Thinking Of Attending Grad School? Some advice

Dove-tailing off of last week’s Grad week posts and still quite relevant as people are walking the stage this week too, I thought I’d give some, unsolicited, advice on entering grad school. If you’re planning to go this fall, I’d hope you’ve completed many of these suggestions by now. Even so, they can be used as a sort of checklist. If, like me, you’re mulling over the idea of getting it going in the fall of 2014 or later, then you’ll want to consider these along the way.
I speak from experience. I also speak knowing that it’s pretty difficult to understand how to implement some of this unless you’ve actually walked through the fire, as much of what people tried to tell me went into one ear and out of the other. There were some aspects though that I’d not been made aware of at all, so perhaps what I have to say will help at least one person to obtain a Master’s or Ph.D. in one go, rather than having to suffer the humiliation of being dropped as I was and trying to figure out a way to get things restarted. So, let’s go.
My first recommendation is probably the hardest for most folks of my generation: try to enter with a clear goal. Sit down with yourself and ask: “What am I trying to do with my life? Is there anything I think I can stand going through the fire for, sacrificing social life, sleep, and the like to attain?”
I don’t know if I grasped the necessity of this thought process until it was far too late. I came in with the same mentality I had as an undergrad: I don’t really know why I’m here but I’ll figure it out as I go.
The big problem with that is you may find it more of a challenge to direct your research. And if you can’t direct your research, you may never get your major project, (in my case it was just the literature review that was meant to begin my major project) to a level that departmental advisors would consider defensible.
So I think that what I’m going to do this time, once I decide on the general degree I wish to pursue, is to begin talking to as many current and incoming students and professors about work they’ve done. It also pays of course to chat with program alumni about actual jobs they’ve managed to get as a result of receiving this degree.
In my previous program, projects and requirements rarely changed unless new professors were brought in. This means that, generally speaking, you may be able to take a look at past syllabi and actually get a bit of a jump on some of the projects that must be completed. Goodness knows I’d have benefited from trying that! All of the initial reading and writing of several papers that were suddenly thrust on me meant pretty much instant overwhelmedness from which, it can be argued, I never really recovered.
Following on that, and this is very important, know the style of writing (e.g.) APA, MLA, that your program uses. And if you don’t know how to write in that style, please! Make an attempt to learn before arriving on that first day. They will likely test your abilities in this area immediately by making you compose a small essay wherein you cite sources, use formatting, and the like.
I was directed to see if perhaps the good folks at my university’s writing center might be able to help me out, but I believe they provide most of their services to undergraduates. Perhaps this shouldn’t be too unexpected, as an individual on the graduate level is expected to have a basic understanding of paper composition. There are various reasons why some of us may not have that understanding, and so I’d just suggest that you keep it in mind that you should work on sharpening it before getting started.
Given that I’m totally blind and largely deaf, many of my suggestions are aimed at persons with disabilities. Still, I think it benefits anyone to be aware of the kinds of technology that will be necessary to stay on top of in-class assignments. For example, I got bonked by my inability to use PowerPoint in organizing two major presentations in that fateful first semester. Not that the presentations were all that great even without them, but especially for the treatment manual I had to write for a Diagnosis class, I may have managed at least a P or pass, (B by most grading systems) rather than the L or low pass C, I actually got. That grade forced me to retake the course the following year.
Especially for others with disabilities that require materials to be made accessible, I’d recommend sitting down with all of the professors as well as staff from the campus Disability Services office to discuss how each project will be made doable. Try to avoid surprises if at all possible. I found myself surprised a few times, and was usually too intimidated by the time that I realized I hadn’t a clue how to get something done that I failed to notify everyone in a timely manner.
Finally, and speaking of surprises, make sure you have enough money to get through that first semester without there being too much financial stress. Seriously, by November I was drawing dirt from my bank account and praying that somehow I’d get it accepted as payment of rent and other expenses. This meant that as the major papers of that semester ratcheted up, I had also to worry about cobbling together enough pennies to avoid being tossed out onto the streets. I think even this issue could have been mitigated by making small changes to my budgeting habits.
That’s just a little advice that I write here more for my own memory than anything else. If if helps you to experience more success, then that’ll be a pleasant byproduct. If you are planning to start that journey some time soon, I certainly wish you well.

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