program is intense. Your time management skills will be developed far beyond what you ever dreamed possible. There will be an amount of work that is impossible to do in the time you have to do it, and yet somehow, you will get it done. And you will learn that just getting it done is often good enough, because you just don’t have enough time to let your inner perfectionist dictate your work.
The first semester is intense because everybody is freaked out and adjusting to being in the program, and also because the book project is very demanding (more on that below). The second semester is intense because you are constantly preparing seminar presentations, working on obtaining your internship, writing papers, trying to do impossible amounts of reading, etc.
The silver lining: because the program is so intense, you’ll also make some lifelong friends!
On a personal level, I was seriously entertaining quitting the program the first couple of weeks. Some painful stuff happened right before I left home, I wasn’t really prepared to move to a different country, and I took very much to heart the tough talk the head of the department offered at our orientation. There wasn’t a single day the first semester that I wasn’t sobbing at some point, mostly in the comfort of my apartment, but sometimes secretly wiping away tears in the middle of class. Don’t let that scare you though—most of it wasn’t caused by school, and being in such a dark place kick-started close friendships with some of my classmates. The point is, if I did it through all of that, I know that you can do it too.
Q: Any advice for international students?
Going in, I kind of scoffed at the idea of being an “international student” because my lifelong home was just a few hours away. However, it turns out that Canada is like a whole other country! The invisible line is very, very real. At the beginning, professors and students alike were making Canadian references that made me dizzy, zinging past my head too fast to figure out or write down to ask questions about later. It wasn’t until February when I bussed past Duthie Avenue in Burnaby that I realized the lamented closed bookstore that had been discussed all fall semester was Duthie Books, not Duffy Books! Professors made assumptions that we all knew how various things worked in Canada during lectures, which made learning rather confusing [please note: several classmates insist that those lectures were confusing to everyone, not just me]. Fortunately by the second semester I started making good friends, and had specific go-to people I could use to ask, say, how the Canadian parliamentary system worked. Actually for that last one, I wrote a final paper for a class about a failed piece of legislation—it wasn’t until I was almost done that I realized that the bill was dead, and felt pretty silly about even choosing that paper topic to begin with.
If you are an international student, you will likely make close friendships with the other international students in MPub, even if it seems your backgrounds are too dissimilar. Puzzling over something together is very bonding. Hopefully you’ll eventually find a go-to person among the Canadian MPub students who doesn’t mind you asking all sorts of stupid questions so you can figure out their country.
Definitely keep connected with the International Student Office during your time at SFU! Before I moved they helped me with my visa paperwork and answered my questions regarding moving all my stuff through the border; they had by far the best orientation the week before classes started; I got an international student mentor and asked her a bunch of questions about Vancouver when I first got here; and finally, I took advantage of some of the International Student Office outings that allowed me to meet great people from other countries, people from outside my department, have a ton of fun, go to places I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. One of the most fun things I did in Vancouver was going on a snowshoeing trip organized by the International Student Office in March. If you’re an international student, even just from the US, there is nothing I would highly recommend more than hooking up with the International Student Office.
Q: I haven’t been in school in X years and I’m nervous about going back.
Yeah, I was too! Most of the students in our class had at least a few years away from school, many with ten or more. The fact is that if you got into the program, the faculty know that you can complete it. At least with our cohort, only about 30% of the people who applied were accepted. You will be among a group of overachievers, and believe it or not, that’s exactly where you belong. It’s not easy, for sure, but you can do it!
Q: What is the average age of MPub students? The brochure says it’s a mid-career program.
In our class (yours may vary!), I believe the bell curve peaked around 27 years old. I was 32 when MPub started, and was the third eldest student in the program. There were also three students, I believe, who had just graduated from their undergrad programs, which was interesting. Several of us expected a little more of a mid-career feel to the program, an over-30 cohort, more discussions based in previous professional experience, that sort of thing—but alas. We all still learned a lot, though.
Q: What should I be studying to prepare for the program? Accounting? InDesign?
Personally, I’d probably put the priority on learning InDesign, because you’ll use it a lot throughout the year. Don’t get too worried: just get familiar with the program. I did so by taking a self-paced community college course the summer before. As for accounting, I probably shouldn’t put this up on the internets, but I still have not completed my accounting book, despite the requirement that we turn them in the first week. However, I had enough super-basic accounting experience from my past ten years of working at non-profits that I was able to get by just fine.
The other thing is that I was given the wrong list of prerequisites, so I initially bought the wrong set of books to study over the summer. It wasn’t until I communicated with another student that the fact came to light. And you will see that these sorts of miscommunications and assumptions by the program that you know something come pretty frequently. The mind will boggle.
The book project is very intense. Essentially you’re creating a new publishing company from scratch. As you develop your plans, you present before one or two panels of experts each week(!) who give you feedback. Sometimes the panelists give you conflicting advice and you have to decide within your group how to handle it. They call the book project presentation a “rite of passage.” There is a program-sponsored party afterward (with a lot of alcohol!) which often leads to hilarious photos being posted on Facebook the next day.
(The photo at the top of this post is from one of the final meetings of HivePress, the book project group I was in.)
Q: What about the magazine project?
Well, I learned some things I didn’t know before about magazines, and also a new way of thinking about magazines and brands. Nobody who has contacted me seems very nervous about the magazine project, so perhaps if someone has specific concerns I’ll revise this in the future.
Q: What about the tech project? It looks scary.
Keep in mind that you’re not starting the tech project until halfway through the second semester, meaning you’ll have had a solid six weeks of the tech class. This means that you’ll already be familiar with many of the concepts and technologies tackled in the tech project. Also, at least in my experience it’s really more of a project management project. Documentation is key, and John is generally good about communicating with the groups and guiding them along the way. Also, remember: this is a group project, and people often have complementary strengths and weaknesses. You’ll get through it.
Q: Did the program help you obtain your internship?
No. Because I planned to go back to the US for my internship, the program didn’t help me formally whatsoever. (I did have several helpful conversations with my mentor professor, though.) In fact, the head of the department said they wouldn’t help Canadian students get a visa to the US either, so I am the only person interning here.
However, if you are planning to intern somewhere in Canada, I believe the program will help make connections on your behalf if they can. There are a few cases where they need to play gatekeeper. For example, if eight students want to intern at UBC Press, which only has two internships, the program often recommends those they think would be most appropriate. Other than that, students are largely on their own. It’s tough to work on getting your internship while also taking on a full classload in the spring, but they do their best to communicate that you should be thinking about the issue early in the year for best results. Keep in mind that 90% of Canadian publishing happens in Toronto, and because the MPub program is in Vancouver, the publishing companies in Vancouver are up to their ears in MPub graduates.
Q: What was the project report process like?
Here’s a blog post, now that I’m done (April 2012), about my MPub project report.
Q: Did the program help you prepare for a career in publishing?
I’m not sure I’m fully qualified to answer this, for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve been in publishing since I was an undergraduate student at Lewis and Clark College, when I helped two professors on the books they were working on. Also, I’m not out of the program yet, so I can’t really say that MPub has made people line up at my door with job offers. What I can say is that I feel more well-rounded coming out than I did going in, which was one of my goals. And when I arrived in Missoula for my internship, a local book publisher was interested in talking to me in hopes of helping them kick-start ebook production.
Q: Where did you live? Did you have an apartment? Is Vancouver expensive?
Good lord, yes. At the International Student Orientation I believe they said that despite Vancouver being the third most populous city in Canada, it had the highest cost of living. I was lucky enough to find a basement suite a mere mile from Harbour Centre, on the best little block in Strathcona, on a major bikeway (I am a cycling fanatic), a block away from a huge park where my awesome dog and I could walk or play daily. However, I paid for it. I paid $1200 a month to live in a basement. And the landlords easily could have gotten more. At first I intended to entertain getting a roommate, but the bedrooms were so small it ended up being necessary to use the second bedroom for storage.
Groceries are pretty expensive in Vancouver, especially dairy products. A block of plain cheddar cheese that I could get for as low as $2.50 at home cost at least $5.79. Cream cheese could be purchased at home for $3, but at my preferred grocer it was usually $4.75 for the same size. When I came back from winter break, I “smuggled” in three huge blocks of Tillamook cheddar, an award-winning and far superior tasting cheese from home which were a steal at $6 each!
Because I was only living off my Canadian bank account which only had my student loan money in it, I had to be especially tight with money.
That’s all I’ve got for now. Again: if you want something clarified, or if there’s something I haven’t included here, add a comment! Let’s have a conversation that can benefit all.