Top 10 Tips for Surviving Graduate School

GMEarlier in the month, I reflected on my graduation after many years of graduate and post-graduate work. As a compliment to this, I’ve been thinking of a blog post about the Top 10 essentials of surviving grad school. While I don’t want to come across as an expert, I completed an 81-hour master’s degree program and a 30-hour doctoral degree program, all the while maintaining full-time employment, fatherhood, and husbandhood…so I’ve at least picked up a few “pointers” when it comes to finding your way through a full load of grad classes without losing your humanity!

Are you about to begin taking graduate classes? Thinking about it someday? If so, let me share a few words of advice, things that I wish someone had shared with me before I began. Here are my Top 10 Tips for Surviving Graduate School:

  1. Learn to love reading. This probably goes without saying. If you’re inclined to enroll in graduate courses, you’re probably aware of the heavy reading load. Many of my courses required between 2,000-3,000 pages of pre-class reading; a few of my doctoral courses required as many as 4,000 pages. My advice: learn to love it. Part of the joy of graduate school is exposure to a variety of disciplines and ideologies. The only way to get where you want to go is by hitting the books. Hard.
  2. Carve out regular times for study. This is another rather obvious point; you probably had to discipline yourself to do this in your undergraduate work. This was the lesson I learned as a sophomore undergrad. That year, I vowed to spend one hour per weeknight (excluding Friday) studying in the library. And it paid off. The same holds true for your graduate studies. Make it a part of your routine.
  3. Be sure to read for leisure as well. This probably seems like the last thing you’ll feel like doing while you’re knee deep in prep work. But it’s important to maintain connection to disciplines outside your particular field of study. You may not be able to plow through the next Nicholas Sparks’ release in a weekend as you did in your pre-grad school days, but you can read a chapter or two at a time. In fact, it’ll help you come back to your studies with more vigor.
  4. Create your own note-taking method. I’m something of a dinosaur, I suppose, but I still love the feel of a textbook in my hands. I know: e-books are much more convenient, they’re cheaper, and the search feature is a huge benefit over hardback volumes. But I cut my teeth underlining and writing notes in the margins and that’s still my preferred practice. If you flip through one of my books, you’re liable to see a flurry of highlighted sections, brackets, and scribblings. They may be indecipherable to anyone else, but such scratchings helped me create my own note-taking protocol, which was huge for comprehension and analysis.
  5. Skim. While we’re talking about reading, here’s another piece of advice: learn how to skim. I’m talking about first and last sentences of paragraphs: you’ll be surprised how much you can glean by reading this way. It won’t always help, particularly with some more densely written volumes, but it’ll help you in a pinch. I’d still recommend reading the first and last chapters of each book in their entirety, but you can often make up some ground my skimming in the middle.
  6. Have a “go to” playlist. I’ve found that I can’t study while listening to non-instrumental music. For a while, I tried listening to U2 or Johnny Cash while studying, but I found myself singing along and not concentrating on the material at hand. So I developed a playlist of instrumental music: Michael Giacchino’s stirring score that accompanied LOST; New Orleans percussionist Stanton Moore; Carter Burwell’s True Gritsoundtrack; and lots of Miles Davis. If not for these guys, my thesis probably wouldn’t have been written. Great music is the antidote for writer’s block.
  7. Lots of coffee. Enough said.
  8. Remember to exercise. Another cure for writer’s block. So much of graduate school is sedentary – reading, writing, etc – aerobic activity is essential to maintaining some semblance of balance in your life. Take a book to the gym with you; read a chapter while you’re on the treadmill. Heck, just get out and go for a 20 minute walk and come back to the books. Challenging yourself to grow cognitively is no excuse for letting yourself go physically.
  9. Remember to be a human being. I’m proud to say that I kept coaching my son’s Little League team while taking on a full load of school. (Last year: we were 12-4, winners of our division!) I’m proud to say that I found the time to take in my daughter’s soccer games and my youngest son’s karate lessons. My wife and I still made time for date nights. Sure, grad school is hard work. But don’t let it trump your humanity. Take a walk. Plant some flowers. The goal of higher education is to make you a more fully formed human, not less.
  10. Remember to find joy in the journey. Yes, that’s a cliche, but even the cheesiest cliches are rooted in truth. Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. There’s a reason you’re drawn to continuing your education. Whatever that reason might be — pursuit of truth, desire to advance in your career, etc. — keep sight of that when the going gets tough. There’s nothing worse than subjecting yourself to grueling hours of study while all of your friends are off watching Monday Night Football and you can’t even remember why you’re doing this to yourself. Enjoy the process of learning. Embrace the formation that you’re experiencing. It’s a joyful journey.
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