Graduate school can be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of your life. But you play a major role in just how fulfilling your own experience as a graduate student really is.
This means taking the initiative to "be present" in a variety of ways, including participating in class, making friends with some of your classmates, participating in activities outside of class and letting your voice be heard in class.
Graduate students need to set priorities, operate with realistic expectations and learn when and how to speak up. You don't want to look back with regret over not being more involved. While you have many priorities to balance – academics, finances and personal relationships, to name a few – be careful not to lose sight of the amazing opportunities you have to expand your horizons, and get involved in the life of your community.
Be ready to express your opinion in class discussions, or ask questions. Get to know your classmates, and establish friendships with several. In addition, participate in career planning events with those who, like you, will soon be part of the alumni network.
Choose one or two student organizations that are of interest, and join. Take advantage of these opportunities, because you may not have the chance to do so again.
But be careful not to set your expectations so high that you end up being unable to achieve your goals, and as a result, feel like you have failed in some way. To that end, make sure you enter graduate school with realistic expectations, and keep your priorities in mind as you go through school.
I had to work part-time during my first year of master's study and full-time during my second and final year. I was married. I had made friends with many of my classmates and wanted to spend time socializing with them.
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If I was to get some rest and do all I wanted to do, I couldn't devote all of my time to studying. So I did not expect myself to get straight A's.
While some of my classmates had higher GPAs than I did, I ended up graduating with high honors and that was okay with me.
That said, no graduate institution is perfect. As you become part of your institutional community, you will most likely encounter some less-than-thrilling experiences and notice some rough spots that could or should be addressed.
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Don't just let things happen around you, but resist the temptation to respond in such a way you'll be labeled argumentative, unreasonable, a complainer or a troublemaker.
During my time as a dean of students, I saw students who had a class that they believed was very poorly taught, in which the professor exhibited arrogance, disinterest in students, weak interpersonal skills, lack of knowledge of the subject matter or other problems.
If you find yourself in a class that you feel is a poor investment of time and money, respond to any requests for anonymous feedback and encourage other students to do so. If something happens in class that you feel is a major issue, go to the academic support office and ask what options you have in reporting the matter to the chief academic officer.
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I've also heard from students who were frustrated by poor service somewhere on campus or who were personally affected by a policy or procedure that didn't make sense. For example, there was a rule at one institution where I worked that first-year students had to wait two or three weeks after the start of classes before they received their loans for the term.
As a result of several students letting me know about this obvious hardship, we changed things so they would have their loan dollars available at the start of classes. Administrators welcome feedback from students when it is honest and respectful and when students suggest realistic ways to improve the situation.
If you have an idea that you believe would help make things better at your institution, share it with appropriate individuals and perhaps with several of your fellow students. If there is a consensus that this idea would help, send a letter to the president or the chief administrator for the area about which you have an idea, whether that's academics, financial aid, student affairs, marketing, admissions or another department. Volunteer to help put the idea into action.
One of these instances occurred when a student suggested I make personal phone calls to every admitted student before they received their notification in the mail or online. I started doing so, and it became one of the best parts of my job – not to mention a real plus with admitted students.