By: Alyssa Kapaona
You did it! You applied to graduate school and you were accepted. Take some time to enjoy that feeling, because that is a huge accomplishment and an honor. However, when you’re done reveling in the moment, there’s still more work to do.
Not to be a Debbie Downer, but multiple studies and sources have found that only about half of the students who enter into graduate programs persist and successfully complete their degrees. While that might shed some light on a systemic problem, it should also motivate one to do what is needed to do in order to stay in school and finish.
We're here to help with that. Here are five things to keep in mind as you navigate the new world of graduate school:
Meet with your advisor
Graduate school advisors are usually faculty in your program and are assigned to students upon their admission. If you are not assigned an advisor when you are admitted to a graduate program, then take matters into your own hands and research the faculty in your department. Choose an advisor who seems like a good fit both professionally (has the same research interests as you, is involved with projects that interest you, etc.) and personally (has similar values and goals, seems like a person you would enjoy having a cup of coffee with, etc.).
Once you have an advisor, ask them all of the questions. Really, anything and everything! Some questions to consider are the following: What classes should I take to meet requirements? What do I need to do to ensure that I am gaining the knowledge base I need to be successful in the program? You should also consider asking your advisor questions that you might have regarding how to achieve your post grad school professional goals.
Advisors are a valuable resource because they have “been there, done that.” However, keep in mind that everyone’s path is different and just because your advisor had her PhD completed by age 27 and has written multiple books, doesn’t mean that you need to follow that same trajectory.
If your advisor turns out to be your mentor, that is an extra bonus! If not, then definitely find a mentor within your field, or a related field to ask questions and help guide you. Things will definitely come up during this time in your life and it is important to have someone you trust to turn to when you need an outside opinion.
Figure out your passion
You may already know exactly what you want to do and are lit by a passion that is guiding you towards some extra exciting goals. You might be super focused and have the classes you want to take mapped out, the enrichment activities you want to be involved with scheduled, and you are pretty sure you have an acceptable outline of your thesis written down in Google Docs.
If this is you, awesome! You are on your way! To be sure that you make meaning in your program, try to tailor all of your projects, papers, and assignments around your passion or at least be able to relate it to your topic of interest. This will help you when you write your thesis/complete your capstone, because you will increase the depth of your knowledge regarding your area of interest. But don’t be afraid to dabble in other things that interest you as well. It’s okay to change your academic course if something else becomes more appealing down the road.
If the above scenario is not you, don’t worry! The easiest way to begin searching for things you are passionate about is by eliminating things you are not passionate about, while also reflecting on ideas/topics/projects that have given you joy and energy in the past. Even if you have two or three areas that you can narrow yourself down to, that will be helpful knowledge as you move forward.
Having real life experience in areas you are interested in can also be a great way to help you decide what is right for you. For example, some of my students are not sure if they want to get their Masters degree in Elementary Education (grades K-6) or Secondary Education (grades 6-12). Those students who then shadow multiple teachers in the field to compare and contrast the differing experiences are able to make more informed decisions that help them choose a programs that best fits their needs and interests.
Figure out your finances
It is recommended that you know how you will finance your education before you apply to graduate school, but you should still keep this in the forefront of your mind throughout your education, as finances can be a huge factor on whether or not students continue their studies. Make sure to budget your daily personal expenses as well as plan for the long term. Use outside resources to help you if you are unsure about where to begin. For example, Pinterest has dozens of printable budget worksheets that you could start with. Keep searching until you find what works for you.
If you need extra funding along the way, don't be afraid to tap into your institution’s financial aid office. Ask them about scholarships, loans, and all of the possible ways students can fund their education. Graduate Assistant positions are also an amazing way to pay for your tuition if you are lucky enough to get that gig. Keep current with the happenings in your department to learn about new opportunities that might come up.
Also, don’t be afraid of student loans. Yes, it is scary to take them out and no one wants to be in debt. But as long as people know exactly what they are getting into (what is the interest rate, when would you have to pay it back, what would monthly payments look like, etc.), it loses some of the stigma and can be a very reasonable way to fund your education.
Find your balance
Graduate school is not easy, no matter what your situation is. Whether you’re a single gal figuring out life, or a full-time parent with a full-time job, everyone has moments where they feel like they are at the bottom of Mount Everest looking up. To reach the summit, it is incredibly important to learn how to create balance. This balance does not necessarily mean dividing things up in your life equally, but it is more about making sure you feel at peace with all of the things going on in your world. Nothing is perfect, but the more opportunities you make to create a balanced day, the better you will feel about managing all of your responsibilities.
Taking care of your own health and wellness is the foundation. If you are not well, then you are less likely to be as successful in the other areas of your life. Try to eat as healthy as possible, attempt to get at least 6 – 8 hours of sleep per night, exercise regularly, and take time to yourself each day–even if it’s only for five minutes.
Achieving a healthy lifestyle does not mean living like an Instagram health and wellness model. Instead, simply take a 15-minute walk after your lunch, choose veggies for your sides, stay away from your phone one hour before bed to mentally unwind, etc. These tiny and reasonable changes can make a huge impact.
Making your studies part of your routine is also a huge help to create some balance. When I was single girl in grad school, I loved to burn the midnight oil to write my papers and study. Now that I’m a full-time working mom of two, I prefer to wake up early to get some study time in. Do what is best for you in the moment. It might even vary day to day, but the main thing is to make studying a regular occurrence in your schedule so you don’t fall behind in your school work.
Another tip is to create space in your life. If your schedule is always jammed packed it is very easy to get thrown out of whack. While social media has definitely helped to create FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), it is totally okay to miss out on things if it means that you will gain peace of mind. I’m not suggesting you be a recluse, but maybe you don’t need to go to every event that comes your way. What sounds better when you are managing your time and energy: three hours of talking to people you don’t really know (or even care for?) at an alumni event, or feeling accomplished on the literature review that is due next month? You’re a graduate student now, it’s okay to be choosy with what takes up your energy and time.
Trust Your Gut
So cliché, but we all need to be reminded of this one. Apply this rule to all the other tips above. Trust your gut when you pick your advisor and/or mentor, when you are picking your thesis topic, when you take out a loan, and when you need to create balance in your life. It’s okay to pause and reflect on decisions that do not come easily to you. Trusting your gut is like strengthening a muscle. The more you rely on it versus what others say/do/think, the better you become at making the best decisions for you.
For example, I am currently a doctoral candidate in a Higher Educational Administration program. I am a full-time working mom of two young daughters and a wife. Last year I had a terribly rough year and I just needed school to stop for a while so I could give my family the attention they needed and deserved. It was a hard decision for me, because I never “stopped” school before. I was always able to make things work when I committed to something. However, taking a break from school was just what I needed. I worked with my advisor to take a one credit self-directed course so I could maintain my enrollment, but used the time to focus on my family. Now that I’ve had the break I am more ready and able to integrate my studies back into my life.
None of that would have happened if I listened to other people. Most folks said, “Just do it! Keep up with school or else you won’t go back.” I am so glad I had been practicing using my gut because when I really needed it, I was able to listen and do what was best for me. I am a better student because of it and I feel more prepared to reach that finish line!
There are many ways to be a successful graduate student, but these five tips are a great way to get started. Graduate school is not easy, but with the right support and self-awareness, there is nothing you can’t do. Good luck and go get ‘em!