When you’re considering going back to school, choosing the right graduate program is a challenging first step. But perhaps even more daunting is the next step: preparing for success in graduate school.
The thought of juggling classwork with your job and family commitments can be overwhelming. After all, you have made a major commitment in both time and money. But don’t worry. Countless professionals have successfully completed their degree while continuing to work full time. And you will, too!
Life as a graduate student is different from what you remember from your undergraduate days. Professors expect you to be more proactive and self-sufficient. You also likely have many other priorities in your life — from professional responsibilities to family obligations — competing for your time.
If you have been out of school for a few years, you may also notice differences in teaching tools and techniques.
“University instruction has changed dramatically over the past few years, especially with the increase of online courses,” says Kelly Ross, predegree and admissions advisor at Harvard Extension School.
Properly preparing for graduate school before you start your first class can help you start your semester off right and overcome unforeseen challenges that may arise.
Here are four questions to ask yourself as you begin the process of preparing for graduate school.
1. How will you approach work/life/school balance?
Achieving a healthy and appropriate work/life balance can be a struggle for anyone. Toss graduate school into the mix and you have a recipe for stress. While you won’t be able to completely eliminate stress, there are things you can do to minimize it.
Figuring out how to restructure your time is key.
You need to be honest with your friends and family about how graduate school is going to make your schedule less flexible than what they may be accustomed to.
Many people find that establishing a schedule works well.
Consider carving out specific times in the week for projects, studying, friends, family, and activities like going to the gym. There will certainly be times you’ll have to say no to social functions. But planning ahead carefully will help you avoid schedule conflicts and the scramble to get assignments completed on time.
It’s also important to seek out flexibility in your schedule wherever possible.
Consider talking to your employer about flex time and working from home. Depending on your academic program, consider online courses to save you time on commuting. At Harvard Extension School, for example, most degree and certificate programs are online.
Also, be honest with yourself about what you can handle. Avoid the temptation to take on too much.
“Remember to be as realistic as possible when deciding how many courses to take per term,” says Ross.
Remember that a graduate course may only meet for two hours per week. But it will require a significant amount of time outside of the classroom to complete the readings and assignments.
Learn how these Harvard Extension School alumni juggled their work/life balance.
2. Who can you recruit to be your support network?
Your friends and family may initially struggle to accept that graduate school is going to take up time that you used to spend with them.
Make it clear why you are continuing your education. If they understand why graduate school is important to you, they can find ways to support you.
If you have children or are caring for elderly relatives, you’ll need to figure out who can step in to lend a hand. If you are a parent with young children, for example, you’ll want to make sure you have adequate child care in place before your first class even starts.
Don’t forget your classmates can serve as a support network as well.
It’s likely you’ll have classmates who are also balancing work and family commitments. You can gain insight from their experiences. Nothing compares to learning from people who are coping with the same struggles as you are.
3. What do you need to feel prepared for your first class?
Are you feeling anxious about returning to the rigors of academic life? One way to prepare for graduate school coursework is to review your syllabus before the class starts so you know when all major assignments are due. This will help you allocate your time around family and work commitments.
Knowing what your instructors will expect will also motivate you to develop a strategy to avoid procrastination, schedule conflicts, and last-minute scrambling.
If you went to college years ago, you may have memories of lugging heavy textbooks around. Today, however, many resources are accessible online.
You’ll want to make sure you have all the necessary technology at your fingertips before your program starts. For example, will you need programs like Microsoft Excel or Word? Do you need a stronger Internet connection for online classes?
You may even need to invest in a dedicated computer. While a family can share one computer for casual use, you may need your own device — especially if taking online courses.
4. How will you face unexpected challenges?
Even the most prepared graduate student will face unexpected challenges during their time as a graduate student. As the old saying goes, “expect the unexpected.”
Being flexible with your time is key to handling life when things don’t go according to plan.
And remember: some of the toughest challenges you’ll face may be psychological.
“A major challenge that many (students) don’t necessarily expect but begin experiencing is imposter syndrome,” says Ross.
Imposter syndrome—feelings of inadequacy and doubt in your abilities, and that you will soon be seen as a fraud—is common for many graduate students, especially at the beginning of graduate school.
“Imposter syndrome can be really difficult to overcome,” says Ross. “But students should just take it one day at a time, one assignment at a time, one class at a time. It’s likely that many of your classmates are experiencing it too but no one is talking about it.”
Remind yourself that yes, you DO belong in the program you’re in!
Preparation for graduate school is key to your success. Keep your end goal in sight and the payoff will make all the temporary sacrifices worth it.