As the leaves begin to change colors and temperatures drop, the fall season begins to settle in, and so do you in the fall semester of the school year. You should be settled into your class schedule; finished your midterms; and have made it past the halfway point of the semester. Now is the time to reflect on the first half of the semester, and evaluate your successes and failures to ensure a strong finish of the second half of the semester.
The first point of reflection should be your study habits and whether they positively or negatively impacted your performance. A good way to determine the effectiveness of your study habits should be your performance on your midterm exams. If you didn’t score a high mark and were disappointed in your grade, now is the time to change your study habits.
One way to improve studying is to work with your fellow classmates. Reviewing course materials, such as class notes and actual homework assignments, with another student from the class can help you better understand the material. Increasing the frequency in which you study can also help improve your academic performance. Studying a little bit each day instead of cramming for several hours the day before the exam can increase your ability to retain information, as well as reduce your stress level about the exam. Lastly, making a study plan for exam can help you do better in the course. Once the professor assigns a date for the exam, designate specific study times far in advance. Each day you can pick a specific subject to study to ensure that you cover everything that will be on the exam. And while studying is important, a graduate student must also effectively manage ones downtime.
One of the most difficult things graduate students face is balancing time between school work and social or personal relaxation activities. There will be weeks where you’ll have a lot to get done and other weeks where the workload will be significantly lighter. When it comes to the latter, it’s important to not spend too much time relaxing, especially when you are uncertain of potential future assignments. For instance, if an assignment is not due for more at least a week and half, you should begin working on it once you’ve submitted the more pressing homework. It’s best to get on jump on the assignment sooner rather than later. Even if you only do one or two problems here and there, getting a little bit done early on lightens the potential load of other assignments you may get hit with the following week.
Reflecting upon one’s progress after midterms is crucial for any graduate student. You’ll make mistakes or stumble in your graduate career, but the key is to learn from those mistakes and apply them to the rest of the semester and even the school year. After all, a phrase I like to live by is, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.” So if things are off to a rocky start at the beginning of the semester, there is still time for you to improve going forward.
Graduate applications can be a very stressful time, especially since they often overlap with midterms and/or finals. Below are some tips to help you survive this stressful time.
1) Make sure you get adequate sleep. Staying up late and getting little sleep is often seen as a “badge of honor” in college. However, not getting enough sleep is related to a number of negative physical and psychological health outcomes. Therefore, getting enough sleep is important for performing at the optimum level. You can improve this by trying to go to sleep at a similar time each night and have a consistent bedtime routine in which you get 7-9 hours each night.
2) Find an application partner. One of the best ways to stay on track to complete your applications by their deadlines is to have an accountability partner. Meeting with this person and working on applications together at the same time each week can help motivate you and boost productivity on days when you are not feeling up to it.
3) Have a team. Having a team of other students, current graduate students, and/or faculty members to read over your application materials and provide you with feedback throughout your process is crucial for creating a competitive application. These individuals can also help keep you on track.
4) Try not to stress too too much. It’s natural for you to experience high levels of stress throughout this process. However, there are some things you can do to try and combat this. Some ways to do this include: exercising, spending time doing things that you enjoy, and mindfulness practices such as deep breathing and yoga.
Although there are a many ways to fund grad school, most often your graduate stipend will come from a teaching position. For some this will be a one-time gig, but for many it’s an every semester commitment. During your time as an Associate Instructor (AI), often referred to at other universities as a Teaching Assistant (TA), you will be faced with the end-of-term evaluation. This is an important assessment from the students you are teaching solicited by the department to garner feedback about the course to make it better. Often, these are also ‘free for alls’ for students to tell you how they really feel, for better or worse.
The reality is whether you enjoy being in the classroom or not, negative critiques can hurt because it can feel (or be) a personal attack on your character. During my first year of teaching it was like night and day between the fall and spring semesters. Whether it was the number of students doubling or the personality of the group of students, I know that reading my evaluations made me question whether academia was the right fit for me. After reflecting on my personal classroom experience, a few pieces of advice:
Fix the things you can Ultimately, teaching is a skill like any other and needs to be continually developed. No one is perfect, and what worked before may not work the same way with this group of students. If your students make recommendations within the evaluation forms, see if there are reoccurring themes. Use these areas to focus on and improve your teaching style. For example: Do you speak too softly? Are lecture slides too busy? Have your office hours been held at a difficult time? Use these recommendations as small fixes that can improve the overall classroom dynamic. Universities often offer teaching pedagogy courses or have centers that host workshops to help improve teaching and learning. Making one or two improvements may increase the overall experience for both you and your students.
Recognize there are things you can’t change Understand that some critiques will be beyond your control. Whether it’s the amount of work required for the course, content to be covered or assigned projects, most of these are established way before you’re assigned to teach a course. Sometimes addressing it on the first day of class is helpful (and sometimes it’s ignored). Reflecting on why some comments are made, rather than the fact that they’re targeted at you can help illuminate that the issue may be less about you and more about their feelings.
Keep Calm and remember to breathe. Whether you’ve been teaching for 25 years or this is your first semester, take a deep breath and try to relax. At the end of the day everyone has good semesters and bad ones, but if you want to pursue teaching at any level, you will be bound to receive some negative feedback. Don’t let it break you.
Getting through the semester as a graduate student is tough work. Midterm time is different from when in undergraduate school. This is because one may or may not have tests. For me this semester, I did not have any midterm tests but I still had several assignments on my plate to keep me busy. A sixteen week semester in graduate school can feel very long while in the moment but before you know it, you’ll only have only six weeks or less left. It is important to work ton continue to work hard in your studies but it is also a good idea to make sure you have some personal time away from your school work.
This personal time can include trying a new restaurant with friends, taking the time to be physically active or just watching something you enjoy on television once a week. For me this includes getting together with friends to try some of the local restaurants that I haven’t been to (even though I have been here for over a year). Also it does not have to be expensive, you and your friends could take the $10-$20 each that you all would spend at a restaurant , put it together and buy a lot more food to cook and then watch a football game (something else I have also done this semester).
When it comes to being physically active, you as a graduate student will pay student fees and with those student feels, a membership to the gym usually included. Different universities have different names for their gyms. For example here at Indiana University Bloomington it is called the Student Recreation Sports Center (also commonly termed the SRSC). However at my undergraduate institution, it was the Wellness Center. University gyms have cardio equipment, weight machines, and free weights. There are also plenty of resources that may be available to you such as exercise classes, or access to a pool. If you paid the student fee and not utilized your school’s gym, it is almost like you’re paying not to go (wasting your money!). So take advantage of your graduate school’s resources and go get your money’s worth! Being physically active is beneficial for your health and it can also be a healthy way to deal with the rigor of your graduate program to help you get through the rest of the semester.
One of the major components of the graduate application is the personal statement. Often, the importance of the information given in this statement is underestimated and as a result many people write statements that limit their chances of getting into a graduate program.
So, what exactly should go into this statement? How should it be structured? Why is it necessary to plan this out? Well, the answers to all of these questions will come through this post.
I remember when I was initially writing my personal statement; it was terrible and I mean TERRIBLE. The problem was not in my ability to write, the problem was in that I did not REALLY take the time to connect to myself personally especially in regards to my work. I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school, I knew why I wanted to go to graduate school, but I did not think of myself enough to connect my person with the end goal of obtaining my Ph.D. Let me give you an example of what I mean: “Since I was little, I’ve always wanted to be doctor and save the world.” Did you really? Are you sure about that? Too often there are cliché statements used in personal statements that do not capture the attention of the reader. One of the most important things I learned was that you literally have the first two sentences to capture a reader. This is where you must shine through, this is how you start the reader on a journey into your uniqueness.
When I was writing my next draft of my personal statement, I took the time to think about something I enjoyed and connected to my work as a mathematician. I found a theme, if you will, and carried that throughout my essay. For example, the opening sentence of my personal statement went as follows: “Intricate, mesmerizing and challenging dance performances are a work of art. A well-choreographed dance has the potential to move audiences on multiple levels. Much like a meticulous dance routine, a well-choreographed work of mathematics is an art form.” Now, reading the first couple of sentences, you have no idea what direction I’m going to go in, but it is intriguing. So what does this show? It shows you can write and talk about yourself without detracting from the main purpose of your statement. I was able to connect something I enjoyed with my work. In doing so, I was also able to get a better understanding of myself as a person, and in some capacity, be more vulnerable. You have to make yourself (through your statement) a work of art. Toni Morrison stated that “Your life is already artful – waiting, just waiting for you to make it art.”
Now, that we’ve got your attention. What should go in there? Well, if you have taken time to think about who you are, your work, and what you love the major content of the personal statement consists of the following [Note: There is no exact formula, but these are things that could help]:
- A Theme: Find a unique trait or angle to write from personal to you and relate that to your work.
- Your background with highlights of achievements relevant to your research.
- Strengths and weaknesses, but categorize your weaknesses in a way that play to you modifying them to strengths. Life is hard, we go through things, but you want to make sure you don’t sound like a sad story and more triumphant.
- If there are gaps in grades or other elements, explain them but do not sit on them. In fact, make sure you show how you were able to surmount such an obstacle and go back into how it adds to your strengths.
- Your research interests: What, Why, How, When and EXPERIENCE. These are important. Highlight a major research experience (if you have had one) and what you did, why you are interested in the work, how it will impact the community you are involved in and when you plan to continue with the work. This would also be a good place to talk about how your research relates to work the department is doing or a specific professor is doing (it shows you’ve done your homework).
- Why this program is a good fit for you and why you’re a good fit for the program. This is critical, especially if you have reached out to people and made connections. Doing this, believe it or not, is research.
- Where you want to go with your career. It is never to early to think about what your career will look like. You do not have to know every detail but this gives programs a chance to see how serious you are. A Ph.D. is a tool and along the way you are picking up other tools to help prepare for that career. Too often, graduate students think about just getting to a program and not HOW this program will help you beyond getting into graduate school.
The aforementioned bullets are a few good ideas for content of a personal statement. Once you have the content, the structure should tell a comprehensive, concise but well-written story. The basic structure follows essentially an introduction, body paragraphs that focus on your research, interests, and why the program is a great fit. You end with a conclusion that summarizes everything, talks about your future and broader impact and how the program and the Ph.D. as tools will help you. This is a simple recipe but effective for creating continuity in your story. The structure matters and clean transitions between sentences are underestimated. Take time to invest in creating smooth continuity in your writing; connecting ideas will give you a cleaner story. Creating that continuity comes with planning. You can expect to write several drafts. You should also expect to that outlining is useful. I would also suggest that you write your first draft straight from your heart; how you feel and what moves you about your work and your life experiences. Take that draft and then write from your mind – this is where the editing comes. Do not be afraid of planning and investing time in planning. Often, we fail things in life because we have no focus nor invest in the plans we create. The devil is in the details.
Communication is vital and writing a well-composed personal statement gives an idea of how you communicate. Think about it, eventually you will have to present research, go to conferences, write grants, etc., and this type of communication will help, so the practice through a personal statement is helpful. Moreover, what I like the most about the personal statement is the ability to tell your story. No one knows your life better than you and your story matters. When I think about some of my favorite inspirations, Einstein for instance, was a terrible student but managed to present the world with one of the greatest theories in physics. Had he not found a way to sell himself and tell his story, he may have never been invested in as a researcher, physicist and mathematician. Stories matters and it is vital you think about your story because after all, you never know who is reading, watching and will be inspired. Personal statements have the ability to make or break entry into a program. Do not sell yourself short, you’ve worked hard to get to this point. I’ll leave you with this:
The past couple of months have been intense and full of events, programs, and time-fillers. Between conferences, dissertation proposal, and life out of school, I’ve struggled to find a good pace for managing my commitments and keep record of what I’ve actually accomplished. I usually use a planner and Google calendar to organize my life, but I recently learned about bullet journaling specifically for research or grad school on YouTube. It’s simply a notebook journal with pages dedicated to goal-setting, tracking research progress for projects, future planning, to-do lists, done lists, and accounting for time spent doing research tasks (e.g., writing, data analysis, etc.). I picked up a nice journal from a recent trip to D.C. and spent an hour designing and getting started. The satisfaction of crossing off to-do items and seeing my done list grow = pure joy.
In Freedom by Beyonce she sings:
I’m telling these tears, “Gonna fall away, fall away”
May the last one burn into flames
Freedom! Freedom! I can’t move
Freedom, cut me loose!
Freedom! Freedom! Where are you?
Cause I need freedom too!
It is the point in the semester where all our assignments and responsibilities are piling up and we are questioning why we are in our programs and/or the academy in general. This period is usually consumed with early mornings and late nights, sometimes filled with tears. It is important that we remember our education is the freedom our parents dreamed of. As some of us pursue our second or third degrees freedom still seems far and inaccessible. It feels as though we are trying to open a lock, in which we now have the key for, but our hands are too big or small. Which is to say that there are always hurtles to overcome.
Beyonce continues to sing:
I break chains all by myself
Won’t let my freedom rot in hell
Hey! I’ma keep running
Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves
Although you may currently feel stuck and/or lost, you have the capacity to break the chains and persevere on. The ultimate freedom is your education and what you do with it. You are creating a legacy for future generations that are yet to exist.
If you’ve taken the GRE and are not completely happy with your scores, should you retake it? This is a very common question that has no one answer to it. There is a lot of variability between disciples and even programs in how much GRE scores factor into admission decisions. Therefore, do your best to determine how important these are at the schools you’re applying to by talking to your mentors, professors, and/or current students in those programs.
When to Retake
If you believe that you have enough time to study and meaningfully improve your scores, then it’s likely a good idea to retake the GRE. However, you also want to keep in mind that programs often consider every aspect of your application. Therefore, consider, if by taking extra time to study for the GRE, if you would be decreasing the quality of other components of your application that are very important such as personal statements.
“May the odds be ever in your favor.”
If you’ve seen the hugely popular film, “The Hunger Games,” then you’re quite familiar with that quote. The film’s plot focuses on how a boy and girl are chosen from each of the 12 districts, and are thrown into a battle-to-the-death where the last one standing wins.
I shared this famous quote, because graduate school can, at times, feel like an academic hunger games. However, no matter where you are in your graduate school journey, it’s important to be aware of the factors that can lead to a negative experience. These factors can include: students in your cohort, the lack of support, and your own progression.
As it relates to the classmates in your cohort, avoid comparing yourself or you accomplishments to them and their success. Comparing yourself to your fellow classmates, can lead you to doubt your own skills and ability to navigate the graduate program. The reality is everyone learns at their own pace, and students may have a better handle on the subject material than you do. Instead of looking at your lack of knowledge as a weakness, turn it into a strength by collaborating with your classmates and helping each other with understanding the material better. This will not only help you learn more about yourself, but also help your classmates learn things that they may not understand.
The next, and arguably one of the most crucial things, to have in graduate school is support. Not just support academically, but emotionally as well. Without proper support, your journey through graduate school can become increasingly difficult, as you may feel very alone. Making friends with students in your cohort is helpful as they can offer support when it comes to classes, and also help you with relieving stress when you put down the books and do fun activities. Support from your advisor is also important, as it’s imperative to keep in touch with your advisor on a weekly basis to ensure you’re staying on track with your graduate program. Keeping constant communication with your advisor shows him or her that you’re invested in completing and being successful in your graduate program. In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss had support in preparing for the deadly competition from a stylist named Cinna, who helped her find her inner strength, and from a former Hunger Games champion named Haymitch, who helped her train and strategize. That support played a big part in helping her survive and win the games.
Lastly, the speed at which a student progresses in their graduate program can have the most significant impact on their success. When it takes you longer to learn material or progress in certain parts of the program, it’s easy to feel frustrated and become intimidated by your fellow classmates. For example, when it comes to qualifying exams, it can be frustrating when you don’t past them right away while some of you classmates pass their qualifying exams on the first try. But it’s important to not lament at your inability to keep pace with your classmates, and focus on progressing at the pace that works best for you. Learning and understanding the material in your classes in your own way will make you that much more prepared and ready for your qualifying exams and future research projects.
It’s very easy to look at graduate school as a fight for survival till the last man is standing. However, do not compare yourself to others, and trust the training and skills you have which have gotten you to this point of being a graduate student. So as they said in The Hunger Games: “Welcome to the Hunger Games. May the odds be ever in your favor.”