January Entry: New Year, New Me. Really!

Congratulations, you have made it through your first semester of graduate school. It’s the start of a new year, and of course, a new semester. Many people have used the phrase “new year, new me” as a means of declaring to better themselves in the new year and learn from their past mistakes. As a graduate student, it is definitely possible to improve yourself in the life of academia, but it starts with learning how to handle your classes as well as taking care of yourself.
The first thing that graduate students should do before a new semester begins is to reflect on your experiences in the previous semester. In doing so it will help recognize what you need to do to help make your life as a graduate student less stressful. The first thing one should reflect on is their coursework. It’s important to recognize the difficulty level of classes you’ll be taking so you can determine if more study time will be needed or not. Doing so will help you prioritize courses that may need more attention than others if you find course material difficult. Another factor that can be crucial is working with other classmates more frequently in said courses. Lastly, visiting the professor during office hours can be more beneficial in understanding the material better, especially if you didn’t do it that much last semester. Next we will talk about the importance of taking care of yourself outside of the lab or classroom.
Grad school can be a very stressful environment and while it’s important to stay on top of your coursework, it’s equally important to care of yourself. One way to help reduce stress in your academic career is by surrounding yourself by people that are going be a positive influence in your academic journey. Whether they be professional colleagues, professors, or classmates, have people that can encourage you to keep going can help make the stress more manageable. Other ways to reduce stress can be a form of recreational activity or something as simple as working out in the gym. Speaking from experience, going to the gym a couple times a week and running on the treadmill usually helps me ease any stress I have going on during the week. There may be times you may not to be able to commit to a certain number of days working out or any other sort of activity, but having something to do that’s not academic related can help make graduate school become less stressful.
Starting a new semester of graduate school can be seen as an opportunity to improve oneself. Learning from your past experiences and repeating certain practices that helped you in your journey over the ones that were more of a hindrance can help make life in graduate school that much easier. So in conclusion, as a certain Vulcan from Star Trek once said (Spock): “Live long, and prosper.”

The Horrors of Grad School! The Halfway Mark of the Semester!

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.

Grad School? More Like Academic Hunger Games!

“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.”

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Navigating Grad School: When to Ask for Help

Navigating Grad School: When to ask for Help

            When we graduated from college, we learned how to hold ourselves accountable, become a responsible, young adult, and be independent. While it’s important to be able to do things on your own, it’s also important to know when you’re struggling with something and need to reach out to someone who can give you proper guidance. However, as a student in grad school, it’s important to understand that sometimes the help you receive may not seem incredibly helpful at first.

Throughout one’s undergraduate career, there are times when you’ve reached a point in your course work, whether it’s related to your major or an elective, that there is a problem or concept you are having trouble understanding and can’t solve on your own. This is when you should go to a fellow classmate, the professor, or a tutor to get help in gaining a better understanding of the concept. Fully grasping concepts in grad school is important, because the material you learn in your courses will be not only be needed to conduct research projects or write papers, but also will be critical to the career path you choose following graduation. That is why it’s imperative you have thorough knowledge of the material covered in your courses. So when you do seek help with a class, it’s important that you’ve not only paid attention in class, but you’ve also reviewed the material on your own time. You can’t expect the professor to just give you the answer. The profession can give you hints or a general idea of the necessary steps to solve the problem. Unlike reaching out to a professor, your classmates can be more helpful when getting insight about a particular concept you are struggling with.

Getting help with a class from a classmate can be more beneficial than getting help from the professor for various reasons. If the classmate has already taken the course or has studied the subject in question, he or she can give you better insight on how to understand the course material. In my first year at IU, I got help from a second year PhD student in order to get a better understanding of the material in my partial differential equations class. Thanks to him, I not only got an A as my final grade, but I also gained a better understanding of the material. If you ask for help from a classmate who is in the same class as you, it too can be beneficial as long as you put the same amount of work in the learning process. Teamwork and collaboration is necessity not only in academics, but life as well. Although teamwork is positive, each individual must be able to contribute. I say that because while classmates will want to help you, whether it is studying or doing homework, when it comes to completing the work you shouldn’t expect to mindlessly copy their answers and consider that to be “getting help.” One reason that’s bad is because it can make the other student feel like he or she is doing the homework for two people. Another reason that is unacceptable is because you cheat yourself by copying the problem without understanding the mechanics behind it. As I stated before, this is material you’ll need to complete your PhD program and even in your career after graduation. So the help you get from the classmates may not seem like the help you want, but it’s the kind of help you need.

At some point in a person’s graduate student career, getting help from someone else will be required. It’s not just about getting the answer but understanding the material and knowledge needed to get the answer. Lastly, in order to succeed in grad school, you have to help yourself and to do that, you have to have the drive and desire to learn the material in your classes.

Summertime for Graduate Students: Should I be Idle?

Summertime can be a variety of things to different people. It can be a time of relaxation, a time to travel, a time to work, or a time to learn. However for graduate students, summer can be a battle of staying productive versus enjoying a mental vacation. Students are forced to ask themselves; do I take the whole summer off? Or do spend the entire season working? While there’s no definitive answer, one thing I learned from my academic advisor while attending Morehouse College, is that a student’s mind should never stay idle. As a result, I believe it’s important for graduate students to find a balance between work and relaxation during the summer, as they do during the school year.

One thing students can do to ensure their summer will be productive is to make of list of goals and work to stick to them to the best of their ability. Their goals could include things such as spending time with loved ones, taking a vacation, studying, or completing work on a research project. After identifying their goals, next, a student should consider applying for a summer job. An effective way to stay productive during the summer is to teach a course within their field of study. Being on campus for a portion of the summer can help a student stay motivated, as well as remain focused on completing his or her own work. Speaking from experience, managing time for both teaching (or working) and studying can be difficult. This past summer session, I taught a math course for several weeks while studying for my own qualifying exams. However, I effectively managed my time by creating a schedule that outlined deadlines to complete my goals on a weekly basis. Sticking to a summer schedule can help students stay organized and achieve their goals if they are committed to putting in the necessary effort.

When the summer begins to come to close and you see new students start arriving on campus for the first time, this is a good moment for reflection. Continue reading