Four free tips to get the most out of your grad school experience

As a recent graduate out in the “real world” and distanced from the work of my thesis, I have had time to reflect on the great opportunities I had while completing my MA.  The following are four pieces of advice I wish someone had mentioned to me before I started Grad School.

Your peers are your allies, not your competitors

I went into my graduate orientation feeling extremely nervous, excited and a little apprehensive about meeting the individuals I would be sharing the next year with.  I had heard and read a great deal about the competition that can exist between grad students and not just over supervisors.  I admit, it was hard not to be intimidated by the six intelligent, driven and articulate individuals I met on my first day.  As I got to know my ‘MA Ladies’ through orientation and the start of classes, we began to form a bond that is unique to my other friendships.  Who else knows more about what you’re going through then the people you go through it with?

Your peers are your allies.  Each student brings with them their own background, interests and talents, which means there is so much you can learn from one another.  Not only does this enrich group discussion, but their insights may help you to view your topic or project in a new light.  I often felt that it was difficult to get advice about my topic from people outside my program and spent more time explaining the process, theories and restrictions for research.  Your peers already know about the academic red tape so you can cut right to the chase with them.

Keeping in contact with your peers is another good way to feel connected and share information or advice.  You can establish a private online group, such as through Facebook or Yahoo, where members can ask questions or clarify ideas and everyone can comment.  Our group helped me feel less isolated through the independent writing process.  Best of all, with their positive encouragement, advice and support, my MA Ladies pushed me to be the best I could be.  They say that to have good friends you must be a good friend so don’t forget to return the favor.  When your peer stays up late to talk you off the coffee induced cliff you’re hanging from, make sure to be available to them in the future.

I would encourage every new grad student to approach their peers for the first time with an open mind instead of a defensive one.  If I had of kept my guard up I would have missed out on a large part of my grad school experience.

Take advantage of every (free) opportunity

I did not realize until I entered the “real world” just how much of an advantage it is to be affiliated with a University or College.  This is especially important if you intend on searching for a career related to your field after you graduate.  There are a great deal of useful – and free – resources to tap into from within your institution and your department itself including workshops, brown bag talks, guidance counseling etc.  However, other opportunities also exist beyond your institution that are easier to access as an affiliate of an accredited University or College.  Scholarships and funding instantly come to mind.

I had the opportunity to apply for and attend two conferences during my time as a grad student, and to present on a panel discussion at one of them.  Not only was the presentation in and of itself a great learning opportunity, but both conferences also allowed me to better discover what was going on in my field outside of my own university.  They say the key to finding employment is networking and conferences are a great place to test your skills.  The registration costs of both conferences I attended were subsidized by my department, which made a big difference.  Let me ask you, have you looked at the cost of conferences in your field for non-students?  They are outrageous!  As a new graduate I simply cannot afford them and as a grad student I would not have been able to either, if it was not for the funding I applied for.

Engage your peers and professors in conversation

One of the things I miss most about grad school (and yes, there are a few things) is the opportunity to talk and learn about the topics that really interest me.  Unless you’re lucky enough to find a job doing something you love, there are not many places in life where you will be challenged to think critically about something you’re passionate about.  Even if you find yourself in a class that you are not particularly interested in, you can usually tailor it to your interests in some way or draw something relevant to your topic from it.  It may seem like a lot of work and brainpower at the time, but I sincerely miss the roundtable discussions and feedback that my classes provided.

One on one discussion with your professors is another gem of an opportunity.  Odds are there is at least one or two professors in your department that share a similar topic of interest with you.  If they do not happen to be a professor leading your class, do some research into the department and send a polite email or drop by their office hours.  Some of the most valuable pieces of knowledge I learned in grad school was during one on one conversation with my professors.  It is important to respect their time as they are busy as well, but the majority of them really mean it when they say they want you to come talk to them, especially if it is a topic that they have experience and interest in.

Take care of yourself

It’s not coincidence that my MA supervisor would sign off on her emails with ‘take good care’.  If you’re a grad student, you’ve undoubtedly seen PhD Comics (if you haven’t you really should, it will give you a laugh).  The depiction of grad students, eyes wide and slumped behind their computer in the dark is not always far off.  Even if you are the most organized student, I can guarantee that at some point in time a wrench will be thrown into your plans – probably in the form of an issue with your thesis – and you’ll want to pull your hair out.  Remember, even in these times, that it is important to take care of yourself.  You’re not a machine, you’re a person so don’t forget that.

Care can take on many forms.  When stress strikes, find what works best for you.  If that means scheduling time to watch some television, taking a walk, listening to music, exercising or going out with your friends then make sure to include that in your schedule.  I found that taking a simple five minute break to do something that does not involve using my brain really helped.  Also, be aware of the effects that sitting hunched behind a computer day after day has on your body.

Lastly, try not to be too hard on yourself.  Sometimes things do not go as we planned and that is okay.  It does that mean you’re the world’s worst grad student, or a bad researcher.  When you’re sitting alone at your computer at 3am and nothing is making sense to you, remember that you are not the only one who has experienced this, even if you feel like you are.  Your professors went through these times (even if some of them do not want to admit it to you) and so has every other grad student before you.

Hopefully some of these tips will be helpful and good luck in your future endeavours!

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