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Planning Ahead

Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated August 2010

This early in the year, it's difficult to think about the long-term ramifications of what you do now. It's still practically summertime outside, your classes are just beginning to hit their stride, and the real work hasn't piled up yet. So why, most people tend to think, should you worry about the end of the term and beyond this early in the game? Because you have to.

Planning Ahead in Grad School

Whether this is your first year in grad school or your last, you know from past experience that class work has a nasty little habit of piling up faster than you can say, "Finals already?!" So what may seem like a nice, reasonable work-load in September can, and likely will, turn into a tidal wave of papers, exams, seminar discussions, and the like. If you look at the big picture, September is the most important time of year when it comes to your grad schools work-load. Here, then, are some suggestions for easing the burden and setting the stage for a successful year of grad-school work.

That old song by James Ingram

Back in the early 1990's, James Ingram released a song called Just Once. It became a chart-topping mega-hit and provided the background music for millions of slow-dances at middle-school shindigs across this big wide country of ours. The song began with the lines: "I did my best, but I guess my best wasn't good enough...." While the song is ostensibly about a failed relationship and the pain its ultimate dissolution caused the sappy Senor Ingram, I like to equate it with my first term in graduate school. I took it easy, did my work as it came up on my professors' syllabi, and thought it would suffice.

Well, it didn't. As a result, I found myself slipping behind in all my classes, until it required a herculean effort to bring myself back to par sometime around Thanksgiving. It all ended well, but I was exhausted by the time finals rolled around.

The moral of the story is this: Always work ahead. You never know when life will throw you a curve-ball and force you to step aside from your studies for a few days; if you're ahead, you'll be able to do so without falling behind. Working ahead will also allow you to begin preparing for finals and writing your term papers earlier than your peers, thereby increasing the likelihood of your ultimately finding yourself on the good side of the grade-scale when it's all said and done.

A subsequent line in the song goes like this: "I gave my all, but I think my all may have been too much...." Well, James-Diddy, I'd wager, was never a grad-school student, because anyone who was would know that it's not possible to give too much to your studies. Especially early on in the term.

The second coming

Many grad-school students end up teaching one or several sections of undergraduate classes. Whether it's part of a work-study arrangement, one of the terms of the school's financial agreement, or simply a part of the core requirements of the program, it's the first time many grad students will teach. Most don't realize just how much time and effort generally go into teaching a class. They end up freaking out at some point around the middle of the term because they're suddenly finding that they can't achieve a good balance between the requirements of their class work and the work for the classes they're teaching. Like the "turning gyre" of Yeats' poem, they begin to feel as if things are falling apart and the center is not holding.

All manner of work and extracurricular responsibilities can pile up. If you don't stay ahead of the ever-cresting wave, you may find yourself drowning. The solution is as simple and as universally applicable as any in the world of academic affairs: Just don't fall behind. Whether this means taking a weekend in early September and planning out the entire term for the undergrad class you'll be teaching, reading ahead for your own courses, or starting work on papers that aren't due for several months, you will benefit. Just do it. A little extra work this time of year will make the rest of your term that much easier. The center will hold, and nothing has to fall apart.

It's never too late for what?!

In college, you looked for internships over the summer and maybe even during the break between Fall and Spring semesters. Now, in graduate school, you have even better opportunities. For as you saunter down the path towards expertise in your specific field, you will have increased access to some of the best minds in it: Your professors. Whether you're in grad school for a doctorate in physics or an MFA in Russian literature, you have ample opportunity to not only gain useful experience, but also to make yourself stand out among the crowd of your peers. 

Of course, your peers may be thinking the same thing, and competition for choice internships can be stiff. So, though winter break may seem like a lifetime away, it's not too early to begin working toward a great experience that could lead to something bigger down the road. Start asking around if any of your professors will need lab assistants for projects they're working on, editors for papers they plan on publishing, or simply someone to photo-copy documents for them. Work now to get yourself into position for academic and professional advancement. If a professor knows he or she will need help later on, then make yourself indispensable now. Once you do that, the possibilities are limitless.

The moral of the story is this: Always work ahead; a little pain and overworking in the beginning will reward you a million times over later on. It's worth it. 


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Photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz