Sunday, January 24, 2010

Some Tips on Adjusting to Graduate School

"I am returning this otherwise nicely typed paper to you, because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name on the top."  --An English Professor

Like many of my colleagues, I spend a great deal of time thinking about our graduate students -- and our future graduate students. Are we adequately preparing students for the rigors of graduate-level academic work? Do students, realistically, know what to expect in their graduate courses -- and what will be expected of them? Sadly, in too many cases, I think the answer to all of these questions is "no." And, in my experience, the students who struggle the most are not always the students who knew less or failed to adequately prepare; the students I worry about, most often, are the students who trip-trop happily along, and never adjust to their changed circumstances. And graduate school is different from undergraduate education. In more ways than one.

As I read through more than 40 student blogs (undergrad and grad-level) this morning, I decided that my first blog would address the issue of graduate school preparation in some detail. Ironically, within an hour of my (uhhh... ahem) "ground-breaking" decision, I received a fabulous email from my friend, professor, and colleague, Dr. Claire Sahlin, Chair of Women's Studies (WS) at Texas Woman's University in Denton, Texas. No, the email wasn't just to me -- it was to the entire WS email list at TWU. In the email, Claire mentioned that she was often asked (by students) what they could/should do to make the transition from undergrad to graduate student go more smoothly. And she had some real suggestions and a couple of interesting sources to share.

Below, I've pasted a short article Claire Sahlin provided in her email this morning, but, first, I want to offer my own short list of suggestions. Since the article I've included addresses the more personal/physical/mental aspects of success in graduate school, I've decided to comment on actual coursework issues that often come up during my graduate seminars. And, luckily, most of these tips are valuable for serious undergrads too. English 304 students, I'm talking to you!

1. Organize your work, and do it early. Don't wait until big projects are due, the night before class, or when you get in over your head... invest in a good binder, and keep all your course documents and notes neat and orderly from the start. Which leads me to...

2. Take notes. As you read and in class. I know it seems an unnecessary reminder, but every semester, I see students sit passively in class, or, like their classmates, I'm forced to sit through personal diatribes that have absolutely nothing to do with the assigned readings. While your personal experiences are certainly valid and meaningful, a graduate seminar is not the place for psychic cleansing, walks down memory lane, or ancedotal evidence. Presumably, you're in the class to learn something new, so, unless you're asked to share the personal (as is often the case, of course), remember to stick to the text, the lectures, or your own outside research. And, when you do refer to the personal stuff, make it relevant and connect it to the bigger considerations of the class.

3. Blogging, online research, and email are all key aspects of the graduate courses at CSU-Pueblo. Technology offers us unique and interesting ways to engage with one another, and I, for one, strive to utilize as many of these methods as possible in my classes. If these tools are new to you -- turn your lack of knowledge into an opportunity! These skills will be useful for other areas of your life, and you just might discover a whole new world awaiting you.

4. What goes for class discussions (see #2) goes double for online discussions (re: blogging). When you're asked to respond to a lecture or a text in a blog, remember to keep your thoughts organized, your points on topic, and your references concise. Avoid being a "one hit wonder." That is, try to engage with different ideas each week, ask questions (a great way to keep online discussions going!), and keep the personal responses to a minimum. Think future -- you're learning new ideas, reading new texts, and working with new people. Don't constantly remind us that you've known this information (or used these ideas) for years -- instead, think about how, with a new perspective, you'll use them in the future... Remember: your blogs will significantly guide our in-class discussions and will serve several additional purposes, too.* For instance, our blogs are important, because...

  •  They offer opportunities for students to reflect more deeply on the assigned readings and, through this reflection, to deepen their learning.
  • They enhance student accountability and give students more control over our time together.
  • They allow me to continually assess student interests and learning.
  • They allow reticent speakers a safe space in which to share their insights, knowledge, and "reading" of a text.

5. Get to know the people in your program. In a program that supports so many non-traditional graduate students (that is, most of our students have families and full-time jobs) it's perhaps even more important that you get to know your classmates and professors. Use breaks to talk to your neighbor or your professor, and try to find some common ground with people you might otherwise never get to meet. Though your background and personal lives are quite diverse, you chose this graduate program for a reason; though it might not always seem like it, common ground is there -- if you'll take the time to find it. And, you never know when you'll need a letter of recommendation, suggestions for post-grad studies, or late-night help from a classmate.

6. Remember that anything lower than a "B" is failing in graduate school. And, if you start to see many "Bs" on daily work, you need to work with your professors to find out where you've gone astray. Leave your ego at home, take notes, and really listen to what your profs say -- even if it seems harsh at the time. We want you to succeed, but we can't help you if you don't tell us you're struggling or if you refuse to take some constructive criticism. When in doubt -- always, always, always ask.

My list is certainly not exhaustive, but hopefully it'll give you some perspective on your professors' comments, ideas for improving or enhancing your class-performance, or ways to better use technology. Or, maybe it'll just give you delightful proof that you've been doing it right all along. --D. SOUDER

* Thanks to Dr. AnaLouise Keating. These points were borrowed and adapted from her WS5363 course syllabus.


5 Ways to Adjust to Graduate School
by Kristie Lorette,

The transition from undergraduate to graduate student can be an enormous one. Many things change during the transition that pretty much entirely change you life. There are things that you should know about before you enter graduate school, so that you will be prepared to deal with them. Once you deal with them, them you will be able to become adjusted to graduate school and the newness that it brings.

Have Confidence in Yourself and Your Abilities
Probably the number one thing that you will hear graduate students say is that when they first started their graduate program they started to question whether or not their college had made a mistake by accepting them. They became so overwhelmed by the enormity of their new responsibilities that they started to question their abilities to handle them. It is extremely important to your success that you maintain your confidence. You are good enough and smart enough to be there, and you can handle what graduate school throws your way or you never would have been accepted in the first place.

Tackle Your Adjustment Period
Embrace your new surroundings and your new experiences when you start your graduate program. Instead of focusing on all of the changes as being negative, turn them into a positive light. Find out as much as you can about the community that the college is located in and the student activities that the school has to offer. By planning to participate in a few activities it will be easier to acclimate yourself to your new environment. It will not always be easy to deal with the changes of living in a new city, dealing with a new program, and meeting new people, but it will get easier over time. And the more ways you proactively attack your adjustment period the less ways your adjustment period will have to tackle you!

Time Management
Being a graduate student brings a very overflowing plate of responsibility to your table. The best way to handle all of your responsibilities is to set your priorities from the beginning and then organize your schedule to carry out your responsibilities in order of importance. This will allow you to manage your time by spending more time on the important tasks and less time on the not so important tasks.

Set Specific Goals
Set specific goals to accomplish. Write them down. Don’t just come up with them in your head. After you have your goals established make a step-by-step plan on what you need to do to accomplish your goals. Schedule and manage your time in an efficient manner so that you create opportunities that will allow you to achieve your goals. Almost all graduate students go into graduate school with general goals, but they get so bogged down by their new responsibilities that they don’t really end up accomplishing any of them. By setting specific goals and writing a plan of attack you will find yourself well on the way to success.

Eat Healthy & Take Care of Yourself
Graduate school can take a mental and physical toll on your health if you let it. In order to sustain the long hours and multiple responsibilities it is important that you take care of yourself and your body. Eating healthy food instead of fast food and getting enough rest to relax your mind and body will make your adjustment to graduate much easier than if you are dragging around like a zombie.

While these are a few suggestions on how you can adjust and cope with graduate school, there are many other ways to adjust as well. You have to find the ways that best fit you.


  1. Donna, a hearty "amen" to your point in number two: "a graduate seminar is not the place for psychic cleansing, walks down memory lane, or ancedotal evidence." Please, no bemoaning how Falstaff reminds you of your ex-husband (a real example) or anything of the sort. For everyone's sake, learn the meaning of kairos, and practice it.

  2. I would also add: Stop studying for class and start studying for your profession. Here's what I mean--on my first day of the PhD program, Lee Miller (shout out!) gave me one of the best pieces of advice that I have ever gotten. Start studying for your comps TODAY. He was absolutely right: Every reading, every paper, every assignment was an opportunity to read a new book, study a new theorist, prepare for a different test question.

    I would add one caveat to Lee's advice: Start studying for your profession NOW. Everything you do in grad school is to make you a better/more well-rounded scholar and professional. No, not everything you read is going to be on the test. Not every paper is going to be for a grade. Because, that's not the point. The course is just an opportunity to get together with colleagues and mentors to discuss and expand on what you've already learned on your own. If you're only learning something in the 3 hours a week you're in class, you're doing it wrong. You are preparing yourself to be professional--something that doesn't happen merely in the classroom. Everything you do for here on out prepares you to be a professional.

  3. Thanks for the input, Prof Barnes! Yep, I've been there and done that, for sure. Witnessed it as student and then (sadly) again as professor... my thought now is that we, as profs, need to make our expectations clear and spell out exactly what it is we want.

    Nice suggestion, Dr. Gregory! I remember Lee giving you that exact advice. And, it sure turned out well for you (and him!), right? This is very good stuff, guys. Thanks! Got a great group this semester, and I'm excited to see how they hold their own. -- DR. DONNA

  4. And, if I could add one more bit of advice: Those research papers you write now are preparing you to write the dissertation/thesis later. Treat the assignment like an "exercise to get done" and you're missing the point. It's the smaller papers that teach you how to carry out meaningful, sustained research. A dissertation/thesis is like an ultramarathon. If you don't practice with the shorter 5, 10, 15 mile runs, you'll never have the endurance to go the distance for the entire 50 miles.

    Academic writing takes careful contemplation and plenty of time. But, if you write your major papers the night before they are due and use shoddy research (and research methodologies), you're missing out on opportunities to practice sustantained, academic writing.

  5. This is some good stuff--some of it advice I wish I'd seen a few years ago. I'll add a few useful bits of my own:

    1. Practice writing, do it a lot, and do it on a schedule. Dr. Gregory's reasoning here pretty much does it, but I wanted to reiterate it. As my dissertation advisor always reminds me: Write something serious every day.

    2. Research is Messy. Sometimes you don't find what you think you're going to find, sometimes you find the opposite of what you wanted to find, and sometimes you don't find anything at all. Rather than going back to the drawing board and starting over completely, throwing away every bit of work you've done up to that point, treat a research "failure" as an opportunity to learn about (and write about) theoretical, methological, and epistemological concerns. Rather than bemoaning failure as the end of one road, think of it as an opportunity to hop over to the next intersection. Failure that comes out of rigor isn't really failure.

    3. The best way to be miserable in a course or while working on a paper is to think that it's a) "something I've already done" or b) "something that's got nothing to do with my work/research interests." Required courses (like my 12 credit hours in methods; Ick.) are required because the disciplinary experts in that program think the matters covered in those courses are tantamount to success as a researcher in that discipline. Use courses you feel this way about as an opportunity to pilot or explore some aspect of a research project you want to work on. The challenge of reframing a paper in a course that seems like it's got nothing at all to do with your interests to make it work for you in the long run can be intellectually invigorating.

    4. Talk to your advisor. Talk to your prof. Talk to the profs that aren't your advisor. Talk to the profs that you won't take coursework from. It's easy to hole up in an office and work as if you lived in an ivory tower; academia doesn't actually work that way. Networking and connecting to a wide variety of people can not only store up good connections in terms of jobs, but might lead you to a surprise research project you'd never even considered before. Connecting is ridiculously easy in the 21st century; take advantage of it. (Twitter, for example, is a powerful tool for connecting with the leaders in your field.)

  6. Ahhh... you guys are brilliant! Great advice, all. Thanks for your "two cents!" I know I'd have benefited from more conversations of this sort (especially when I was an MA student), and I know my students will reap the rewards now too... bravo! --DR. DONNA

  7. I'd like to add that students should take out some extra school loan money to hire a maid :) Kidding aside, I wish I had this list before my entre into higher academia.

  8. Ditto on the maid-money, Lynda! Wouldn't THAT have made the (ahem) "journey" more bearable?? --DR. DONNA

  9. Doing work early has been the best advice I've received while in college. Doing your work early gives you time to think about it and go back and edit it. It also gives you time to take a different persepective on it and maybe change what you wrote before.
    Getting to know people in my program has also been a big help. Sometimes things aren't very clear when first explained to you, but having help from your classmates allows you to understand things easier. Your peers have a way or explaining things in a more common way so you can relate to it. They also offer a different outlook on the topics being dicussed in class. Being open-minded to other people's opinions helps you develop your own opinion. Your classmates are your networking system.
    I must agree that having confidence in yourself in a number thing that helps you get through school. You have to remind yourself that obviously you're are smart enough or you wouldn't be in the advance classroom setting you are in now. Course work or teachers may be intimidating, but it's not more than you can handle. Just trust yourself and you will have the confidence to make it through all of your semesters. My confidence has carried me to the high position I am in now, and it will continue to carry me further.

  10. Nicely said, Jazmine! Good affirmation from a great undergrad... --DR. SOUDER

  11. All these study tips really help. I have writen some things down and I am hoping to try and use them. Studying at times seems really difficult. There is always something bending at my house, such as dinner, soccer practice, band rehearsal, doctor’s appointments and bills to be paid. There are seven mouths to feed and listen too. Seven bodies, other then my own to do laundry for and get to bed before the day is over. I have a wonderful office with dozens of shelves full of books and paper. There is a nice calming fish tank to listen to. It has a door that makes most of the house hold noises go away and a window that has an amazing view of the Rocky Mountains. My work is placed exactly where it should go and the lines of architecture are almost as clean as the Romans made them. I wish I could study there. I have found that if I study with my family, I can much more work done. Every now and then I answer questions about square roots and help pronounce words, but I retain more when I study with the kids. My house is constantly on the move. However every night from 7:00pm to 8:00pm the house goes near silence and homework starts. When I do my homework other then this time I am completely distracted. I do not have enough noise, or I think of something I should be doing, such as loading the dishwasher. I read my books and assignments aloud to my family and have them give me feedback. The children range from 12-4 years old. The little ones help me catch mistakes in what I am saying, and reading and sometimes give me other words to use. The may not fit but having more then my two ears to hear things really helps. I feel that studying with my family also helps them. My children go to school using word their peers may never hear in there life. I got a call from the school two weeks ago telling me my son was using “abrasive” language in class. When I asked what it is he said, his teacher told me “He asked if his friends could be more dialogic and play together.” I asked her what was wrong with what he said. I had to explain to her what he meant. My only response was for her to look it up and that I was proud of my son for finding a way to get his friends to understand each others sides rather then fighting. One day I will use my office to work in. For right now, my dinning room table works great and I have a lot of ears listening for my errors.

  12. Crystal,

    Like you, I find it difficult to work in a calm, quiet space (though, from time to time, I NEED it!). Believe it or not, though we also have an office, my husband and I (right now, in fact!) drag our laptops to the dining room table and work side by side there. Now, we do not have SEVEN kids bouncing around us, but we listen to music, talk while we work, and give lots of attention to our needy, needy dogs!

    I think when you adapt to "mayhem" (esp the fulfilling kind? Kids, etc?) it's hard to ever completely shift gears back to peace and quiet.

    On a sidenote -- your son said "dialogic"??? That is wonderful... he even, sorta, used it correctly! Mom of the year award to you! --DR. SOUDER

  13. I think that all around this is a good list of to-dos despite the fact that I'm not a graduate student. I really like what Jazmine said about getting to know others because sometimes it can make all the difference in the world. Crys, you are a paragon and I think that it's amazing that you can integrate study with life so well. There are times that a clean well lit area can be the best choice, but I have to agree that a sense of urgency certainly makes undertaken tasks matter all the more. On another note, I remember when my mom used to have me help her study for Biology… it’s amazing how much little tykes can help given the opportunity.