Preparing for Graduate School

You’re in. Congratulations! Be excited and celebrate. Also, prepare. You want to make the best impression while in graduate school. And in order to make that impression, you need to be as stress-free as possible. If you can establish a good balance early on—studying, socializing, networking, and excelling at an internship—then you will be on track to succeed. Also essential to that balance is a solid living environment. As you can see, while there are many aspects to life in graduate school, they are all linked together and should work in harmony. We’re here to help you put all the pieces in the right place.

The Summer Before Graduate School

Summer time, and the livin’ is easy. That’s not entirely true, but you should make it a point to relax during the weeks and months of the summer before graduate school. Up to this point, you’ve likely been working hard, whether you were working a full-time job or completing the multitude of work necessary to graduate with your bachelor’s degree.

The best way to manage the weeks and months before graduate school is to budget your time well. Carve out time to breathe while getting some prep work done. One thing that will make your life easier is to calculate your financial budget several months before your graduate school program begins. Decide whether you will be able to take the summer off from work completely, or whether you will need those funds to make ends meet while in school. Some students choose to work full-time to make as much money as possible, and continue once the program starts—with a part-time course load. Others choose a full-time class schedule and part-time job. Others can afford to go to school full-time without working. Of course, this is ideal because graduate school can be rigorous and time consuming on its own. Everyone’s finances are different. The important thing is to take an honest look at your bank account and plan ahead.

Even if you aren’t working full or part-time before grad school, try to earn some extra money somehow. If you’re a writer, take on an editing project. Or, if you’re a graphic designer, accept some freelance work. Even if you have figured out how to cover tuition and living expenses with grants, awards, government and/or private loans, unexpected expenses almost always arise. If you have a car on campus, you might need a repair. You might need to travel unexpectedly. Or, you might want to take a partner out on a fancy date to celebrate an anniversary. In general, it’s smart to have a slush fund.

Try to check items off your to-do list and schedule those irritating annual appointments with doctors and the dentist, so it’s not another thing to worry about once classes begin.

One part of planning before graduate school might be to save money by living with family before your grad program starts. You can help your family with projects around the house and spend time with them before you’re swamped with work and research. And, in return, you can save funds that can be applied to rent in a few months.

At the very least, try to allot the last two weeks before you move into your apartment or dormitory to clear your head and gather materials. You’ll want to be prepared with the things you need. It’s a good idea to move early to allow time to get settled, especially if you are in a new city and living near a new campus. Once you arrive, find the library and on-campus coffee shop (for your own caffeine-fixes and so you’ll know where to go if someone asks you to meet). Check out the campus workout area and find the activities center, where you can look for events that interests you. While you likely won’t have a lot of free time, you’ll need to have some kind of social life.

Ask yourself how you are feeling and what you need to start on the first day of graduate school with a healthy outlook and lifestyle. By the time some students enter a graduate school program, they’re already burned out from rigorous senior year undergraduate seminars, internships and fellowships. Others find that their first job out of undergrad has fatigued them. Find a way to recharge and feel refreshed. That means something different to everyone. Read a book, visit friends, or take a small trip.

This summer is a transition. Make the best of it.

What to Bring to Graduate School

Before you pack, de-clutter. It will reduce your stress in so many ways. Bring clothes, of course, but only the ones that you wear several times a month. Don’t bring the dress or sweatshirt you haven’t worn for over a year. Don’t bring a ton of decorations, either (maybe just a few treasured photographs).

Bring a solid planner and wall or desk calendar. This way, you will be able to manage short, mid and long-term deadlines with ease.

Purchase and bring only the books you need ahead of time. Instead of buying them from the campus bookstore, try to buy them used online. If a book is particularly expensive, reach out to current students (or look on message boards) to see if it’s absolutely necessary. Reach out to students in your program to ask if someone might be interested in splitting the cost and sharing an expensive book. In addition, ask your program or university’s librarian which books are regularly available at the library.

On that note, a small bookshelf could be helpful, especially to organize academic and personal books. If your apartment doesn’t come with a desk, find one from Ikea or a nice used one from craigslist. Another good place to look: on-campus bulletin boards. Students often post fliers to get rid of their furniture for cheap. Inside the desk, you might want things like post-it notes and an organizer for small and large paper clips.

Keep in mind that some larger items are more expensive to bring than they are to repurchase. Take stock of what you have and what you will truly need and plan accordingly.

Make sure you have chargers for your mobile devices and laptop. If possible, even an extra. Also, if you have a vehicle on campus, bring a car charger for your cell phone. We all know how frustrating it is to have a cell phone battery die at an important moment.

Consider bringing a couple of items purely for comfort or relaxation. Perhaps your favorite fleece blanket or slippers. Or you might want a spice rack that includes exotic spices and herbs for cooking your family’s favorite meals. Consider bringing a teapot and teas and the kitchen items you use at least once per week.

If your family asks what you might need for graduate school, it’s a good idea to tell them you would like gift cards for places like Costco, Amazon, and your favorite restaurant. Gift cards don’t take up much space and they come in handy.

Most of all, bring your energy and determination. Graduate school will test you in many ways. If you’re stressed, remember that a semester is a finite amount of time that will pass. Before you know it, you will be finished and walking across the stage to receive your diploma.

Tips to Maximize Your Graduate School Experience

Graduate school will present you with many challenges, but this is perhaps the first one that you should anticipate: How do you get the most out of your program?

Graduate school tests students personally, academically, and professionally. Be like a sponge. Think about how to best use your program’s resources and absorb every bit of knowledge and experience. Initially, graduate school may feel unending. But the time passes quickly and you’ll graduate before you know it. You want to walk across the stage certain that you learned all you could and made every possible connection.

Here are some tips to help you make the most of your time in graduate school:

  • Smile when you meet your classmates and professors. At first, graduate school may feel like high school or undergrad. You’re meeting sometimes dozens of new peers all at once and the unfamiliar social dynamic might make you feel insecure. Don’t be! Introduce yourself. These are all future friends and colleagues—and possibly employers.
  • Make sure your living situation won’t get in the way of good work. You don’t want to worry about apartment repairs or a noisy roommate when you should be studying. For more housing advice, check out How to Create the Best Living Situation in Graduate School.
  • Challenge yourself. Push, but know yourself and your limits well. Once you hit that point, allow yourself personal time and room to breathe. A long, quiet walk can do wonders.
  • Set realistic goals and work consistently toward achieving them. Unrealistic goals lead to burnout and will set you back. Don’t underestimate little victories. Plan how to chip away at long-term goals and try to accomplish something each day or week.
  • Join at least one professional organization related to your major and career field. This is a great way to make professional connections and to learn more about your field of choice. The events and opportunities will be tailored to your interests and needs.
  • Join at least one club. If there isn’t a club related to your studies, make this an outlet for your hobbies or social life. You will meet interesting people and maybe even develop a new skill (even if that skill is a strong Frisbee toss).
  • Attend every event you can (in your free time, of course). Graduate programs—yours and others within the college or university—often host mixers and other events that can be great for networking.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions or for help. In graduate school, there is a wide support network. Professors, career counselors and therapists are all part of the university system, and are there to guide students with personal or professional questions.
  • Stay on campus. As tempting as your apartment might be, this is where many literal and figurative connections are made. Professors might stick around for 30 minutes to an hour after class for students who need extra help or just want to talk about the material. Try to create a professional bond, especially if you are interested in your professor’s work or are seeking a mentor. A professor who feels like he or she knows you will be more likely to write you a letter of recommendation or suggest you for a position.
  • Stay in touch. You will meet many people while in graduate school, so always follow up. Don’t accept a card without sending an email or making a connection somehow. Once your time with a professor is done, stop by their office and say hello. And try to connect with classmates and professors after you graduate. Your peers may become your colleagues and your professors could become your boss.
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