How to survive graduate school

We’re quick to draw inferences from educational history — and with good reason. Your educational record reveals much about your ability and character.

Bryan Caplan from The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

Maybe you are fresh out of the university, just got that undergraduate degree, and clueless on what to do next with your life. Maybe you’re bored. Maybe you desire learning and get specialized. Maybe you have felt that you are not growing in your career anymore. Then whichever of these reasons (or the reasons I was not able to mention), you decided that the next rational thing to do is take graduate studies.

And who doesn’t like starting new things? I think most of us look forward to the feeling of a fresh start. But when that moment starts to lift and reveal us the course we really need to take (which oftentimes require our effort, time, emotions, and hard work), the realization becomes daunting. What started as a dream suddenly turns into something demanding and exhausting.

But should it really be that way? Not to discount the friendships, fun and adventures in between, graduate school is sheer hard work. And the only person who can hinder you from graduating is … YOU.

Why? Most people from developing countries highly prize education. And coming from the Philippines, it’s as if getting an undergraduate degree is almost a requirement for you not to only land a job but also to be socially celebrated and accepted. But after your bachelor’s, going to graduate school is more of a personal choice. And because it’s your choice, you play a major role in finishing the whole program.

If you are reading this, most likely you are already in graduate school or considering to be in one. Here’s a list of recommendations you can actually make use of in order to survive graduate school. They helped me a lot and I hope they can help you too.

1. Enforce a habit of scheduling

The thing with graduate studies is you get to have lots of free time. The worse thing that can happen if you don’t schedule your life in grad school is you’ll never finish the degree on time. Why? It’s easy to lose focus if you don’t lay out what you should be doing for the day, the month, and the whole semester.

Do you have an exam coming up? Set a plan when you are going to study a certain topic. Need to buy groceries? Assign a particular day when you would do so; say every Saturday is grocery day. If you get specific up to this detail, you allow yourself to execute tasks automatically.

This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

If you want to keep procrastination at bay, you must enforce the habit of scheduling.

There are a lot of techniques available for scheduling but what I really like is the time blocking. It is a practical method of scheduling your entire day (both for personal and work time).

To learn more, here are the links for further reading:

2. Be organized

Because time is a limited resource, you have to make sure that everything you need are in the right places. Oftentimes, you just can’t seem to find the things you need especially during the times you need them the most. So if you are very good at filing away things for future use, then you’re already at the top of the game.

Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

These are the areas you can be organized.

  • Study environment. See to it that all the materials you need for studying are all in one place. By any means, avoid clutter. Being organized with your study area will save you a lot time later if you intend to look for something you misplaced or just something you want to use at that moment.

  • Documents. You need to have a profiling system where all your lecture notes are in one place, reading materials in another, and so on. Properly index files with clear and readable labels at first glance. By doing so, you avoid wasting hours looking for a single sheet over piles of papers you have accumulated over time.

    This also applies for documents in computers and online accounts. Make sure you make the necessary folders with proper labeling so that you can recall them easily when needed.

    FURTHER READING: How to Best Organize Your Computer Files, Folders & Documents

  • Emails. Most academic exchange are done through emails. If you don’t manage your inbox with proper categorization and labeling, it will be quite challenging for you to recall previous communication attachments.

    FURTHER READING: Inbox Management and Labels

3. Divide the whole workload into doable parts

Too much workload? If the task is too big, your normal response would be to shy away from it and instead do other things you consider worth your time (but not necessarily contributing to your productivity).

When you eat a pie, you don’t gobble up the whole thing. You begin with a bite from a slice. Then bite after bite, you will find yourself finishing the whole slice and then, the whole pie.

A good example for this is writing your thesis proposal. Sure, writing a proposal is no easy task. Especially when you don’t know where to begin (and the deadline is still far off), you might find yourself procrastinating.

RELATED: Why We Procrastinate When We Have Long Deadlines

What should you do then? Break down the whole task (in this case, writing a thesis proposal) into smaller and doable tasks. For example, today, you are going to read five related literature on your chosen topic. Tomorrow, you will look into how the authors did their methodologies and find areas for improvement. Next week, you will look into their citations and delve deeper into the topic. If you keep the momentum going, you will eventually find yourself actually writing your thesis proposal.

Therefore, if you approach a big task by dividing it into smaller and doable parts, you propel yourself into action.

4. Focus

You should always bear in mind why you are where you are now. If you get too active on extra curricular activities and end up having no time to do your coursework or paper, that becomes a problem. If left unchecked, you will be penalized through missed deadlines and eventually, miss the graduation.

What we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore—plays in defining the quality of our life.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

To help you focus, master the art of scheduling. If you build the habit (as pointed in the first item), it would be easier to say no to things that do not help you achieve your goal.

5. Be humble enough to seek help

Having a hard time? Admit it it, you don’t know everything. Never fall into the trap of overestimating your understanding and ability. There’s no wrong in seeking help. Graduate studies can be lonely and having a support system eases the pressure that is building up inside you.

If you recognize and acknowledge early on that you need help, you can save a lot of time and keep yourself from unwanted emotions in the process. Reach out to people you think can help you or people who you think have connections to others who can help you. Be it a method you’ve been having a hard time figuring out or mere emotional support to keep things going, never be afraid to reach out.

Your family may never understand the technicalities you are dealing with but they sure can help you unload all the frustrations you’re feeling. There are also friends who are willing to help you out by figuring the problem themselves or connecting you to people who can.

Just take that one step. Ask.

6. Set your mind on the reward after graduate school

Is the pressure too much? Deadline after deadline can really exhaust you. But what must keep you from going further? The end goal. If you don’t lose sight of what’s at stake (getting the degree), you will always find a reason to keep on even if it gets too difficult to bear.

A professor from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) once told me that the experience is like a refining process: you have to endure the pressure first before you become of value.

Always do things with the end in mind.

No one said graduate school is easy. I’d rather say it is more like a personal development kind of thing. Once you get into graduate school and finish it, you’ll never be the same person again. You develop fortitude and determination.

7. Include God in everything you do

If you are not a believer, you can either dismiss this part or hear me out. You might say that I finished my masters on time because I did the hard work. Yes, that’s true. But there are just things where even hard work is not enough.

My advice is that you never allow yourself to believe that you can do all things on your own. There are just things you cannot control but if you commit your plans to the Lord, and allow him to be involved in everything you do, then you will find success.

Commit your works to the Lord [submit and trust them to Him], and your plans will succeed [if you respond to His will and guidance].
Proverbs 16:3 AMP

Wrap Up

  • Enforce a habit of scheduling. If you want to keep procrastination at bay, you must enforce the habit of scheduling.
  • Be organized. Save time by putting everything you need in searchable places. You must learn proper labeling and archiving.
  • Divide the whole workload into doable parts. When you eat a pie, you don’t gobble up the whole thing. You begin with a bite from a slice. Then bite after bite, you will find yourself finishing the whole slice and then, the whole pie.
  • Focus.What we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore—plays in defining the quality of our life.” – Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
  • Be humble enough to seek help. Just take that one step. Ask.
  • Set your mind on the reward after graduate school. If you don’t lose sight of what’s at stake (getting the degree), you will always find a reason to keep on even if it gets too difficult to bear.
  • Include God in everything you do. There are just things you cannot control but if you commit your plans to the Lord, and allow him to be involved in everything you do, then you will find success.

Never miss any new post via email!

Join 204 other followers