Grad school is challenging, hard, and often feels unrewarding, particularly due to the large jump in expectation that happens somewhere between undergrad and grad school. There are certain things each student can do, though, to make that transition easier on themselves. For all the students looking forward to starting in the Fall, we’ve already talked about the greatest challenges of the transition, but now we’re presenting some Dos and Don’ts that we agreed were paramount for our own success.
Do ask questions – When you are in graduate school make sure to never stop asking questions! You are in graduate school to learn and expand on what you already know; therefore, asking questions should not be frowned upon. Many students are afraid to ask questions to professors, colleagues, staff, and others in their respective fields. Typically, graduate students avoid asking questions because they are afraid of feeling “stupid” or might be thinking that they will be exposed as “imposters”. In short, every graduate student has these feelings and it is imperative to conquer these fears. Asking questions concerning classes, topics, and ideas, is the first step to effectively engage with others in your field. In most cases, professors love to answer questions that students have as they too are as enthusiastic about the subject matter as you are.
In graduate school you need to be your own advocate, that includes asking questions concerning your academic progress, writing abilities, presentation skills, and asking others about opportunities in your field. No one has made it very far in graduate school or academia without asking questions. As the saying goes, there are no dumb questions! So, please ask questions and let your thoughts be known.
Do attend dissertation/thesis defenses – Navigating graduate school can be tough and debating whether you want to continue on to a PhD program can be very stressful. One of the things that was advised to me, and my fellow contributors, was to attend dissertation or thesis defenses. They are generally open to the public and you will most likely know the presenter as they are a part of your department. These presentations give you an idea of what you might go through should you decide to go the thesis route for M.A., or how your dissertation defense will be like if you choose to get a PhD. As an M.A. student, I attended a few of these presentations and they actually made me feel more confident about the expectations and process. The dissertation or thesis defense could vary depending on your university and your department so attending a few of them will make the process less stressful and more familiar to you. On top of that, you get to listen to the research your fellow colleague has done for the past few years. I think attending these presentations is not only helping you get the feel for how they are run, but it also gives you a chance to hear the work of others and see where their research can go.
Do talk to your advisors and professors – Communication with your major advisor as well as course professors are important in graduate school. While you may think you already understand how things in academia or in your specific field work, or if you are “dazed and confused” when you start a program, like I was, speaking with your professors and allowing them to help guide you in the right direction can be a career-saving move. There are simply too many trade secrets that you likely will not be made aware of if you simply attended seminars and worked on research. Not only are professors often happy to help, but many expect you to meet with them every so-often. That’s the only real way to learn about opportunities and ideas they may have to share with you. Working with an advisor that is committed to giving you the time, thought, and interest in your success is vital in graduate school.
Don’t think it’s the same as undergrad – In 2016, I moved on from being an exemplary undergraduate student. The most courses I took in one semester was six, averaged at five per semester, and I always took the full load of summer courses, at three. That allowed me to graduate early, but it definitely did not prepare me for the jump between undergraduate courses and graduate courses. In my master’s the maximum number of courses for graduate students were three. I thought it would be easy and I would have plenty of time for my full-time job as well. At the end of the first week, I called my manager and cut my schedule from six days a week to four and would need to cut again down to three days somewhere around the middle of the semester. In November, right before the deadline for all my final papers, I quit my job.
All this to say: Never, ever think that anything in undergrad prepared you for what grad school would be. The professor’s expectations of what you are capable of and the reading load alone makes grad school a full-time job. I’m sure there are plenty of other people with far better time management and grit than I had, but I doubt that sort of transition would be easy for anybody. This isn’t a warning against grad school but just a warning that what you expect isn’t going to be your experience at all. Professors may not want you to fail, but they certainly expect you to work to succeed.
Don’t procrastinate – The shift from undergrad to graduate school is a major one. While I expected graduate school to be much more challenging, I honestly underestimated the jump in workload, going from reading about 50 to 100 pages during a week for a class to an entire 400 page book in some cases. This also included a jump in essay requirements, going from 10-12 pages being the max to 15 pages being a minimum. While I was a good student during my undergrad, I will admit that I would often procrastinate on my work, not reading until only the day before or day of in some cases. When I got into graduate school, I quickly realized this was not possible. Trying to rush an entire book right before a class in graduate school is nearly impossible, and definitely not recommended. While actual assignments are usually spaced out in graduate courses, making it tempting to procrastinate on doing them, the amount of work and thought required for those assignments again trumps most work from undergrad. Waiting until the last minute simply causes more stress than you need, since you are generally already under a lot. Breaking those habits takes time however. I didn’t really get into the swing of graduate school until the end of my first semester, and needed my second one to really get a proper schedule and cycle of work going. Procrastination is always a present danger in school, but with enough focus and effort it becomes just another thing you master in graduate school.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself – You’re going to be busy in grad school, but you should always find time for self-care. During my first year, I was working part time and going to school full time, and I was constantly stressed and felt I had no spare time. Although in my second year I was able to get funding from the school, the expectations from professors were constantly rising. It got to a point where I wasn’t sleeping very much, and I was always on the verge of a meltdown. I am stubborn though, and I remained convinced for a very long time that I had everything handled. It wasn’t until a little after the 87th time a friend and I fought over something beyond silly that she gave me the card of her therapist on campus and told me to make an appointment. I did, and the help and advice and guidance I received made a world of difference. My biggest regret is that it took me so long to go to the counseling center. The point is, you need to make time to take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. And it’s normal and okay to rely on either your school’s or outside services to help you manage your mental health. Not everyone needs a therapist, but everyone does need to remember to take care of themselves first. There is always time to relax, unwind, talk it out, or even cry it out. Take the time and talk to others in your program to find what works best for you, and don’t be discouraged when you realize you need a little bit (or a lot a bit) of help.