We continue our discussion with two graduate students, who share their thoughts and advice for successfully navigating graduate school:
Amy Carman G’19, who is earning her M.S. in Social Work, has nearly 20 years of experience in construction management, and has an adult daughter
Catherine Rodriguez G’17, who majored in computer art as an undergrad, recently completed her M.S. in Computer Information Systems (now Information Technology), and now works full-time as a programmer at Saint Rose.
Seeing faculty as peers – without overstepping boundaries
Because of their greater experience, graduate students tend to work with faculty on a different level than undergraduates do. Being closer in age to one’s professor, and having life experiences in common with them, such as having a family or full-time work, can help break down barriers.
“Sometimes a professor will make a reference to something, and because of my age, I’ll get it and no one else will,” says Carman. At the same time, she cautions students to be wary of becoming overly familiar, which can undermine a professor’s authority.
Compared with undergrads, graduate students often find themselves less anxious about approaching faculty for help or feedback. “The faculty all have different personalities, and no matter what your personality is like, you can find someone in the department who’s a perfect fit,” says Rodriguez. “You should really seek them out, because they can help you so much.”
Being your own boss
Graduate students often have to be more self-motivated than undergraduate students, because they’re more on the “honor system” for getting their school work done on time. For online classes, for example, you’re typically responsible for watching the lectures and doing the work on your own time. “It’s up to you to make sure you’ve been working, so it’s not all just cramming at the end of the term,” says Rodriguez. “Some classes might have due dates, throughout the semester, but in many you’re expected to work at your own pace and meet the expectations.”
In addition, graduate students are usually supposed to do more than read assigned chapters and turn in their assignments (if your professor doesn’t suggest specific sites, you might want to look at free or for-fee sites like LinkedIn Learning or Khan Academy). “You often have to go and look at tutorials and extra practice activities,” says Rodriguez. Many degree programs require extensive research and applied projects, as well as an internship. “You’re not just getting away with doing the homework questions.”
Planning, planning, and more planning…
Time management is a huge demand of you as an advanced adult learner – who may be working full time, caring for a family, and spending considerable time commuting, all of which can make graduate study even more challenging. To be sure, some undergraduate students also have families or work obligations; but most of them are able to spend more time than graduate students on campus going to classes, doing homework, and getting acquainted.
“What helped me was not to think of time management as a day-to-day challenge, but more forecasting ahead of time what could go wrong, and preventing those things from happening,” says Rodriguez. “If I heard my car making a weird noise, or saw that the tank was getting empty, I’d make sure to take care of if before I got stuck on the highway before my exam – which is something that definitely happened to me as an undergrad.”
…and being ready to ditch your plans
“Have contingency plans and backup plans for your contingency plans – you’re probably going to use all of them,” advises Carman. “Find those people you can call on to take the kids to soccer practice, take the dog to the vet, or give you three hours to write a paper. It’s only natural to underestimate how much help you’ll need, and the circumstances that life will put on you.”
Carman shares her experience of carefully organizing her network of friends and neighbors to walk and feed her dog while she worked and went to school. When her employer, which provided direct care to patients, kept calling her in for emergency overnight shifts, however, it proved too much for her network. “I went through several backup plans before I actually had to quit my job, because I couldn’t call someone at 11 at night to ask them to help out,” she says.
Rodriguez cautions against planning too many activities. “I used to get a really full roster, with lots of credits, lots of projects, lots of stuff going on after school, and I’d plan it all out with no wiggle room for error,” she explains. “Then when one thing went wrong it would snowball, and affect everything else.”
Want to read more? Look back at Part 1 of What to Expect When You’re Expecting Grad School — and look for the release of Part 3 soon.