For nearly 15 years I’ve led and supported graduate programs. During that time, I’ve met and spoken with hundreds of prospective students and students to provide coaching and support as they seek to get the most out of their graduate education experience. Frequently, I am asked to offer guidance. The questions go something like this: “What do you suggest I do to help me be successful?”. Here are 12 tips that I offer to prospective graduate students:
- Define your goals.
Be clear about why you are entering a graduate program. What are your short and long-term goals? What is driving you to pursue graduate school at this time? I frequently here that these may be related to learning, advancing in a career, prestige of having a graduate degree, job changing/preparation.
- Adjust to a growth mindset.
In her well-known book, Mindset, Carol Dweck talks about the value of being in a growth versus fixed mind set. This requires openness, curiosity, willingness to try and fail (as well as succeed), and reflection. When you are offered feedback accept it as a gift. Use was makes sense for you. Keep an open mind. Graduate school is not always easy and your values, prior knowledge, mental models and much more will be challenged. See the challenges as opportunities to investigate, explore, and learn.
- Build/reinforce your support systems.
Build a network of support that include people who can challenge you to do your best and support you when you need help. A support system might include family members, friends, co-workers and managers, classmates, faculty members. They can help you remove distractions so you can study, do additional housework to provide time for you to attend class, not pressure you to participate in some of the fun activity that may distract you, encouraging you to pursue your dreams, review your school work and provide knowledgeable feedback or additional instruction, and celebrate successes and accomplishments.
- Embrace how you learn.
There are many ways to identify information you want to take in, how you process it, and how you use it. You might prefer to read printed books over digital/audio versions. You may write papers by starting with a thorough outline. You might prefer to do homework in a study group or in a quiet space alone. Adjust your approaches to what works best for you. This may vary from course to course. Your approach to learning Managerial Accounting may be similar to Corporate Finance and different from Organizational Behavior. Experiment with different approaches.
- Focus on time management.
Each of us has the same 24-hours in a day. The challenge is how we use those hours. Graduate school WILL require you to shift your allocation of time. Carefully consider how much time you can devote to school each week. Taking one course may require 9-12 hours per week. What will you stop doing or do differently to carve the time you need for school: class sessions, homework, team projects, etc.? Block the time on your calendar, and stick to it. Tell your family and friends how you will be using your time so they can help reduce distractions and shift expectations. Being in graduate school may require you to stop doing some things you enjoy for a little while. And, it can help you clarify priorities.
Within a graduate program, you will be exposed to a variety of topics and course materials. In addition, professors are different. Their expectations and preferences will vary. As soon as possible, notice what is similar and different about the course material and respond to those differences. This might include the schedule and rhythm of course assignments, priorities for practitioner or academic writing, formats for assignments, use of technology, etc. Ask questions when you don’t understand expectations or course material. And, be sure to follow up and follow through, especially when someone provides you with answers to questions. A simply “thank you” goes a long way to build relationships.
- Define and honor your workspace.
Create a workspace that can be devoted to your schoolwork. If it is the same space in which you are working at home, then make sure you close work applications on your computer (including email, IM, etc.). Make sure you have all the tools you need—e.g., paper, printer, computer, stapler, highlighters, pens, etc.
- Focus on growth over grades.
Early in my teaching career, I distributed feedback on an assignment to the students in an introductory course. Many of the students were disappointed with the result. The students were not pleased with the grades I had recorded. One of the brightest and achievement-oriented students in the class raised her hand and said that she wanted to share an insight. Not knowing what she might have to say, I reluctantly encouraged her to proceed. She shared that the feedback was useful and that she had been focused on grades. Then she said, “I need to focus on growth not on grades”. Needless to say, I was relieved. It was a terrific lesson for her and a valuable insight for the entire class.
- Take your professors’ advice.
When told to do something — i.e., make certain editing changes, fix the references in a paper, shorten a section — it is irritating when in the next class/session is not done. Given their experience, faculty usually have good reasons for telling you to make certain changes. If you do not make them, come to the next meeting prepared to explain why. Perhaps something came up, or you did not agree with the change. Do not resubmit the same unchanged work product (e.g., paper, presentation) without some kind of comment.
- Google it first.
If you have a question about something that someone else may have the answer to, try using a search engine before you approach for help. In some meetings, I have had students ask me questions they could have found answers to on their own. Use all of your resources—before you come the professor. They are not your personal search engine. Do your homework. Professors are trying to teach you to be independent and interdependent.
- Keep your professors posted.
When working with you to set realistic goals and expectations — talk about all of the things you have on your plate. As important and significant as a wedding or child’s birth is to you, others are not tracking these events and aligning them with expectations.
- Ask for clarification.
This is may be the most important piece of advice. When you are not sure whether you have to go to an event, just send a reply that says, “Just to clarify: Is this something you would like me to attend?” Likewise, if you are confused about some issue that is impeding your progress on an assignment— and you’ve Googled it and talked with fellow students and are still confused — then ask your professor for clarification. Otherwise, the task that you were supposed to have completed may be delayed because you did not speak up.
These are just 12 tips. There are certainly many more. What other tips would you suggest to prospective students? I’m interested in your thoughts and ideas, so please leave your comments, feedback, and suggestions below.
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© 2021, John L. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
Look for the linkage in every assignment to your real-world situation…and that of your classmates, work mates, and circle of family and friends. Education in 2021 at any level is more than ever about application to what you do and where you are headed and for what value you can bring to others, not simply the acquisition of information or a skill set. Also, as Dr. Bennett indicated, do your research before you ask for help. Reading for comprehension, writing clearly and correctly, and presenting persuasively are all paramount in a graduate program. but you need to be skilled at research to succeed in those endeavors.