Last Updated on July 20, 2022 by Ayla Myrick
Navigating the intricacies of any graduate program can be difficult. It’s not that colleges and universities arrange their graduate programs to mirror crop circles, but rather, there is so much more for the average graduate student to do.
Different ways of accomplishing some of the same tasks are also plentiful. Course work that, at first, may appear similar to that at the undergraduate level is soon discovered to be delivered and evaluated differently. Standard lecture formats are often replaced by faculty-directed discussions, presentations, guest speakers, and fieldwork. Reading material is often referred to, mentioned, highlighted and recommended rather than required. Some majors hold formal examinations, others do not.
Essays, reports, lab work and papers are much less structured and often completely left up to the initiative, creativity and responsibility of the student. To irritate, frustrate, and obfuscate matters even more, meeting the increased costs of graduate school often rests like an imaginary, but equally dismissive, silver scythe anxiously positioned inches above a student’s neck.
Paid internships and teaching assistantships are often available, but the effort required to fulfill them cuts deeply into personal study time. In lieu of this college or university assistance, outside employment is always an option. While it may provide a steady stream of operating cash, outside employment demands that the student routinely exist in a different social world, at least for part of each study week.
The role dichotomy between a graduate student and a bartender, for instance, usually acts as a distraction from complete academic concentration.
A natural result stemming from all of these potentially confusing situations is the fact that obtaining your degree will most likely take longer than you had initially anticipated.
What are the average, often advertised, benchmarks? It’s widely disseminated that a typical Master’s degree should take two additional years after a four-year undergraduate degree. The Ph.D. should take another four or five years after that.
It is true that students accomplish both degrees in less time but these are the approximate industry guidelines. It is also true that each year a student registers and attends graduate school, they are required to pay for tuition, books, library fees, memberships, and a host of other cash-vacuuming items on top of living expenses.
This ever-increasing expense can be reasonably estimated at approximately $20,000 per year and up. Adding a year or two onto a typical graduate degree due to student confusion and frustration causing delays very quickly adds up to thousands of dollars of excessive and often avoidable expenditures.
The Relationship Between Professors and Graduate Students
At the beginning of every semester, professors generally meet with their graduate students either one-on-one or in a group as a type of informal orientation exercise. In my experience, most students were eager to get their semesters off to a good start. Individually and collectively, these bright-eyed learners often filled our discussions with overly ambitious goals that, inevitably, led to extended Q&A sessions. But since their questions were always asked in random order, my answers sometimes added confusion rather than providing clarity.
We want to help, but are you listening?
Try as I might to underscore the fact that, for instance, course 601 must be completed with no less than a grade of B+ before a student will be allowed to enroll in courses 603, 604, and 605, or books Alpha and Beta should be read before trying to understand the themes presented in books Delta and Foxtrot, students would sometimes appear more frustrated than relieved with my recommendations. Whether or not my words were not what my students were expecting or really wanted to hear, I always tried my best to steer them through the maze of potential pitfalls graduate school can become.
Find a graduate school mentor
To augment my advice and to hopefully add clarity to their graduate school experience, I would use these initial meetings to advise my students to keep their eyes open for a suitable mentor. This person could be a teaching assistant, a part-time faculty member, a department advisor, an advanced student, or even someone who had already traversed the program.
In most departments, locating and developing a mentor is not that difficult since it involves one of the most fundamental and necessary of all human behaviors: socialization. Encouraging young graduate students to attend all department mixers, program discussions, debates, presentations, meetings, new faculty introductions, town hall assemblies, and informal gatherings is of utmost importance.
At first, it may be seen as wasted time away from a student’s primary academic focus, but it is not. Why? As a new student, you will get to witness the performances of many people somehow connected to your department. You will see their dispositions and hear their opinions while automatically comparing them to your own. Plus, these are activities that are either free of cost or very inexpensive.
When you feel a meeting of the minds could be possible, I urge you to reach out to that person, politely introduce yourself and begin a conversation. It could be the most important first conversation you will ever have in graduate school.
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