Preparing For Graduate School

A New Landscape

The decision to pursue a graduate degree is one that is not made frivolously. It can mean a commitment of several years during which many sacrifices have to be made: family time is reduced, a social life is all but eliminated, and sleep takes a backseat to daytime responsibilities and nighttime reading. Graduate school is a job; those that continue to work while doing graduate studies should expect to balance the equivalent of two full-time jobs.

Students who have completed the graduate admissions process – including the gut-wrenching GRE, GMAT, or equivalent graduate exam – are unmistakably committed to furthering their education, and they very likely have a clear understanding of what it is they would like to accomplish with a graduate degree. Nevertheless, graduate school is a different animal than college, and it helps to have a strategy for success.

Preparation as the Key to Success

Procrastination has no place in graduate school. Because of the workload, it is next to impossible to catch up once you fall behind. You have to be prepared to take part in every class discussion, and to have thought about the material beforehand. Flying by the seat of your pants in graduate school is the surest way to get off course.

Furthermore, you don’t have time to waste. Don’t underestimate how quickly a program will pass and how quickly that thesis will need to be presented. Tony Grooms, a professor of Creative Writing at Kennesaw State University (Georgia), tells his incoming graduate students in the first weeks of their first semester to start thinking about their Capstone Project (thesis), particularly if that project will be a novel. For most students, to put it into perspective, the capstone lies two or three years out, but that is the nature of graduate school. You have to enter the program with your final goal in mind, and you can never lose sight of that goal.

Successful preparation begins the moment you open your acceptance letter to the program of your choice. This letter, in fact, marks the beginning of your graduate studies and the beginning of your dialogue with your university. Don’t appear on campus on the first day of your new program looking like a bright-eyed freshman who’s looking for the library. You are a professional who has been accepted into serious academic circles, and your conduct should reflect that distinction.

In the months before the start of your program, suggests Teresa Joyce, Ph.D., Dean of the Graduate College at Kennesaw State University, you should be establishing lines of communication with relevant people on campus:

  • Introduce yourself to the director of your program.
    Send a brief email about yourself and your goals for the program to the director of your program, or take the opportunity to introduce yourself to him/her at an on-campus event. The director of the program will be hugely influential in your life, and may someday provide a crucial professional reference for you.
  • Attend a pre-semester orientation.
    Does July seem too early for you to attend an orientation? It’s not. Attend the orientation enthusiastically and make an effort to meet your professors and your peers. Ask questions. You may not have time later.
  • Meet with your advisor.
    Take the time to schedule an appointment with your advisor. Talk about your goals and expectations of the program. Keep the lines of communication open. Advisors are busy people, but they want to know how you’re doing. Send an update every once in a while.
  • Plot your path.
    Many universities have two-year schedules of classes. Use these schedules to plan your path. “You need to plan out what your life will look like over the next couple of years,” said Dr. Joyce. “Don’t plan semester by semester.”
  • Think strategically.
    Everything you do, all the classes you take, should combine to form a comprehensive and logical picture of your studies. You should always have your final goal in mind. Does an MBA student need a Literature class? Do you need Spanish for your Master in Taxation?

Know Your Limits

Entering graduate school, said Diane Fennig, Director of Graduate Studies at Georgia State University, you have to be prepared for a much higher workload and intensity than you experienced in college. Yet, some of your planning from college can be carried over effectively to graduate school. Be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses, and schedule your classes accordingly. “You don’t put two ‘stretch’ classes together,” explained Fennig, referring to classes outside your immediate comfort zone. “[If] you have no knowledge about finance, and you have no knowledge about economics, you wouldn’t put the two of them together. Nothing’s changed. That was good planning when you were an undergraduate; you’ve got to carry that into the graduate planning.”

In Good Company

Students have to know why they are going to graduate school and what they want to achieve. Getting the maximum result from minimum effort is unrealistic. “It doesn’t come without a cost,” said Fennig, GSU’s Director of Graduate Studies. A graduate degree has to be looked at like a job. It takes a lot of preparation, and there are a lot of details to follow, but the effort pays off. The 2000 Census, according to a June 5, 2002 USA Today article, determined that only 8.9 percent of Americans age 25 and older held graduate or professional degrees. That is a select group, and makes the pursuit of a graduate degree all the more commendable and worthwhile.

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