Starting graduate school can be overwhelming. Whether you’re coming in straight from your undergraduate program or, like me, coming back to school after working for a few years there can be a lot to figure out along the way. Graduate school can be a difficult adjustment. Here are a few tips to make your first year as successful as possible:
- Know why you’re here. Are you in graduate school because you’re pursuing your own intellectual curiosity? Are you doing it as a necessary step to attain your eventual career aspirations? Or are you in grad school simply it’s what you’re “supposed to do”? By taking the time to reflect on the reasons why you’re here and what you want to get out of your graduate experience, you’ll be much more effective in both crafting and achieving your goals. Knowing where you want to go dramatically improves your chances of getting there.
- Define your career goals. A common misperception is that once you get into graduate school, it’s a “one size fits all” linear approach. Wrong! You can tailor your experience, at least to an extent, to what type of career you are aiming for afterwards. Academic careers may place a higher emphasis on publications, while industry jobs may place a higher emphasis on technical skills or leadership experiences. Policy positions or non-profit work may have their own set of ideal qualifications. Decide what sort of career you are aiming for, then you can focus on building up the strengths, skills, and qualifications that would be most helpful in getting to that particular end goal.
- Be social! Build relationships. I dislike the term “networking” because it has an underlying “transactional” connotation. Don’t get to know people just so that you can later get something out of them or use them for some purpose. Get to know people for more genuine reasons- because you’re curious about their research, experiences, or just because you think they’re interesting. Of course, we’re not all extroverts though- and that’s okay. As you meet people from a diverse array of fields and backgrounds, your “network”, as they call it, will grow. As in so much of how the world works, success is dictated only in part by what you know. For better or worse, much of it is driven by who you know. That’s even (or especially) true in the sciences and academia. Get to know, and learn from, others in your program and beyond. Different viewpoints can result in new and exciting ideas about your own research! Which brings me to my next point.
- Keep an open mind. Graduate school is an important time in our lives and is one of the most influential periods in shaping us intellectually. We’re exposed to new ideas, new types of research, and an incredible diversity of colleagues, professors, and classmates. As graduate students, we should relish this incredible opportunity and seek to expand our mental framework. And you never know when that one off-beat subject or paper may become relevant to your own research. Or at the very least, provide you with some inspiration. Inspiration can come in unexpected forms!
- Manage your time wisely. We’ve all heard this adage at one point or another. “Time management”. Yuck. But of course, it’s important- and worthy of being mentioned here on this list. As you start your graduate career it’s easy to say yes to everything. Before you know it, your schedule is packed, and you barely have enough time to devote to your own research. Need to make some time to dedicate to your own well-being? Schedule it! Only by being deliberate and conscious about our priorities and time management choices can we accomplish everything that we set out to do. As graduate students we certainly have a lot of things pulling on our time- but then I think about how busy many CEO’s, entrepreneurs, and even professors are, and I realize that it’s more doable than it seems!
Michael McCloyis a Ph.D. student in the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences