It’s that time of year — new graduate students are setting foot on campuses across the nation hoping to gain knowledge and have new experiences that will help them progress in their careers. As a professor and adviser, I get really excited about new graduate students. They are usually wide-eyed, excited, and eager to get started. However, after a semester, I often sense their frustration with the academy. So, I thought I’d offer a bit of advice for getting (and giving) the most out of your graduate experience.
1. Keep an open mind. Don’t let the students who have been around for a few years color your experience. Make your experience your own experience and enjoy it. This is one of the most wonderful times in your life — oh to be able to just think!
2. Get to know the faculty members in your program. Make appointments with them a few months into the semester. This is especially important if you are enrolled in a master’s program and you want to enroll in Ph.D. programs in the future. Most master’s programs are short and you need to get yourself on the radar screen of faculty members right away so that they are willing to write letters of recommendation for you. Getting to know faculty members and having good intellectual conversations and debates will stimulate your thinking.
3. Ask faculty members if you can help them conduct research and write articles. You can do this in one of three ways: serve as a research assistant for a faculty member and learn the ways of writing and research in an apprentice-like way; ask to be a partner in a current research project (making sure to negotiate co-authorship if there are publications involved); or bring one of your own ideas to a faculty member and ask them to partner with you and serve as a co-author (with your name as first author). One of the best ways of learning in graduate school is through collaboration around ideas.
4. If you truly enjoy a class that you are taking and you do well when grades are given at the end of the semester, ask the professor if you can serve as a teaching assistant (paid or unpaid) for the class the next time it’s offered. As a teaching assistant, you can gain experience grading, facilitating class discussions, lecturing, and designing a syllabus.
5. Most universities have many different cultural events, speakers, and organizational activities. Frequent these. The relationships that you establish across disciplines can be wonderfully beneficial and long lasting. In addition, interacting with people outside your program or discipline keeps you on your toes and intellectually stimulated.
6. Read, read, read. Although there is typically more reading assigned than can possibly be digested in graduate school, do it or as much of it as you can! Being well read is essential in life, especially if you plan on being a professor. In addition, reading makes for better writing. Study the way people write, keep track of smart phrases and uses of language and pull them out later when you are writing. Read all kinds of things — fiction, magazines, newspapers, journals, blogs — reading non-academic works keeps you in touch with the rest of the world and stimulates creative thinking.
7. Attend conferences even if it means rooming with lots of other students. Sometimes graduate students make the mistake of only operating within their own institutions or only listening to the perspectives of their program’s faculty members — don’t do that! Get out there and gain many different perspectives.
8. Get in the habit of writing every day. There is a great deal of research that shows that if you write every day, you will be a better writer, a more productive writer, and that writing will come more easily to you. Writing becomes natural instead of feeling forced. Even an hour a day can keep you motivated.
9. Stay focused on ideas and not academic politics. Asa Hilliard, my wonderful mentor, gave me the best advice when I was a new faculty member. He said, “live for ideas not academic politics” — such sound advice. I have faltered a few times, but once my head clears, I let the politics go and get back to the work. The work is what is important to making change and making a difference in the lives of others.
10. Make sure that you give as much as you get. Find something about which you feel immense passion and give as much as you can to whatever it is. The only way to sustain an academic career, or any career for that matter, is to pursue something that makes you want to get up each day and go at it.
Good luck new students!
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).