Your Checklist for Surviving the First Year as a Graduate Student

Since 1986, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) Board have compiled a yearly report on graduate student enrollment and degrees awarded in the U.S. The latest report, published in September 2016, indicates that first-time enrollment in graduate studies has reached a record high. In the Fall 2015 semester, approximately 506,927 new students entered post-baccalaureate studies. These students, according to CGS, are “critical to the nation’s strength and prosperity” as they represent the “talent required to meet national needs and to compete in the global economy.”

However, enrolling in graduate school is just a first step. Succeeding through years of intense study and research and handling the stress associated with a master’s or doctoral degree is about more than passion and a desire to better yourself. As a new graduate student, it’s important to take time to develop strong habits that support you physically, mentally, and academically in the coming months and years. To start, every first-year graduate student should embrace four important points right away.

1. This Is a Different Type of Education

Most new graduate students expect the increase in academic rigor associated with advanced study, but academics are only half of your “education” as a graduate student. In essence, graduate school is all about positioning yourself as a professional in your field, and this requires a major shift in behavior.

At Penn State University, first-semester graduate students experience the practices of their field and graduate studies in general through a “foundations” course. One course in Higher Education offers the following suggestions for embracing the self-directed learning that is necessary for success:

  • Take responsibility for your actions, honor deadlines, and admit mistakes
  • Adhere to the practices of academic integrity and ethical research/behavior
  • Develop and exhibit emotional maturity, even under extreme pressure
  • Dress and present yourself appropriately and professionally
  • Give and command respect
  • Learn through experience and reflection

2. Time-Management Skills Will Make or Break You

Another critical component of effective graduate study is time management. The expectation of independent research and the emphasis on high qualifying exam grades sets graduate students apart from undergrads. Furthermore, because graduate students are older, they are more likely to have additional life responsibilities that pull their focus away from school.

John Cheslock, Associate Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State, specifically advocates for first semester graduate students to begin their studies by developing what he calls an outside system for productivity based on “next action follow-up” plans. According to Cheslock, “The next action is the next specific task that needs to be completed in order to move forward on something.” So, rather than decide you need to do research for a paper, write down specific articles you need to read or specific searches you need to complete, and then go down the list and complete them.

Deciding on a next action has a number of distinct benefits because it takes away the stress of deciding what to do next. As Cheslock says, “If you can organize your work so that the next actions are clearly defined, you will get more done and feel less overwhelmed.”

3. You Need a Network — Immediately

The adage, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know,” applies to graduate studies too. In fact, that is why so many schools focus so strongly on developing alumni networks for their students and encouraging them to use them and other networks, even in their first semester.

As Cheryl Bonner, Penn State’s Director of Alumni and Career Services, explains, it’s important for graduate students to engage with others in their field outside the classroom. “Explore,” she emphasizes. “There’s lots of opportunities to shadow, to volunteer, just to watch and observe, and to see where your unique qualities are, where you’re a unique fit, where are your skills, temperaments, [and] character abilities.” She explains that she advises students to focus on “where are they going to serve the most good,” so they can tailor their graduate studies to that end.

4. Self-Care Matters

The importance of self-care in general has gotten a lot of press recently, and it’s especially important for those under a lot of stress, such as students. Think about it: working too hard for too long can lead to exhaustion at best and a complete mental breakdown at worst. That’s why prioritizing health is so important during these years. This includes obvious steps like maintaining a healthy diet and finding time to exercise and sleep.

However, self-care must also include mental health and environmental considerations. Seek help when you need it, whether from a doctor, counselor, or a trusted friend. Also, make sure you have time and space to mentally decompress at home.

Welcome to the World of Graduate Studies

Graduate school is exhilarating and exhausting, stimulating and stressful, beautiful and burdensome — all at the same time. Embrace it. As a first-year student, learn how to manage yourself, your studies, and your career by establishing the right habits and changing your mindset for success.

Get help when needed, and take advantage of convenient services, such as CORT Furniture Rental, to rent furniture in a new town, so you can focus on what really matters: your new college life. Good luck!