How to Keep Your Head from Spinning: Transitioning from Undergrad to Graduate Student

by Joe Nelis
Eastern Student Representative, 2012-2013
Xi Xi Chapter
Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA

Undergraduate English students are frequently bombarded with information about graduate schools. Usually this information is helpful when it comes to filling out applications and writing personal statements, but after all of this is completed and the elation of acceptance fades there are sparse resources to help with the practical transition. Graduate-level education is much more rigorous and focused than undergraduate education. As members of Sigma Tau Delta, we should not be strangers to academic stress, but graduate studies can be overwhelming at times. If you’re making the jump to a graduate program, or considering grad school, don’t let the increased stress stop you. The potential for personal, intellectual, and professional growth in graduate school makes the stress worthwhile. While there is no universal way to make this work easier, there are strategies you can employ that will help.

Apply to graduate school!As cliché as it may sound, budget your time wisely. Find a way to structure your readings and assignments that works for you. Keep an up-to-date planner. Put a dry erase board on your wall. Use an online calendar utility, like the one offered by Google. Carry a book with you at all times so can finish work anywhere. In addition to short-term planning like this, it helps to have an idea of how you want your graduate career to play out. Gregory Colón Semenza’s Graduate Study in the 21st Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities offers tips for building a calendar or timeline of important milestones in you quest for an M.A., M.F.A., or Ph.D.

Semenza also offers a variety of suggestions for using technological resources to your advantage. Be sure to research which of these tools your institution has for your use, and which may require inter-library loan or even traveling to another city. You can find this out easily enough by asking your professors or your school’s research librarians, who are undoubtedly geniuses. If you are still weighing your options for grad school, it is helpful to do this sort of research as you are sending out applications. Be sure that you also research faculty interests and accomplishments. This will help you find a school that is relevant to your interests and can best facilitate your work.

While awareness of your resources and extensive planning go a long way, they don’t get the actual work done. Some students may have to revise their plans or rearrange their schedules based on extra-curricular activities, jobs, or personal emergencies. It helps to do some long-range planning on major assignments, like final papers or formal presentations. Laura Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success offers tips for completing every stage of an article-length project, from brainstorming to researching to revising to publication. The strategies Belcher offers can easily be adapted to other projects and keep student’s view toward professionalization and publication, which are invaluable for those looking for a career in academics.

It might be a lot of work, but it is certainly possible for you to succeed in graduate school. The opportunities and experiences afforded to you during this time will help shape your future as a scholar. If you’re still unsure of what that future will be for you, I would suggest reading Paul Gray and David E. Drew’s What They Didn’t Teach You in Graduate School: 199 Helpful Hints for Success in Your Academic Career. This text offers suggestions for what to include in your resume or C.V., what career possibilities there are for you outside of teaching, and what the expectations and best practices are for job searches. If you still feel overwhelmed or lost with these tips and these resources, turn to your colleagues and professors. Not only will they understand what you’re going through, but they genuinely want you to succeed.

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