This is the Make or Break Time of Year
Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated December 2010
Fall. This is the make-or-break time of year. In other words, the excitement and newness of the beginning of the term had already passed and you're well into the full academic and intellectual swing of classes. Plus, final exams, which tend to be scheduled for just after the Thanksgiving break, are not nearly as far away as they once seemed. And while this is certainly a good thing, you've basically made it halfway through the term, it also can be absolutely terrifying. For indeed, with the sheer volume of work in graduate school - keeping up with the reading and paper-writing for your own coursework, teaching undergraduate courses, and studying for those not-so-far-away final exams - there's a good chance that you may have fallen behind by this time of year.
But it doesn't mean that you're doomed to chalking up the term to mediocrity or even worse. In fact, there is still plenty of time to turn it all around and make a smashing academic success. All it takes, really, is some careful planning, a realization of what truly matters, and enough drive to pull it off. With these three strategies, you can and will make it work. Here's how.
Work that's not your own
As an undergrad, you likely had the luxury of either dividing your time between classes and some minimally-demanding work-study job, or classes and some maximally demanding social life. Either way, you probably were generally able to find the time to work as much as you needed to on your reading, paper-writing, and studying, regardless of the other "distractions." After all, none of the other aspects of most peoples' college experience demand nearly as much effort as classwork.
But graduate school is different, and most Masters and PhD students find themselves stretched rather thin when it comes to figuring out the perfect balance between getting their own work done and doing everything else they need to do to keep that tuition and living money - either in the form of scholarships, stipends, or whatever other shape they take - rolling in. And because so many graduate students find themselves teaching classes for the first time, it is not at all uncommon for them to become overwhelmed and feel overworked and uncertain as to how best to devote the appropriate amount of time to the sections of those undergrad courses they teach.
Really, it doesn't have to be overwhelming. In fact, the best thing to do is to step back, take a deep breath, and sacrifice a weekend to all the planning you need. At this time of year, there are not that many weeks left in the term, so there is a finite amount of material you can possibly still cover in your courses. Therefore, taking a weekend or a few consecutive days during the week to plan out the rest of the term, calculate how many papers and exams you'll have to grade and the best way to get through them without sacrificing your own work, is the best thing you can do for yourself. If you prepare yourself for what lies ahead, and set out specific daily goals for what you'll need to accomplish in regards to those classes you're teaching, then you'll pull through it just fine. And you'll even have time to focus on what matters most: Your own work.
It's all about your own work
Despite all the other distractions you may be facing as you work your way through graduate school, one thing matters above all else: Your own work. Your own grades, and how you set up yourself to parlay your grad school experience into professional success. And because professional success is the ultimate goal, you should put as much energy and effort into your classwork as you can.
This does not, however, mean burning yourself out on the work so that your ability to perform at a high academic level is impaired. It does, however, mean taking this time before the Thanksgiving break and the imminent arrival of final exams to catch up on whatever work you may have fallen behind on, and setting yourself up for as easy a time as possible when it comes to the end of the term.
Graduate students often have to read a great deal and write even more. It is not uncommon for students in some graduate programs to work their way through several texts every week, all the while attempting to retain key points and regurgitating the most important information in the form of papers or answers to test questions. So once you find yourself behind on this work, it can seem virtually impossible to climb your way out of that hole. But it does not have to be.
By now you're probably getting the idea that the key to graduate school success is setting manageable daily goals and reaching them. Because when you do this, the enormity of the situation, and the sheer volume of the work you'll have to do, won't seem so daunting. In fact, if you can get yourself ahead when it comes to your reading, then you'll be able to begin your papers earlier, which means that you'll have that much more time to begin studying - as early as possible - for final exams.
And about those exams
If there's one thing that makes graduate students all over the world nervous insomniacs, it's the prospect of final exams. How, the question often goes, is one person supposed to be able to study such a huge volume of information, remember it to the extent that the professor demands, and pass an examination?
The part of this that makes most students nervous is the fact that they generally feel as if they have to work on their regularly assigned classwork up to the point of finals, and therefore will have little time to study, or little time to study adequately. But the truth is that you should be studying all along: If you review your notes once a week, if you go back and skim through the highlighted passages in the texts you've read or the papers you've written on them, then you'll actually have done more studying than the majority of your classmates. And when the time comes to "officially" study for those final exams, you'll already have done a good deal of the work over the course of the preceding semester.
Most important, though, is this: don't panic. You can do it. If you didn't possess all the necessary abilities to succeed in graduate school, then you likely wouldn't have been admitted in the first place. So have confidence in yourself, believe in your ability to succeed, and work at the high level you and everyone else knows you're capable of. Just plan accordingly and plan ahead. You'll be just fine.
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