Making the Most of Your Time in Graduate School

A world of opportunities awaits you

By Ann van der Merwe
Published August 31, 2011

Making the Most of Your Time in Graduate School

Whether you find yourself in graduate school for one year, three years or seven years, you will want to get as much as you possibly can out of the experience.  To do so, you have the opportunity to choose from a myriad of options presented to you and make use of the many resources available to you.

Choosing your elective coursework

The amount of elective coursework you have will depend on the nature of your graduate program. You may be given a rather limited list of choices, or you may be able to fill your hours will almost any graduate-level offering. If it is feasible, you might want to use extra coursework to complete a series of related courses or perhaps a formal graduate minor. This approach offers some significant advantages over randomly selected classes. First and foremost, it allows you to pursue a secondary area of interest and turn it into a secondary area of expertise – one you can put on your resume and support with your transcript. It can also enable you to develop a professional relationship with a faculty member other than your adviser; sequenced or related courses are likely to be taught by the same person. This individual can provide additional mentoring (more on this below) and, on a more practical level, be a valuable source for letters of recommendation down the road.

Advice from other students and your mentors may also help you decide what to take. That said, it pays to follow your instincts and to consider the reasons people either recommend or dismiss a particular course. For example, several people advised me against taking a course because it was difficult and not really necessary given my research interests. I decided to register anyway, though, and I’m glad I did. It was challenging, but tremendously rewarding. Moreover, while it did not specifically help my dissertation research, it proved very useful in my future teaching.  

Exploring research resources

Most libraries at research institutions have far more than what appears in a cursory search of the main catalogue. Do some more specific searches and talk to subject-specialist librarians to see what local archives or special collections might be of interest to you. Also, find out about laboratories and research collectives operating around your campus. You might come across faculty and students doing work outside your field that is nevertheless related to it. Even if you do not participate in it directly, getting to know some of the people involved in it can open doors for you.

If your experience is anything like mine, you may even encounter innovative methods of research in your field – ones completely unfamiliar to you and probably unknown to most others, too. Take the opportunity to learn a little bit about them. Even if you never employ them personally, knowing about them will give you breadth within your discipline.  

Finding mentors

Don’t let your adviser be your only mentor. Your program is full of people who have both knowledge and experience to share with you; seek them out. You are likely to find that different faculty can offer complimentary advice and expertise. In my case, I benefitted as much from three other faculty members – one within my program, one from a different discipline within my department, and another in a related discipline with whom I took several classes – as I did from my primary adviser. Each brought a unique perspective to my research, and my work would have been much less well-rounded without any one of them.

Your fellow students can also be important mentors. Someone a year or two ahead of you in your program can often offer advice on how to survive a particularly difficult course, how to work with a certain professor, or simply how to find something you need. Even your immediate peers can help, especially when it comes to finding a good balance between your graduate studies and everything else in your life.

Getting an early publication…or a similar professional experience

If you plan to seek academic employment after you finish graduate school, you will find it tremendously helpful to publish something before you send out job applications. Not only does an early publication look great; going through the process while you are still being mentored will make it far easier to do it on your own in the future. Have someone introduce you to various academic journals, the pros and cons of publishing in each of them, and the in's and out's of submitting your work to them. You will not regret it.

Of course, publication is not necessary or even relevant for most other career paths. There are certainly corresponding experiences that can and should be part of your graduate school years, however. Seek out internships, apprenticeships, or similar kinds of employment that offer you experience to compliment your academic work. Use them to establish professional contacts outside of your program and expand your horizons.

Above all else, use your time as a grad student to challenge yourself, open your mind and have fun!  

Ann van der Merwe is a singer and music historian based in southwest Ohio. She holds a B.M. in music performance and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in music history.


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