Friday, October 23, 2009

Strategies for graduate student success!


OK, I fibbed, I am not going to give you the magic bullet that will make you an uber-student being able to tackle three graduate classes, a family and full time work! Heck, I don't have those answers to give :-)

The situations recently where people tried to tap into the "secrets" I have for being able to manage a full graduate course load plus a full time job made me think of a seminar that I had as an undergraduate called "study smarter, not harder". At the time I was overwhelmed with working two part-time jobs (45-55 hours per week) plus a full course load (4 courses). I was tired, I was stressed and I was looking for a magic bullet. When I went to this seminar I thought to myself "whaaaat? Seriously? Your tip is not not leave things 'till the last minute? WOW! Now THAT is a revelation!"

My workflow (i.e. "tips" or "magic bullet") works for me, but it is not a guarantee that it works for everyone and in all situations. So what is my workflow?

1. Think of your graduate studies as a whole, not semester by semester. Get a graduate prospectus, see what courses are offered (you should have done this before you applied to the program, but I'll give you a pass on that), and jot down which courses are required, and which courses are electives you would like to take.

2. Now that you've got that list, build yourself a roadmap, how will you get from bootcamp-course to graduation? Which semesters are courses you want offered? We are creatures of habit, so if you look at previous Fall, Spring and Summer semester catalogues (generally available online), you can see what courses were offered in the past, and then you can estimate which semester you will be taking which class.

Some schools are on the cohort model, so you can only take certain classes in certain semesters, so steps 1 and 2 are already taken care for you!

3. Don't register late. The earlier you register for next semester, the better idea you have as to what will be required for your coursework in that semester. This means that you can bug...err...I mean politely request syllabi and course textbook information from the faculty.

Case in point: Registration for Spring semester starts in two weeks. I know which courses I am going to take, which means once I have successfully registered for spring, I have Novermber, December AND January to start preparing for the Spring semester which leads me to point 4

4. Start going through your readings early! If you know what textbooks and articles you will have to read for the spring, read a little bit here, a little bit there and by the beginning of the next semester you will have gone through all the readings with enough time to have them percolate in your head and you can enjoy what you are reading and make meaningful connections - instead of gorging yourself on information that is probably going to pass through your system without much impact.

Now you ask what happens if the professor does not send you a syllabus, OR you don't have access to journal articles used in class? Well, that is where connections come into play. Some of your classmates probably have taken the courses that you want to take before, or they know of someone who did recently. Again, we are creatures of habit, so syllabi don't radically change from semester to semester, so if you get the readings from a semester or two ago (but same professor), then you're all set.

5. Once the new semester starts, all you have to do is go over what you've read already (if you've highlighted or underlined or made notes in the margins, your review is going to be MUCH easier). Then you can sit back, enjoy the class, and focus on the projects you need to do.


Now when I've told people this simple procedure, they generally tell me that they lack the discipline to do this. This is fine, but as I said, there is NO magic bullet. You will need to find the discipline in order to be successful. No planning and no discipline to keep to that plan, whichever one it might be, means that your time in grad school will be made much tougher :-)

So find what motivates YOU, find a process that works for YOU and use that - whatever that may be :-)
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