Senior year of college is one of the strangest years of your academic life. Many of you are beginning to have that revelation that your college years are almost over and it's time to begin a new phase of your life. For an increasing number of you, that means the exciting (and frightening) prospect of entering graduate school. I'm sure many of you are beginning to receive your acceptance letters in the mail and, hopefully, you have heard back from your number one schools. This list is meant to prepare you for your first year of graduate school. I believe these tips travel well between fields and among all age groups. No matter if you are admitted to a PhD program in economics or getting your MBA, adhering to these tips is the perfect way to make your graduate school experience more enjoyable and worthwhile.
5. Treat Graduate School Like a 9-5 Job
Too many students graduate high school and college with extremely poor time management skills. If any of these often used phrases and sentences apply to you, keep reading the rest of this tip:
"I was up until 4 a.m. last night finishing this paper."
"I'm really good at cramming."
"I haven't studied at all for this test... I'm screwed."
"I write my best when I only have an hour to get it done."
Graduate school is neither a test of how intelligent you are, nor a test of the reading and writing skills you have acquired up to this point. Graduate schools know you have the capacity to read and write at a college level. That's why you're there in the first place. Rather, it is a test of endurance, smart time management, and effort.
This also means do not let an opportunity go to waste. Everything you write in graduates school -- particularly if it is a final paper -- should have some meaning beyond just busy work. Whether you are preparing for a conference, engaging in original research, or honing methodological skills, make every word count towards a greater goal.
That being said, many of you will quickly find out that graduate school offers you the opportunity to learn new skills beyond the intuitively important ones -- such as reading and writing. These often include statistical software packages, textual analysis packages, and many other software applications that involve some level of coding. Don't be afraid to branch out and learn something new!
4. Refine Your Study Habits
Many gifted students are able to glide through high school and college without having to study all that much. Others dedicate a lot of time and effort towards studying for midterms and finals. If you feel you fall in the former category, you need to develop those study habits quickly. That means developing a penchant for reading quickly and for comprehension of big picture themes rather than reading for minute details. This may be challenging for the first few months as redeveloping this skill can be challenging when you're tasked with reading several hundred pages a week. Nevertheless, it is important to take it slow at first. Develop a note-taking system where you ask yourself the following questions:
What is the theme?
What is the research question?
What is the hypothesis?
What is the theory?
What does the literature say?
What is the methodology?
What are the results
3. Mental Health Is Important
Being in a graduate program offers a whole new set of challenges, not least of which revolves around your mental health. Many students feel overwhelmed with work while a flimsy job market and the crushing weight of rapidly approaching deadlines can deflate even the most enthusiastic researcher. Couple this with the inability of many outside academia to relate and it is no wonder why so many students burn out.
Some argue that graduate programs should take it upon themselves to provide more comprehensive mental health resources and better training for faculty and staff. I agree. But in the meantime, it is incumbent upon you, the graduate student, to be aware of some things you can do to make your time in graduate school a little more bearable.
Last summer I took up yoga, which combines mindfulness with physical health and flexibility. I dedicated between half an hour to an hour of my time five days a week to it and I believe it has helped me focus on my readings and my research at a higher level.
Graduate school can be frustrating for some people. You may be required to take classes you do not care about and because they are graduate level courses, they require a lot of effort and focus. As a result it can become very frustrating. Be patient. You are not going to write the perfect paper, develop the perfect research design, or conduct the perfect lecture every time you try. In fact, most of what you write won't be that good. Every once in a while I'll reread something I wrote from my first year of graduate school and think "wow... this is atrocious." This is a natural feeling. Don't be discouraged. Be patient.
1. "Am I Enjoying This?"
This is the most important question for you to ask yourself every time you walk into your office or your classroom: "Am I enjoying this?" Now, let me be clear. You are not going to enjoy everything about graduate school, as I have detailed above. This question is for those little moments that are meant to put a smile on your face.
That moment when you attend your first conference and own your first presentation.
That moment when a student of yours comes up and thanks you for a great semester.
That moment when your adviser is proud of something you've designed.
That moment when you find a theory that really interests you.
These moments are the reason why you're in grad school.