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Negotiate 7 Graduate School Pitfalls

Know how to respond in these common grad school situations, a former admissions dean says.

Graduate students should take action if they face stress or academic problems.

Graduate students should take action if they face stress or academic problems.

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The desire to earn a graduate degree often goes beyond the motivation to enhance one's career. The allure often begins with a desire to experience what, for many, is a seminal intellectual life experience. Although the intellectual aspects of grad school are profound, the imagined glamour fades quickly when the real work begins. 

As students become enmeshed in their educational communities, they may encounter difficult situations, or potential pitfalls, that need to be addressed. Resist the temptation to be a doormat and allow things to happen around you. Instead, work to find realistic solutions, and avoid coming across as argumentative or unreasonable. From my experience as a graduate admissions dean, here are some common issues that require action: 

1. A difficult professor: Graduate students sometimes find themselves in courses they believe are being poorly taught or managed. Perhaps the professor exhibits arrogance, disinterest, or weak interpersonal skills that negatively affect your experience or grades.

If you feel it's serious, visit the academic support office to find out how to report the matter to the chief academic officer. Take advantage of any opportunities to provide feedback through an end-of-class survey. And if you know other students share your views, encourage them to complete the survey, too.

 2. Less-than-ideal student service: You've earned your seat in graduate school and have committed to the personal and financial responsibilities involved. But keep in mind: You are not just a student; you're also a customer.

If you have observed poor customer service somewhere on campus, speak up. But don't just complain; offer a possible solution. In my experience, administrators welcome feedback from students when it is honest, sincere, respectful, and when it includes a realistic means for improvement. 

[See five tips for preparing for grad school.] 

3. Cheating classmates: Before doing anything, make sure you know the policies regarding academic misconduct at your institution. If you believe you need to speak with someone, be sure it is someone you can trust and who is positioned to provide useful guidance about the best way to handle the situation.

 4. Academic help: Smart and ambitious graduate students often perceive accepting academic help as a sign of weakness—that somehow they don't have what it takes. However, graduate education is too important to let pride interfere.

Seeking academic help is not a sign of weakness but of contemplative strength. If you believe you need some academic help, ask for it. Holding things in and not addressing growing issues will only result in greater difficulty later.

 5. Emotional stress: Through many years as a grad school dean and as one who went through the process as a master's and later as a Ph.D. student, I can tell you that it is often personal—rather than academic—issues that cause the most emotional and psychological turmoil for graduate students.

Speak with a trusted member of the faculty or administration at your institution, or consider talking with a loved one or your physician to get the help you need. Many universities offer free counseling services, and meeting with a counselor or therapist remains completely confidential.

 [Learn to de-stress from student loan debt.]

 6. Harassment or outright abuse: Grad school is hard and stressful enough, and you don't need to accept harassing and hostile behavior from anyone, let alone a fellow student or faculty member. If you have witnessed or experienced behavior that is completely unprofessional, inappropriate, or perhaps illegal, do something about it.

As a member of your academic community, you have certain rights and—equally important—certain responsibilities. Review the student handbook for policies governing appropriate conduct, abuse, and harassment. Follow the procedures set forth in these policies. Your privacy is guaranteed and your confidentiality will be maintained.

 7. Unfair grades: If there is one issue that connects all students from kindergarten to graduate school, it's that every student at some point believes he or she has been graded unfairly. If you feel comfortable addressing a grade directly with your professor, be polite and ask him or her to explain the grade—not because you want to take issue but because you want to learn how to make future adjustments. Often, that conversation will provide an opportunity to defend your position without coming across as confrontational.