So after years of working for your undergraduate degree, months of applying to graduate programs, and untold hours debating whether further education is the right thing for you, you’re finally doing it: You’re going to grad school. Congrats! But now what?
Although the environment may be similar, grad school will be a very different experience from your years as an undergrad. As a grad student, you will be both a student and a professional at the same time — you will be taking classes and possibly teaching classes, you’ll be reading other people’s research and generating your own, and you’ll be spending a lot of time (A LOT of time) working by yourself. There are a number of types of graduate programs out there, and your experience will vary from field to field, but you can rest assured that you’ll be busy, working hard, and feeling pretty stressed out much of the time.
So in the months leading up to beginning your program, take advantage of the time you have now to do things that you’ve always wanted to do, relax a bit, and take care of a few practical issues that will help you start out on the right foot.
1. Spend some time not being a student.
When I was an undergrad, a number of my professors recommended that I take at least a year off between getting my degree and starting graduate school, and I ended up being really happy that I followed their advice. Not only did the interval away from the classroom give me the time I needed to craft good applications, it also gave me a chance to work, earn a bit of money, and get a taste of the “real world” outside of academia. That period allowed me the mental space to really think about whether grad school was what I wanted and, when I decided that it was, to figure out what my goals were going to be once I started school again.
2. Read for pleasure.
In grad school, you will read a lot, and you will be asked to pick apart everything you read with a fine-toothed comb. This kind of endless analysis can be enjoyable if your brain likes that kind of thing, but it’s not so much fun when you just want to finally finish reading the Harry Potter saga. Believe me, once you start school, you’ll have very little time to read for fun, so grab yourself a great, gorgeous stack of novels and dive in.
3. Get single. (Or at least think about it).
Certainly, people can go into grad school while in romantic relationships, and those relationships can survive the transition. But it’s hard. When you start school, you’re going to be surrounded by new people who are interested in the same things you’re interested in, you’re going to possibly be living in a new place, and you’re going to be really, really busy. If you’re not confident that your relationship can handle that level of change — and especially if your relationship is going to become a long distance one — you need to take a good, long look at your partnership and decide if you really want to maintain it. If you think the struggle is worth it to stay in your current relationship, then by all means go for it. But now — when so many parts of your life are going to change, and when so many new possibilities are opening up — is not the time to stay with someone you’re not committed to.
4. Travel! With friends!
Money and free time may be in short supply in the next few years, so take the opportunity now to travel and soak up new experiences. If you can go with a close friend — particularly one who you won’t be able to see as much once you start school — that’s even better.
Obviously the caveat here is that you shouldn’t bankrupt yourself. Grad students typically don’t make much in the way of cash, so draining your savings account and going into credit card debt to fund your luxury tour of Europe is not a good idea. But if you can find a way to travel that won’t deplete your funds too severely — even if you’re simply road tripping around the good old U.S. of A. or staying in hostels as you backpack overseas — you won’t regret it.
5. Read up on the grad school experience.
As I have already mentioned, grad school is not simply “College, Part 2.” Graduate school will carry a different set of responsibilities and expectations with it, and it’s a good idea to get as full a picture of that as you can before you begin. The dynamics of your grad program will vary according to your field and the degree you’re seeking, but there are a lot of books out there with advice about how to do well in grad school, how to write publishable papers, how to prep for a dissertation, and so on. When you’re in a field that requires you to do research and publish, it’s especially important to know about and start planning for these things early. If you’re going into an academia, for example, you can check out The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career (John A. Goldsmith, John Komlos, and Peggy Schine Gold), which has info about grad school and writing a dissertation, all the way through to building a career as a professor.
6. Pick other grad students’ brains.
Books can only tell you so much — there’s nothing quite as valuable as getting the scoop from someone in the know. In the months leading up to your first semester, try to get in contact with a grad student or two who is already in your program (If you visited schools while you were deciding where to go, you may have already met current students). If you’re in the same city as that person, invite him or her out for coffee and ask, “What do you wish you’d known before you started grad school?” If my own experience is anything to go by, he or she will have a lot to say. Current grad students from your soon-to-be school may also have excellent advice about the idiosyncrasies of your specific program, like which professors make the best advisors (and which ones to avoid.)
7. Find the right place to live.
If going to grad school means that you’re moving to a new place, spend some time figuring out the best place for you to live, in terms of budget, proximity to the university, and your lifestyle. One thing to remember is that, in many university towns, grad students and undergrads don’t live in the same area, for good reason. If your school has a very dense undergrad neighborhood next to it — with the partying and noise that tends to accompany such places — think about living elsewhere, in a place where you can get peace and quiet when you need it. That’s not to say that you won’t party as a grad student, because you probably will, but you’ll be thankful that you have the choice to study late on the weekends, without having to listen to the keg stands going on next door.
8. Binge watch that show you’ve had queued up for ages.
You’re binge watching days are numbered, so carve out some time now to burrow into your couch and not come out until you know exactly what’s going on with Jamie and Claire.
9. Figure out your finances.
Grad school is not a lucrative place to be, and, if you don’t figure out where your funds are going to come from, you risk going deeply into debt by the time you graduate. Take the time now to iron out your sources of funding (which can range from TAing, to working as a research assistant, to taking an outside job), so that you can focus on your studies when school starts. Also try to sketch out a budget for yourself, so that you make sure you’re not overextending your resources on rent or other expenses.
10. Settle into your new home and put down some non-academic roots.
If you’re relocating for school, try to move early, so that you can give yourself time to settle in a bit. You’ll feel disoriented enough once classes and teaching start, without having to also figure out where you can buy groceries or how to set up the Internet in your apartment. It’s also a good idea to start putting down roots in non-academic areas of your life — try to meet some new people, join a yoga studio, find a hiking trail you love. Doing so will help to you feel grounded, even when your academic demands become stressful.
11. See if there are other newbies in town.
If you’ve moved to your new city early, check to see if there are other new students in town, and invite those people out for drinks, hiking, or any other potential bonding activities. Doing so will help you start developing a social network early, and, more importantly, you’ll make friends — and I can tell you, having friends who can commiserate is essential to surviving the grad school experience.
Once school starts, it’ll be even more difficult than usual to find time to work out, so try to get into a good routine now. If you’re already in the habit of getting a decent amount of physical activity, whether that’s hitting the gym or going for a long walk every afternoon, you’ll have an easier time maintaining an exercise regimen amid the demands of school.
13. Get into the habit of taking care of yourself.
Self-care is always important, but it can be especially hard to do when you’re stressed out, busy, and overwhelmed. Try to develop some good self-care routines now that you can carry into your life as a grad student: Exercise, get enough sleep, eat real food, and be nice to yourself.
14. Spend as much time outside as possible.
When you become a hermit at the end of your first semester, buried in the library by day and grading papers by night, you’ll be thankful that you soaked up as much Vitamin D as could before you started school.