The Ultimate Grad School Survival Guide
If you’ve been accepted into a master’s program, you may innately know that this level of schooling can be fierce. Additionally, your anxiety (as well as excitement) can feel overwhelming for this unknown experience. But, you can begin your research before you even begin your classes, by learning more about what you’ll need during your two-year master’s program. No matter your major, this guide can help you survive most grad school issues, such as learning how to read effectively and how to get ahead on some work that may fall into your lap during your second year. The following lists are categorized by your first and second years in school, and details a process that takes you from being a knowledge consumer to a knowledge producer.
Your First Year
- Before you even begin classes, find an advisor. An advisor is often assigned to you by the graduate program; if not, then seek one out on your own. Your advisor helps you select courses and might direct your thesis. Your advisor may or may not become your mentor.
- Approach graduate school as a full-time job. If you soared through your undergraduate degree with little application to your studies, then you’re in for a shock. Reading lists will be longer and more extensive, and you’ll be expected to critically evaluate and discuss all reading material.
- Learn how to read smartly. Read the abstract (if it’s an article), introduction, conclusion, and the first and last paragraphs of each chapter in a book. Find the book’s theme and supporting arguments for and/or against that theme. This method of “reading” a book can save valuable time and provides you with what you’ll need for any critical discussion or essay.
- Focus on a theme for your thesis. Even if your thesis seems far off in the future, now is the time to let that theme take shape. Take elective classes that pertain to your interest, because you’ll take other required classes that may have nothing to do with what you’ll write about in your second year.
- Learn now to compile an organized list of articles and books for your thesis. Even though your argument might change over time for your thesis, you’ll still have a list of those readings. Take notes to remember why these articles and books were important to you.
- Grades do matter. Attend classes, because your attendance usually will have some impact on your grades. Your grades also will have an impact on whether or not a professor will take you under his or her wing for your thesis.
- If you attend classes, you’ll get to know your professors. This is especially important in most cases, as you’ll need to pick a mentor next year to complete your thesis. Find a professor who is most suited to your interests.
- Develop an interest in research. Depending upon your major, develop research skills through courses such as research methods, statistics, experimental lab courses, and directed research.
- Be confident about your writing skills. If you feel you have inferior writing skills, take a summer course before you begin grad school. Outside of reading, you’ll never do more writing in your life (unless you become a writer).
- Most graduate programs have fellowships they favor, so find out now what they are and the requirements. You’ll need fellowships on your resume, and they may provide you with the networks and skills you’ll need to find a job after you graduate.
- Graduate school is all about depth. Undergraduate education emphasizes general education or liberal arts, which are broad perspectives. Graduate school, however, is designed for students to go deeper into a specialization. Instead of memorization, professors will demand analysis.
- Be social and network. But, be selective about who you spend time with. Your time is valuable in grad school, and developing friendship — both online and in person — takes time.
Your Second Year
- Some colleges and universities require second-year graduate students to serve as teachers or assistants. If your goal is to teach, jump at the chance or offer to help even if your service isn’t required. If you are required to teach and you don’t want to, put yourself into the students’ shoes…and treat them with respect anyway.
- Select your thesis. While this may be a big decision, nothing is written in stone. Many people change projects to some degree. In fact, your project may take turns you can’t anticipate. However, it’s important to make sure that you find your work exciting.
- Find your mentor among your professors and develop a relationship if you haven’t done so already. This is one situation where those stellar grades come in handy, as well as your visibility and hard work — many professors can balk at a request for mentorship, but will jump at a chance to mentor a hard-working student. As you prove yourself and your mentor feels more confident in you, he or she will often give you the freedom you seek in developing your thesis.
- Find a mentor who has time for you and who is well respected in his or her field. You can expect, reasonably, to spend an hour every week or every other week with this person. You want, in the end, to be able to brag about who you mentored with in grad school, so be picky. Get the best for the best results.
- Read other theses. You can learn about what already has been done in your field, particularly in your specialty or major. You may even find a thesis that you’d like to explore further for your own paper.
- Decide if you want to earn your PhD. This is the year when you decide whether you want more education to teach at a higher level or to become the best you can be in your research. Talk with your advisor and/or your mentor to get their opinions about your prospects, and to learn more about what they know about doctoral degrees.
- Ask for help if you need it. If you already have an advisor and a mentor, they have committed to helping you with various tasks. One of those tasks is to provide you with help when you need it.