Before I began my master’s program, my advisor, Dr. Hillary Sackett-Taylor, gave me some advice on how to get through graduate school. With summer coming to a close, I want to offer some advice to incoming master’s students that builds on some of the advice she passed down to me. It is tailored towards thesis track students, but most should apply across the board.
- Establish a reliable (and also fun) study group. No one gets through a graduate program by themselves. The course load is too heavy for one person to carry. This is honestly something I struggled with when I first got to grad school. I have never been one to study with others; I’d much prefer to study on my own in silence. But then I saw the power of explaining. Even when you think you understand a concept in its entirety, explaining it to others is a way of (a) confirming your belief that you know the topic, but it also (b) increases your knowledge of the topic even more. (Bonus points if you are able to explain it multiple ways.) I also mention “fun” study group, because there is nothing better than finishing up a test y’all had been studying for, getting a nice, cold beer, and putting the test behind you.
- Make friends with 2nd year students, along with the PhD students. They have first-hand experience of exactly what you are going through. Also, you will not believe the resources they have to help you along the way.
- Focus on learning. This is a tough one for a lot of people. What I mean is try not to worry about grades. I know, crazy right? Focus on understanding the material and the grades will work themselves out. Grad school is a weird place where a failing grade can become a B in the blink of an eye. If you fail a test, move on. It is not the end of the world; just means you do not quite understand the material yet.
- Communicate with your advisor. This could arguably be the most important point. It is essential to communicate your goals, your highs, and your lows to your advisor. They want you to succeed, and they can not help you do that if the communication is not there.
- Find balance. When you get to grad school, you are going to be all giddy about the new experience and try to prove that you belong. Doing this will burn you out. The corny saying of “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” is so accurate. Find a balance between school work, research, and social life. Focus on your mental health and take advantage of the resources your university has to offer.
- Read news articles about your topic, not just scholarly articles. Peer reviewed scholarly articles are obviously crucial, but news press and web posts are just as important. You want your research to be relevant, and for it to have meaning to someone. Seeing people talk about it in the news is a good indicator that your research is relevant. Reading these news articles and web posts in the early stages of the program, while still deciding on a research project, is the best time for this. It may lead you to a question that someone needs to answer, and why can’t that someone be you?
- Just write. Get your thoughts on paper. You will quickly realize that your first draft is never your final project. Create an outline and just write. Do not get hung up on nitty-gritty details, or having flawless transitions. It is not going to happen on the first try; that is what revisions are for. And along the same lines, when an idea pops into your head about future research, or about where you want to take your research, get it on paper (old school way of saying Microsoft Word). It does not matter whether you use it in the future; put it in a writing or ideas folder and NEVER, EVER delete. If you consider deleting it, throw it in an archive folder. You may end up using it down the road and thank your past self for doing the work for you. This brings me to my last piece of advice…
- Organization. This is something you want to achieve right of the bat. Make folders; make sub-folders within those folders; make sub-sub folders within those sub-folders. Future you will thank you for the time spent doing this. I would recommend separating out the research from the course work, and then separating each course into their own folder. For the research folder, I guess it kind of depends on your field. A general breakdown could be: Archive, Data, Articles (which is then broken down by specific interest), Writing (separate out proposals from thesis work). Doing this sounds super tedious, but it will make finding that one document, or that one article, so much easier. In addition, make an Annotated Bibliography summarizing the articles that you read. Keep this in a convenient location as you will refer back to this daily. You may think you will remember every detail of the articles you read, but writing a brief summary of each article will go a long way. (And as a bonus piece of advice here, use a citation maker immediately. I use Zotero, but plenty of them exist. Plug in the information of the article you read, and let Zotero worry about formatting to the specific style. It also will take care of your References. It is a life saver.)
These are some of the most important pieces of advice I have to offer, but I want to see what you think. I would love to get feedback and update the list as need be! To the incoming master’s students, good luck! You’ll do great.