Succeeding in Graduate School

Reorient Yourself

You're no longer just a student. You've chosen a particular profession and must now work on acquiring the skills necessary to succeed in that profession. As in many professions, however, one only learns as much as one thinks to ask about. Unlike college, where the emphasis is on telling you what you need to know, often before you need to know it, in graduate school, you're often not told anything unless you ask. Make a point to ask questions about anything and everything. Ask, ask, ask.

Learn to balance the additional roles you have taken on. In graduate school, you may be a researcher, a colleague, a teacher, and a student, all at once--and those are just your professional roles. Being aware of when, or understanding why, your role has shifted (e.g., your advisor, who normally treats you as a colleague, has just addressed you as a student) is sometimes tricky because shifts can occur without warning or be surprising. This is normal but not often comfortable. Learn to roll with it.

Research is often a central part of a graduate program. Job candidates are often evaluated on the basis of how much research they've done, so get started right away by making appointments at the beginning of the semester to see the professors with whom you're interested in working and discuss with them their current research interests. Offer to help with the research that interests you. As your research program develops, write your own grant proposals. Ask those who are successful in these areas for ideas about how to be successful.

Develop professional contacts in order to keep current in your areas of interest and to get your name known in the area. This involves subscribing to and reading journals in your area so you're aware of the newest research and who's doing it, joining professional societies, and attending conferences to meet and network with other people in your area and to present your work.

Get your coursework out of the way as soon as possible. The rules have changed--while it is necessary to maintain a B average to remain in most programs, grades generally don't have much to do with getting a job; therefore, concentrate on that which does--research, teaching, and therapeutic skills!

If you're in a clinical or counseling program, be intentional in choosing your internships so that you develop expertise with the populations with which and in the settings in which you eventually plan to work full time. Evaluate internships for the populations available, the setting, the level of responsibility, and the quality of supervision you'll receive.

Get to Know Older Graduate Students

They are a good source of information about courses to take (and those not to take); about research interests (their own and professors); about which professors are good to work with and for; and how to act and perform as a professional.

Stay sane

Graduate school can become so all-encompassing that you can lose perspective. In order to maintain a healthy perspective on your progress and your relationships with other students and professors, it is important to develop a support system and some interests that are unrelated to graduate school.

Develop a Support System as Soon as Possible. You will have to adjust to living in a strange city (and possibly country); meeting a lot of new people; and beginning a career, all at once. You have left many old friends and a familiar way of life. It is a normal reaction to be somewhat disoriented until you begin to feel comfortable in this new environment. To speed this process, move to the city where you'll be living 3-4 weeks before school begins. Find an apartment, learn the neighborhoods, find the best places to shop, and find a church. Seek out people at church and begin to develop relationships with them. Once school begins, make an effort to become acquainted with fellow graduate students and with faculty. Maintain relationships with your family.

Develop and Maintain an Outside Interest. This interest can be a hobby, a sport, a volunteer position--anything that does not demand great effort if you do not wish to make that effort. In addition, this should be something in which you have little "ego investment," so that your success or failure does not produce stress. The idea is to have an activity that allows you to get away from the intensity of thought, effort, competition, or stress that characterize many graduate programs. Some examples include joining a sports club, gardening, woodworking, biking, etc.

Commit to at Least 2 years in a Graduate Program

You are making big changes in your life and lifestyle. It takes at least 2 years to make the adjustments that will be required and to begin to enjoy your new roles, skills, and lifestyle. It is quite common for people in their second year of graduate school to have doubts about their ability to finish, to perform well, or their wisdom in choosing this program or school. This is normal. Don't give up without allowing enough time for the adjustment to occur.