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Fall 2012

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Words to the Wise
Andrew Fitzgerald

Structuring Your Early Career as a Graduate Student in Education


The following are bullet points from my talk on What I Wish I Had Known going into graduate school in education. This information has been compiled through my own experiences going through graduate school twice (master’s and doctoral), my friends in various graduate programs, professors I’ve surveyed, books and research, as well as general counseling psychology knowledge.

A little about me and why I’m giving this talk: I am about to start my fourth year in the PhD Educational Psychology, Counseling Psychology specialization program. As mentioned, this is my second graduate degree with my first being a Master’s degree in School Counseling, also from NAU.  During my time as a PhD student I’ve taught a total of seven courses (six undergrad and one graduate), been a graduate assistant, been part-time faculty for a year, and helped organize and run events on the NAU Grad Students group on Facebook.

My information covers several broad categories, ranging from the differences between undergrad and grad school, getting involved in grad school, scheduling, self-care, resources to be aware of, graduate-level research, and a couple other random awesome ideas. Before I jump into all that, I need to mention that these are simply my own experiences and those of people I know. Your mileage may vary and they might not ALL apply to you, but with the breadth of the experiences presented here I hope there will be at least a couple things you find valuable.

Differences from Undergrad to Graduate School

  • “Grad school itself is more like a measure to your future employers that you can handle responsibility, be organized, problem solve, and persevere. This itself is what’s big to an employer, not what exact grade you get in your statistics, history, or geospatial sciences classes.” -3rd semester master’s student
  • Grad school is not necessarily more difficult than undergrad, but it IS more intense and requires more time. However, this will be in an area you like (hopefully!), which makes it all seem a little easier.
  • As an undergrad you may have gone all over campus for your classes, whereas in graduate school they are typically all located in the same area/building.
  • In my program, you are expected to be above average, meaning no C’s. If you get a couple of C’s you’re out, in fact.
  • Classes are typically longer (2.5 hours for me), but only meet once per week.
  • You will be much more self-directed in grad school. You’re going to be expected to be a little more on top of things than in undergrad; you will receive less reminders about due dates and such.
  • There will be people in class smarter than you, and someone will know a bigger word than you do. It’s kind of shocking at first.
  • If you just coasted through undergrad and got great grades with very little work, you may find yourself having to learn how to study for the first time.
  • If things just magically got done in undergrad, you may also have to learn some time management skills for grad school because you will probably have more work to do than you’re used to.
  • You will get to know your professors on a whole new level. You will be spending much more quality time with them in smaller classes and as you do research projects with them, or perhaps even going to conferences with them. Maybe even sharing a drink with them at those conferences.
  • Speaking of conferences, start going to them NOW! You may be surprised that people from NAU are known in the big leagues, like some of my psych professors. You might even get a good internship or research contact or future job offer out of it.
  • Unlike in undergrad, now ALL the information is important. You’ll probably be using most of what you’re studying now, so pay attention. Don’t just cram it for a test and forget it.
  • Don’t ask questions that are clearly spelled out in the syllabus or assignment; that’s an undergrad move!
  • You get out of grad school what you put into grad school. If you put in half effort you’ll only get half the experience.

Getting Involved: The Most Important Piece of Advice

  • “The more involved students are with each other, with faculty, and with resources both in and outside the university, the more successful students they are.” –Professor of Ed Psych
  • There are many organizations one can join to get more involved in the grad school experience. Iin my department, for example, we have a Chi Sigma Iota chapter which is an international counseling honor society for grad students and professionals. We also have organizations for other fields, such as school psychology. There’s also the Graduate Student Government (GSG) at NAU. Also remember your statewide and nationwide organizations. You’re going to be one of them soon, so don’t hesitate to contact them and see if they have a graduate student division (many do!).
  • How to get involved? Ask your favorite professor, ask students further along, check the NAU website, and even your department’s email listserv (it’s not all spam, I promise!).
  • Grad students that go the extra mile to be involved in their department get an (almost) unfair amount of attention from the faculty. Grad school IS ABOUT that extra mile. It’s not about succeeding in your classes; that’s just about the bare minimum for being a grad student. Push yourself, stretch yourself, re-define your boundaries by doing more and getting involved.
  • One way I got more involved was by directly asking the chair of my department how I could. Since then, I’m one of the first doc students she thinks of when things like teaching or other opportunities like this come up (or at least that’s what I tell myself in my own head!). It’s how I got my graduate assistantships, became a part-time instructor, and how I’m having an all-around great PhD experience.
  • Basically, be Proactive, not Reactive. If you just wait around for things to happen, you’ll be waiting a long, long time.
  • The more involved you are, the better your curriculum vitae becomes, the better job recommendations you get, and the better job opportunities themselves become.
  • Grad school is a key to opening the door to your future career, and your professors hold the key. Get to know them.
  • However, all that said, it’s still OK to say no if you’re overwhelmed and your plate is full. If you’ve really been putting yourself out there and doing a lot, your professors will know it and will understand when you, regretfully, tell them you don’t have time right now for another extra project.

Scheduling Your Time in Grad School

  • Grad school is a full-time job. Plan accordingly.
  • Some grad students estimate they spend 20+ hours a week just reading. Of course this varies per discipline and professor. However, if you think of 20 hours reading, 10 hours in classes (four classes at 2.5 hours each…), and 10 hours for writing, researching, editing, preparing for examinations not tied to courses such as comprehensive exams, whatever else you’re doing for classes, etc… that’s a 40-hour week right there. On top of that some are graduate assistants or have a part-time job separate from the university. You really, really, really need to schedule your time effectively.
  • Focus on the present. When you’re studying, be studying. Don’t be on Facebook or “fake” studying at a coffee shop with friends when you’re really just gossiping about classmates.
  • Focus on the present. When you’re relaxing, be relaxing! Don’t be “relaxing” with your dissertation materials in front of you. Schedule time for yourself.
  • Constantly reevaluate your schedule to see if it’s working. If you’re too stressed to think straight, it’s not.
  • Habitualize your study time, process, and location. For me, this is Cline Library and a couple of special coffee shops in town. I can’t study at home very effectively due to all the distractions. If you can find a good location or three to study this will be a good form of behavioral priming—when you’re there you automatically know it’s time to work.
  • I’ve heard of one grad student that had a laptop specifically for studying… so much so that he pulled out his network card and super-glued it so the machine would never go on the internet ever again (he would download articles he needed and such onto a flash drive before going to the library). While extreme, this seemed to work for him… though I don’t recommend it. But he was able to focus without Facebook, email, chats, YouTube, whatever getting in the way.
  • You may have more reading than you reasonably have time for. I’m not recommending you skim your materials as that would make you horribly unprepared, but I AM saying that you need to be able to find what’s important in whatever you’re reading. Read tactically.
  • Please don’t just read the Wiki. This will also make you horribly unprepared in a graduate-level discussion.

Self-Care!

  • Whatever you do to take care of yourself, keep it on your schedule!! This may sound odd to schedule free time, or hikes, or a movie, but do it. And stick to it. This will keep you sane. Don’t let your self-care suffer through grad school.
  • Schedule a day off. Only one, though… you’re still a busy grad student.
  • If you take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually (if that’s your thing), then you will be better able to get your work done when you get back to it.
  • There are many activities in and around Flagstaff: Swing/Salsa dancing downtown, climbing gyms, outdoor climbing, hiking, coffee shops, local sights (like Meteor Crater, the Grand Canyon, etc), movies, walking through Buffalo Park, Sedona, etc.
  • Avoid the Amazing Expanding Grad Student Phenomenon. Don’t fall for the siren song of fast food on your way to the library to save time and get just one more page written… you’re only hurting yourself in the end. Grad students already have a somewhat sedentary job, don’t compound the problem with unhealthy food (but this happens to me, too. I just love taking my Panda Express to a library study room…).
  • If you need help with self-care or anything else, there’s always the NAU Counseling Center or the Practicum Lab in the College of Education (see Resources, later on).

Be Social!

  • Social support is one of the keys to mental health. And don’t let grad school get in the way of your mental health!
  • Get to class early or stay late and chat with your classmates. These are people you’ll be spending a lot of time with over the next few years.
  • One way to be social here in Flagstaff is to join the “NAU Grad Students” group on Facebook. I’m one of the event coordinators and want to help people meet new friends, relax, meet people outside their departments (we can get lost in our own departments sometimes and forget there are other grads out there), find companionship, commiserate, support each other, study together, and so on. Already this year we’ve had a few grad student events downtown with anywhere from 13 to 25 grads showing up.

Resources

  • There are a slew of resources available for graduate students. First and foremost, if you need to talk with someone about anything going on give the NAU Counseling Center a call at 928-523-2261.
  • There is another option for counseling services also: the Practicum Lab in the College of Education. This is where graduate-level counseling students offer free counseling to anyone, working on almost any issue, for free. They are supervised by their professors, but it is entirely confidential. If you’re interested in free services, call the Practicum Lab at 928-523-3896. I actually just finished up a semester doing my doctoral counseling rounds there and know it can help people.
  • Here is a short list of further resources available: Fronske, student technology help, faculty mentors, the Graduate College itself, graduate assistantships in and outside your departments, the writing center, campus computer centers, etc….
  • Last but not least, one of the most important resources on campus is your department’s administrative assistants!! They can make miracles happen if you get to know them. They basically run the show, so be very nice to them.

Graduate Research

  • Plan your research now! This is geared more toward programs with a thesis or dissertation, but if you’re in one of those programs then try to align your class writings toward whatever your potential long-term research is going to be. It won’t always line up exactly, but anything you can do now will be an immense help when you get to your dissertation. These smaller projects may also help you figure out if you really want to write a dissertation on whatever you were thinking about.
  • Start collecting articles, references, and resources now for the topic you think you want for your eventual dissertation. Again, it will save time and effort later on.
  • Find out the research interests of your professors and other faculty members so you know who to talk to about your own research interests down the road.
  • Your dissertation/thesis is NOT going to be world-changing research. I know this will disappoint some people, but your dissertation is only a giant hoop to jump through. It’s one of those measures that show people you’re a competent researcher. Afterwards you get to do the main work of your future career, and that is when you do all the world-changing research your heart desires. Right now it’s just another measure of IF you can do research. Of course, in a perfect world, you can expand upon your dissertation work later on, or perhaps it is the first step on your future research career path.

Other Random Assorted Awesomeness

  • Save Everything! Especially if your program has preliminary or comprehensive exams where you will be tested on all class material you’ve ever had… you will want to reference your notes, books, the whole shebang. I’ve referenced material from every class at least a few times since taking them, and excessively before my comprehensive exams.
  • Doctoral students: Plan out when you want to be finished by and do what you can to stick to it. Remember that the easiest way not to finish it to have no idea when you will finish. It’s really easy to take ‘just one more year’ on your dissertation, but every time you do that you decrease the likelihood of actually finishing it, and thus grad school.
  • Reinvent yourself. A new place, new people, new everything is the perfect time to be who you want to be, without being pulled down by your past.

That’s it! I hope this has helped you in some way prepare for the next couple of years of your academic experience here at NAU. Remember, this is just my own and a few others’ experiences, and they may not reflect the experiences you’ll have. If you have any questions I’d be happy to help in any way I can. The best way to contact me is either through the NAU Grad Students group on Facebook, or at ALF4@nau.edu.

Good luck in grad school!


—Andrew Lynn Fitzgerald, M Ed and PhD student in Counseling Psychology