It’s a big commitment of time and energy, but graduate school can be an immensely rewarding experience. We continue our discussion with two Saint Rose graduate students, who share their tips for making the most of the experience and balancing graduate school with the rest of life’s responsibilities:
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.
Having a better idea of what you want to be when you grow up (maybe)
For all the stress and strain they often face, graduate students often have a key advantage over undergrads: being able to more directly relate schoolwork to one’s life and career. “I find that in choosing topics for projects and papers, I am pulling from what interests me the most professionally,” says Carman, adding that her experience working in senior facilities helps inform her class projects.
Rodriguez found that her experience and career direction helped her tailor her class lineup to her career goals. For example, she asked the faculty if she could switch a core requirement in Java programming with a class in cybersecurity. “I really wanted those skills,” she says. “And I was able to work it out with my advisor, and find out what I needed to do.”
You may even be able to design school projects that help you in your present job, or that will round out your resume or portfolio nicely. “As long as I had a good proposal for what I wanted to do, and had it all outlined and organized, I found the faculty were willing to work with me,” Rodriguez says. “Ultimately, they want to get you into a good internship and full-time job.”
Getting to know your classmates
Having multiple work and personal obligations on top of schoolwork can make it daunting to bond with your cohort, especially if they’re much younger or older than you. Carman and Rodriguez shared their tips for making friends and building camaraderie.
If you’re struggling to find things you share with your classmates, perhaps because your age or life experience is very different from theirs, be patient: You’re building shared experiences through your class time. “I think it’s good to wait it out until you have enough commonality because you’ve been in the class, or through the experience of the internship together,” says Carman. “Then you have something to start with.”
It can be tough with your busy schedule, but look for opportunities to get acquainted with classmates. Like many graduate students, Rodriguez had to shoehorn classes into the time remaining between commuting to her day job and taking care of family obligations – so she deliberately made time. “I’d have to get to class right on time and leave right after, but whenever I could, I would show up a good 15 minutes before class when people were hanging out and start a conversation,” she says. “Even if everyone was being shy, I’d just speak up and say, ‘I’d like to make a friend. Let’s just do this!’”
Of course, finding that other students share your interests, career plans, or even outside obligations can be a great way to start a conversation.
Feeling like you’re in over your head?
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed when you start graduate school, as you juggle multiple demands on your time, meet new people, get acclimated to the culture, and get your work done while learning something new. Keep in mind that you’ve just added a major obligation to your already-full life.
“It’s important to stay positive in general, and remember that everything will not always go right. It can be hard not to let that affect your confidence,” says Rodriguez. “You may feel like you’re not smart enough to be there – as if everyone else knows everything and you don’t know anything. But that’s just not true.”
She recalls being surrounded by students who had years of experience in hardware and networking. “They could tell you anything and build a system from scratch, while I didn’t even know the terminology,” she says. “But later, we’d be working on a software issue, or something for the web, and I’d watch them trying to center an image on the page for three hours – and I’d realize that nobody can know everything.”
Helping your peers with projects can also strengthen your relationships as well as boost your confidence in your own ability. For example, Rodriguez mentions the perennial group project of presenting a Powerpoint to the class. “When we got to the required question-and-answer session, either nobody would ask anything, or else you’d get some very bizarre question that you’d flounder to answer, which would end the project on a weird note,” she says. “So I would try to ask other groups, ‘Is there a question that I could ask that would help you? Would you like to practice?’”
The net effect would be a stronger collaboration and good will. “We just want to help each other out,” she says. “You’re all just trying to build each other up.”
Have some good tips or stories about your graduate-school experience? Share them with us! Did you miss the first to installments of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting Grad School?” Read Parts 1 and 2.