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Dispelling the "If only I had known" syndrome.
by Charlotte Thomas, Career and Education Editor, Peterson's

As academia goes, most college students don't have a lot of contact with grad students. Oh, they may see them standing around with bulging book bags, deep in heavy discussion with professors. But, to many college students, grad students seem a fairly aloof bunch. There's not much communication between the two groups.

Consequently, few incoming graduate students expect that they will be tackling an incredible amount work, for instance. Or that what was an easy A in college will be harder to earn in grad school. Hence, students first beginning graduate school often feel as though they don't belong and can't measure up, Kristin Kobes forewarns. It happened to her. A college major in history and German, she immediately began her Ph.D. at Notre Dame in American history, religious, intellectual, and women's history, an unfamiliar field to her. Because of the change in major, her adjustment curve was a steep one. However, her initial feelings of inadequacy are quite common even for students continuing their area of interest. "Graduate school is a big step," observes Bryan Hannegan, who is earning his Ph.D. in earth system science at the University of California's Irvine campus. He is also the past president of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students, a nonprofit organization run by graduate students that provides resources and assistance to advanced-degree students. He notes that in college, students are used to being guided along to some extent. Once they've taken the plunge into graduate school, they find they have to learn how to swim in the deep end by themselves.

Of course after jumping in, you can look back and see what would have made your transition an easier one. Thus, graduate students who already have experienced a few semesters are in a position to offer sage advice. First and foremost, they counsel prospective advance-degree students to become familiar with the graduate school environment even before they get their feet wet.

Before applying to graduate school, talk to your college professors. Katharine Belmont, a Ph.D. candidate at Notre Dame in government and international studies, suggests asking professors about the area of interest you'd like to pursue in graduate school. Who are the academic heavyweights? What graduate schools do they recommend for your research focus? Go to the library and pick up journals to get an idea of who the big names are and where the most groundbreaking work is being done, she adds. Be proactive about getting this information. Actively seek out professors for their advice. "If you are enthusiastic and vocal, the professor will take you under his wing," recommends Andrew Kessler from the University of Pennsylvania, where he's getting his Ph.D. in history. "I hung out with one of my professors, and he gave me a feeling of what academic life is all about," he says.

While in college, take basic graduate courses for credit or attend seminars. Taking her master's at Rensselaer in computer and systems engineering, Melia Fitz-Gerald got some of her preliminary graduate classes out of the way while an undergraduate. "I should have taken a few more," she comments. "It's easier to juggle credits as an undergrad." She used the summer before graduate school to learn the equipment she would be using and to do some preliminary reading. "I spent time figuring out what was required," she states. "A lot of people don't think of that very often," comments David Urban, Professor of Marketing in the School of Business at Virginia Commonwealth University. Undergrad students are advised to take basic foundation requirements, especially if they plan to continue immediately on to graduate school. For the student who returns to academia after working for a few years, he suggests taking refresher courses to get back into the academic mode. Graduate business students, for instance, must have a solid grounding in statistics, accounting, and finance principles. "If students go into a grad program inadequately prepared, it will delay their progress," he explains. "Try to take those types of courses before starting the full-blown program."

Another suggestion from Urban is to become involved in senior seminars and independent study projects during your last year of college, because they mirror what's ahead in graduate school. These kinds of learning situations are smaller and less structured and provide more interaction between students and teachers. Often students work closely with an individual professor.

In retrospect, Seaberry Nachbar, a second-year marine biology master's student at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, wishes she'd taken more graduate program internships while in college. "Graduate school wouldn't have been such a shocker," she acknowledges. "I should have learned the lingo. The idea of attending meetings and seminars and reading scientific papers and journals wouldn't have been so foreign to me. If I had known what I know now, I would have been knocking on graduate department doors asking to intern."

Talk to graduate students about their experiences. Kevin Connell, a Ph.D. student in the English department at Notre Dame, had a few friends who were graduate students and through them got the lowdown on the challenges awaiting him. "I did have people who could prepare me mentally for the situation, and that helped me get through the process," he says. He also visited Notre Dame for a week before he registered and so got a feel for the resources and people he'd be working with.

Start networking early. Lesli Mitchell got her graduate degree from Georgia State University and subsequently wrote The Ultimate Grad School Survival Guide, published by Peterson's. Having talked to hundreds of graduate students about their experiences for her book, she advises incoming students to hook up with graduate student organizations early on. "Members tend to be the star students," she reveals. "Those are the people who are moving forward in their careers and are great information sources."

Don't wait until you get on campus. Use e-mail or graduate school Web sites to start interacting with students. Ask about the courses to get out of the way first, about getting assistantships, what professors are like. Seek their help in finding apartments and settling into a new place. "A little pregame networking never hurts," Mitchell shares.

Know when to ask for help. Graduate students, so the prevailing assumption runs, are tough. You're an adult. You can handle this. You shouldn't go whining to anyone. Lamar Murphy, Assistant Dean of the Graduate College at the University of Illinois, Urbana- Champaign, says, that's not reality. For that reason, institutions of all sizes and shapes have resources to help beginning advanced-degree students get over the transition hump. Take advantage of them.

Plug into a support system as soon as you can. During her first semester in graduate school, it took Nachbar a while to meet people in the department. When she was having the toughest time, there was no on who really understood what she was going through. She suggests finding people whom you can talk to right away. Connell also found the adjustment a rough one at first for the same reason. "Don't assume you'll find support quickly," he warns. "It's not to say that people aren't friendly, and that you can't spend time with them. But the intimate support network you developed in college is not so readily available."

Maria Cramer graduated from college, went into the Army, and came to Southern Methodist University, Cox School of Business for her MBA. She noticed a difference between how she formed relationships in college and graduate school. She remembered how easy it was to develop bonds in college because of all the outside activities she participated in. In graduate school, friendships tend to only be found among fellow students in the department who are focused on their work, not on social life. But, Cramer explains, having such a tight group of friends isn't all negative. "For me, the bonding process has been of a higher quality in graduate school," she says, adding, "You can't get through graduate school without building great relationships."

Learn how to manage your time. Connell came back for his advanced degree after a few years in the work world where his time was his own after five o'clock. Due to the inordinate amount of work expected from graduate students, that is not the case in graduate school. "I'm still finding a balance between doing all the required work and finding time for myself," he says.

Wise time management in graduate school includes taking a breather. "Relax a little," suggests Kobes. Her first semester she buried herself in work, then realized that even if she spent the entire semester in the library, she still wouldn't get everything done. "You have to stop sometimes. It would have been healthier for me had I realized that sooner," she says.

During the first semester, don't overload on course work. Because Kobes started a new academic field in graduate school, she realized she'd be competing against students who knew more than she did. As a result, she was motivated by fear to take more classes than she should have. "I was afraid I wouldn't perform academically," she notes. She confides she should have taken a lighter workload and gradually eased into the department.

Don't be a perfectionist. "Every task doesn't have to produce a magnum opus," advises
Walter Licht, Associate Dean for Graduate Education at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Arts and Sciences. New graduate students face an onslaught of reading, long hours in labs, teaching assistantships, extensive papers, and discussions to prepare for. Perfectionists soon get bogged down because they assume every paper has to be publishable, Licht cautions. The students who clue in quickly to the fact that getting through the course on time rather than handing in faultless papers will succeed rather than being waylaid by self-imposed high performance levels.

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