Eight Steps to Graduate School Success

1. Build a Network

While the solitary nature of much of graduate school — particularly for those engaged in independent research — might seem isolating, the university setting is brimming with human resources. You have a community of fellow graduate students — both in and out of your department. Become acquainted with these people. You never know who might end up a study partner, a research associate, a future professional contact, or maybe even a friend for life. Within your department, you have a range of brilliant  faculty. Take advantage of departmental and graduate school networking events, to ensure that you know the players. Introduce yourself to everyone. You’ll be much better situated to cultivate mentors and build relationships if you speak to your faculty. And if you don’t already, get to know your departmental staff. These people work incredibly hard to ensure the smooth operation of your department. For their work, they deserve acknowledgment. By building genuine, friendly relationships with departmental staff, your administrative dealings will run more smoothly, and you’re more likely to have your needs met.

2. Get Involved

Knowing the people in your department by face and name, is critical, but it’s not enough. To maximize your grad school experience, you must become involved. If an opportunity in your department interests you, take it up, no matter how small. Join a committee. Volunteer as an undergraduate mentor. Teach as often, and as broadly, as you can. Complete an internship, if it makes sense to do so in your field. Serve as your departmental GSS representative or GEO steward. But don’t limit your involvement to your department. Volunteer as a graduate student member of a university committee.  Join a club. Write something for The Voice.

3. Set your bar high

You have worked hard, and this work has brought you to the rarefied world of graduate school. Congratulations. No, really, congratulations. Whether you’re in your second semester or your tenth, you worked hard, dreamed big, and took a bold leap of faith to gain acceptance to graduate school. Everyone suffers from the occasional bout of graduate school ambivalence, writer’s block, and worries of inadequacy. This is the time to surmount your academic obstacles, and to reach for the proverbial stars. You achieved something in coming to graduate school, but it’s not time to rest on your laurels yet. Now is the time to do the work you sought and do it well. No one else is going to do it for you. The effort you put in now will pay off later.

4. Work Smarter, Not Harder

Hard work is expected, but breaking your neck to achieve your goals is unacceptable. You need to divide and conquer your work. The impulse to put off projects is strong, but don’t procrastinate. Set deadlines, and abide by them. The work isn’t going anywhere; you will have to deal with it eventually. You don’t want it to pile up. If you respond to the motivation of peer pressure, befriend responsible graduate students you can study with. These can be actual study partners, or people you merely share study time and space with. If you’re better off Amelia Earhart-style, fly solo. But do your work. Create a sustainable work environment, one in which you’re comfortable but still productive. Unless your graduate program is in napping, your bed is NOT the place to study. If you’re like ninety-nine percent of graduate students, you are exhausted and you WILL fall asleep while studying in your bed. If you can study in your bed without snoozing, you probably don’t need any advice, anyway.

5. Expand Your Horizons

Someone, probably an athlete, once said that you miss 100% of the shots you never take. As true as this is in professional sports, it’s also true in academia. So stretch your boundaries. Take opportunities as they come. Give it your best shot. Apply for prestigious grants, and fellowships, and awards, even if you’re not entirely sure that you’ll be selected. Even if you’re not entirely sure you deserve them. Though the walls are high, the sky is higher still. Reach for it.

6. Ask

As my dear sweet grandmother would say, closed mouths don’t get fed. So, if you don’t know what is going on, ask. If you feel like you’re lost and need support, ask. If you need a friend to watch your kid for the afternoon so that you can finish a paper, ask. If you need an extension on that paper because your dog ate your homework kid threw a cup of water on your computer, destroying it, ask. If you are completely hot for someone in your program and you must ask them out,  don’t do it ask. Ask, and you shall receive. And if you don’t, so what? The worst anyone will say in response is “no”. But more often than not, they’ll say yes. First, you have to ask. You can let me know how it goes.

7. Take Opportunities As They Come

It is said that to whom much is given, much is expected. As a graduate student, you are in a position of tremendous privilege. With this privilege comes responsibility. At the danger of sounding sanctimonious, you owe it to your community, your family, and yourself to give something back. In coming to graduate school, it’s likely you’ve taken a (temporary) vow of poverty. You might not have much money, and you probably don’t have very much time either, but you have some You don’t have to be Gandhi, but you should do something. Engage with your community. It will improve upon you personally. It will make you a kinder, more compassionate human. It will expand your perspective. And whatever your field, that will make you a better scholar.

8. Relax (when you can)

If you’re like virtually every other graduate student who ever walked the planet, you’re a busy person. Undoubtedly, your schedule is full of papers, exams, projects, your own research, proposals, journal submissions, comps, and deadlines upon deadlines. Beyond academic life itself, many of us teach, assist with faculty research, run labs, serve on committees, and work off campus. Some of us have extensive family obligations. Yet to function at your highest capacity, you need to find some downtime, and make the most of it. So have dinner with your friends. See that movie. Take that nap. Take time to recharge your proverbial battery, and you’ll be better positioned to take on everything that grad school has to offer.



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