10 Tips for Beginning Graduate School
Congratulations! After all your hard work, you have been granted admission into graduate school. So...now what?!
Graduate School is one of the greatest and most productive times of your life. Yet it can also be one the scariest, loneliest, and confusing times. You will learn to question everything. You will find out that most undergraduates are not, in fact, anywhere near as smart (or grammatically enabled) as you believed your classmates to be.
You will also spend countless hours alone, buried among piles of books that oddly become your closest allies and greatest enemies. You will spend your social life over drinks and long talks about either the tortures of handing back grades to undergrads or revising your thesis for the third, fourth, or fifth time.
And yet, you will also find graduate school to be very rewarding. You will discover and refine your passions. You may even discover an unknown tome that changes your field forever. You will make friends who are as dedicated, smart, and passionate as you are about your chosen field. And you will find that professors—even those dreary ones you dreaded in the lecture halls—are, in fact, some of the brightest, kindest, and friendliest people that you have ever met. Even if they do dress slightly odd and seem to be buried amongst more pieces of paper than you ever thought could possibly occupy a desk.
Whether you're fresh out of undergrad with that Bachelor's in hand or going back to school after a long hiatus, these are some tips to help you prepare for your upcoming journey. These tips are the collected wisdom of various colleagues of mine, all of whom have suffered through the agony of battling administrative demi-gods and that one professor who just can't stop using the red pen. We've been there. We understand. And we have learned.
1. Budget. Graduate school is expensive. Student loans, scholarships, grants... there are a myriad of ways to help you pay. Whichever way you choose, you should budget your money. Make sure to know what you can spend your financial aid money on (i.e. qualified educational expenses, such as tuition/fees, books and supplies, room and board for full-time students, transportation expenses, health fees for a university-provided health plan, and/or personal expenses as determined by your university) and where your income from other sources will go to. Excel has many templates, especially for complicated budgets.
You might also wish to work into your budget the ability to save. As I'll explain later, a major part of graduate school is attending conferences in your chosen field. You'll also be spending a lot of money on buying books. Not to mention needing money for semester breaks, vacations (if you are so lucky), visiting family, going out, or even saving up to get a head start on those student loan payments. Try to put some money into a savings account each month. Even if it's only $20 or $50, that will add up by the time you finish graduate school, and it will be there as an emergency fund, your first loan payment, or moving money to get you to your new job.
2. Get your Student ID as soon as possible. Your Student ID will allow you to access a myriad of services on campus, especially the library and gym. Many allow you to obtain your student ID and begin using services before classes begin, as long as you have proof of enrollment and/or are registered for classes. Plus, you'll avoid the rush of freshman and other students lined up to get theirs in the few weeks before the semester starts. (And get access to that wonderful library to start requesting textbooks and research materials before others do!)
3. Love your library. The campus library is one of the best resources you have available to you. You can begin reading non-fiction related to your area of study, or even peruse the fiction section. While it may not have the latest best-sellers, there's usually a couple gems to be found no matter what you're looking for. Additionally, many university libraries participate in various lending programs—and as a graduate student, you may have unlimited access to requesting any kind of book from anywhere in the nation.
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4. Know your textbook options. Graduate school usually requires that you keep your textbooks from Day 1, due to comprehensive exams or thesis work. However, there are options that can help you save money. Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, and Chegg.com are great sources for finding used versions of your textbooks for significantly less than new or campus-bookstore versions. (Word of Caution: Some professors require certain editions of books—which may be out-of-print. If you have trouble finding the edition requested, see if your library has it and copy the pages you need or ask your professor for help in locating the book.)
5. Research academic societies and journals. Depending on your major, there may be academic-based societies, national or state or local clubs/societies, or academic journals relevant to your field. Subscribe or become a member of those which are relevant to your field and who offer benefits of which you can take advantage. Take the opportunities to attend conferences or presentations by the organization, to read journal articles, and to network with others in your field. Networking is a great way to make contacts who could help you find a job at graduation.
Additionally, put your memberships on your resume, as well as any conferences attended, presentations given, or committees that you are on. Becoming involved beyond your campus is an important skill, and one that shows your dedication to your chosen profession and willingness to continue learning throughout life.
6. Build your resume/curriculum vitae. By now, you've probably encountered the resume. If you haven't, it's time. Graduate school will be the time to build up your portfolio or resume, so it's a good idea to have a template in place filled in with what you've already accomplished. A typical resume—or curriculum vitae—typically has: a summary of your academic experience, including degrees and graduation dates; academic honors or awards you may have earned; work experience, including dates of employment and a brief job description; community service; any published works you have written or edited; conferences attended; and/or references that can be contacted.
7. Meet with your graduate advisor. E-mail or meet in-person with your advisor to discuss your schedule, requirements to be met in the first semester (such as submitting a degree plan), and any other questions you have regarding the program and its requirements. Ensure you've read up on the degree requirements and have selected classes that will help you meet those requirements while contributing to what you want to do with your degree. Mark on your calendar any due dates for important paperwork. And keep in touch with your graduate advisor on at least a semester check-in basis. It will help ensure that you don't get held back for not completing administrative paperwork or taking the wrong classes.
8. Ensure your financial aid is in place. For graduate students, you may have Master Promissory Notes or other paperwork to be completed in order to receive student loans, grants, work-study, and certain scholarships. Check your student aid account online, or meet with a counselor in the financial aid department to determine what you need to accomplish. They can also help you locate additional aid to help get up to that "Cost of Attendance" limit. Additionally, contact career services, the graduate school's office, or student employment to inquire about assistantships and other on-campus employment opportunities.
9. Utilize Fastweb.com and other scholarship searches. Scholarships are vital, and many write the check directly to you rather than the school—so you can use the money on what you need and not what the school dictates! (Remember to keep your expenses within qualified educational expenses categories, or it may be taxable as income on your next tax return. See the specific scholarship rules and double-check with your financial aid counselor.)
10. Know Your Tax Credits. There are many tax credits for those of us aspiring to higher education. When it comes tax time, make sure you've obtained your 1098-T from the school (plus any other tax forms, such as W-2s) and have information regarding (1) any aid you've received (such as check stubs or loan documents), (2) information regarding any payments made on your loans (which can be tax deductible), and (3) receipts proving your allocation of funds to qualified educational expenses, to avoid being taxed on scholarships or other aid you've received. I love TurboTax for this, as they help you plug in all the information and ask vital questions to help choose the tax credit which will get you the best refund possible.