Samantha Cosgrove: Top 5 tips I wish I would have had as a first-year graduate student

I am a first generation college student, meaning I am the first person in my family to go to college—let alone get an advanced degree. While this is something to be extremely proud of, it comes with its challenges. I had no idea what to expect during my undergraduate experience, and even less (if that’s possible) of an idea of what graduate school would be like. But I think the things I wish I could have known apply to anyone who enters academia for the first time. You will be nervous. You will take a misstep from time to time, but you will overcome as long as you stay focused. With that being said, here are my top 5 tips I wish I could have known as a first year graduate student:

1. Meet the faculty

As a first year, it is very appealing to stay in your far away from everyone office and get your work done—teaching and your own. Of course you will have to interact with the professors who teach your courses for the semester, but make sure you make your existence known in the department. This was something that I had a hard time doing as an invert MA, and something I struggle with as a still-invert PhD. But now is the time to meet with your professors outside of class (office hours are the perfect opportunity) and reach out to ones you don’t know yet.

2. Participate/volunteer in events

This tip goes along with the first—but on your game face and show up to events within the department/program. You may not be able to make all of them, but show up to as many as you can manage. It can be an opportunity to meet faculty and show that you are interested in having an impact and being involved with what is going on. This can turn into better networking. Anything with faculty or your peers is an instance to make connections for future research and general comradery.

3. Find your niche

This one will come with time. You’re going to take courses you are not particularly interested in. Find the ones that you like and exploit them. Read the optional material, ask for more, and figure out who does that type of research in the field/department. This is a short tip but an important one when it comes to writing research papers and finding your place in the field.

4. Manage your priorities

Most graduate students come in as a Graduate Teaching Assistant or later on a Research Assistant. There are other course releases you may end up taking on top of coursework. You may also have a family—a partner, children, pets, etc. You might even have another job on the weekends/after school. With all that being said, it is critically important to manage your priorities. Determine your schedule from the overall semester down to your daily goals. I used to give myself giant to-do lists and expected myself to be every part of my identity equally all in a day—a partner, a student, a teacher, and a family member all at once. At one point during my MA I had a second job on top of that. Eventually I realized that by trying to achieve everything all at once was leading me to complete nothing whole-heartedly. Figure out what is doable and do it.

5. Take time to breathe

Last but definitely not least, take time for yourself. The easiest fallback as a graduate student is to stay in your office/where ever you do work and never come out until the work is done (which you will realize, never is). Do not forget that you are a human being who needs to be taken care of just as much as your school work, students, or what ever else gets your attention. Even if it is as simple as taking a quick walk outside during a long day or spending a couple hours catching up on your favorite show, you need to relax.

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