Things to know about graduate school

A year ago, May 2013, I graduated from Texas Christian University with a Master of Science in Strategic Communication. It was an enthralling, sometimes challenging but always rewarding experience. Now, with a year of perspective, these are the five key things I know about graduate school:
1. Why do you want to get a master’s degree?
This the first and quite possibly most important question you should ask yourself when deciding to attend graduate school. Why…is it simply to delay entering the professional world for another year or two, a way to become better qualified and therefore demand a higher salary at your workplace, do you plan on pursuing a Ph.D. and a career in higher education, etc.? Understanding what your motivation for pursuing a master’s degree is, increases your ability to be more focused and grounded in your choices and goals when you do start a program. Personally, I always knew I wanted to get a master’s degree because I felt that while my bachelor’s provided me with the basic rules, principles and tools of my field, the master’s would help me gain a greater critical and theoretical understanding of it and thus, provide me a greater depth of knowledge.
2. Research schools and programs extensively and narrow down to at least 5
In my senior year of college, I attended a graduate fair on campus and the thing that stuck with me the most, was the representative from the University of Chicago telling me that no one really pays for graduate school. She stated that there was always a school willing to provide a generous assistantship, fellowship and/or stipend and that I just had to find the right one for me. So that’s what I say to you, when starting your graduate school journey. Do a little bit of research and don’t settle for the first school because it’s easy. There may be a better university with a better program and a better offer available to you. Also, before starting your search, list your criteria for picking a program and school. Perhaps money is not a factor to you as it may be for some and instead location or school size may be what’s important. Know exactly what you would be most comfortable with and do a little digging and try to narrow your search to at least 5 schools. I understand graduate school applications are not free and in fact can sometimes be quite pricey, but giving yourself options increases your probability of getting accepted.
3. Have a Strategy
So you’ve been accepted into a great program at a wonderful school…awesome. Now it’s time for you to develop your strategy for successfully navigating the program. The best approach I discovered was what I call the “building blocks method”. The first step is to have a clear idea of what you’re interested in. This will greatly help you narrow down a specific thesis or project topic. Once you have a set topic, proceed to use each course as a building block for your final project or thesis. It is more than likely that every course will require a final term paper, so use that as a way of adding sections to your final project or thesis. That way, by the time you get to your final semester, you’re almost done and can relax about that final deadline.
4. Be prepared to read and write a lot
I recognize that not all programs are the same. However, it is very unlikely that whatever program you enroll in will not require some significant amount of reading. And so, one key bit of advice, learn the art of speed reading. This basically involves skimming quickly through a long chapter, scholarly article, etc. while still being able to pick out all the key points. With extensive reading, also comes extensive writing. My graduate experience involved having to write multiple 10 to 25 page essays. It sounds daunting at first but the “building blocks method” also comes into play here as well. My best advice for getting through long essay assignments is to get started on your research as quickly as possible (this is where you need to become very well acquainted with the campus library). Once you’ve done that, go through the research and highlight all the relevant quotes, ideas, thoughts, etc. you will need for your essay. Then break down your essay paragraph by paragraph, idea by idea. That way, when you get settled down to start writing, you know exactly what you want to say, how you want to say it and the actual writing of the paper should take you no time at all.
5. Have fun
There is something of a stigma attached to graduate school. That it’s this big, scary, very serious and daunting challenge. The truth is that yes, while graduate school can be challenging at times, especially if you are not well organized and dedicated, it can also be fun and enjoyable, as long as you are open to the whole experience. You know what they say about “all work and no play”. So the final and one of the best pieces of advice I can give, is to make time to enjoy the experience. Get to know the other students in your program and try to have outings and hangouts together, join organizations that are specifically for graduate students, eat healthy and exercise, take advantage of the fun things offered on campus and even engage in activities outside your department. Make the experience a well-rounded one and that will only further guarantee your eventual success.

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