Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated September 2010
When people talk about graduate school, they tend to focus on the academic side of it. This does makes sense: Grad school is, after all, primarily a time of honing your skills and knowledge in your particular area of study and gaining the expertise necessary to make an impression in the field once you graduate and begin working.
But there is another side of the grad school experience that people don't talk about as much and that is, nonetheless, crucial. And the fact that it is not as widely discussed means that far too few students-both prospective and current-know about it: The extra-curricular experience.
In graduate school, this takes two main forms: fellowships and study abroad experiences, and both can enrich your overall time in school in ways you never imagined. And as a result, they have the potential to make you a much more desirable job candidate.
It may seem counterintuitive, but graduate school is the perfect time to try to get some sort of a fellowship. Now, most people probably think this is foolish. Grad school, after all, is a time to focus intensely on your studies, make the most of your time in the classroom and in the library, and do everything you can to ensure that your grades are high and that your thesis or dissertation is as good as it possibly can be.
And while those goals are certainly laudable, they are necessary to have for a successful grad school experience; the idea that the only way to achieve them is through class work and studying is myopic and dangerously single-minded.
Let's think about this for a moment: You're in grad school in order to become a better practitioner of whatever field you are studying. So whether it's journalism, medicine or astrophysics, your goals are generally the same: To take your knowledge level from what is was at the end of college, or whatever it became after a few years of working in the field, and to transform it into something altogether deeper and more complete. But just like you cannot learn how to hit a golf ball simply by studying Tiger Woods' swing, you cannot learn how to become the best in your field simply by reading about it in books and experimenting with it in labs.
The rule is this: The more ways in which you can experience the work typical of practitioners in your field, the more global an understanding of it you'll have. And as a natural consequence of this, the better you will become when it comes time for you to engage in it yourself.
Fellowships, which come in all kinds of experiences, are among the best ways to make the most of your time in graduate school...even if they do not require you to sit in a classroom in order to complete them. And best of all, they are often paid for, in part or in full, by others. And free is always better.
The bigger picture
Study abroad: The words simply drip with the possibility and excitement that undergrads all over the world feel when it comes time to consider spending a semester or year in another country. And while it is commonly agreed that a study abroad experience is one of the single best ways to globalize - both literally and figuratively - a student's perspective on both the academic and non-academic world, the one downside of it is that most people tend to think of it only in terms of the undergraduate experience.
And while graduate students certainly do not go on study abroad voyages like their undergraduate counterparts, they do have the opportunity to benefit from the bigger world outside the confines of their graduate school itself.
Whether you are a medical-school student who spends a summer working for Doctors Without Borders in an impoverished village halfway around the world, or an archaeology student digging in the sands of the Middle East, the fact is that the further from home you get, the paradoxically more intense your learning experience is likely to be. Why? Because as a grad student, you probably spend a lot - or most - of your time buried in your books. And while there is an entire world of knowledge to be gained from that, there's more out there than just that. And the more ways you can experience the reality of your work, the more fully and deeply you will understand it.
The classic example is of the archaeology student. It is one thing to study, say, the culture of the ancient Egyptians; their burial rituals, the tools they used, the conditions in which their laborers worked. But it is another thing entirely to actually spend a summer kneeling in the sands of the desert, smelling the stagnant dry air of the place, interacting with locals who live among those ruins, feeling for yourself the rush of excitement and nervousness as you unearth an object that has not seen the light of day for thousands of years.
There is no book that can teach you about that. There is no exam you can take that will quantify the importance of understanding that aspect of the archaeological experience. And once you've done something like that, your studies will not only be richer, but you are likely to be even more inspired than you already were when it comes to honing your expertise. It is, indeed, the best way possible to round out your studies. And one heck of a life experience, to boot.
Whatever you do, the important thing is to make sure you take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way as a grad student. In fact, the most successful and resourceful students will not wait for opportunities to come their way, but, rather, will create opportunities themselves by seeking out these fellowships and programs abroad. Of course, whatever you do, just make sure that you engage in as many extracurricular opportunities as you can. You will not only be a better person for it, but you'll round out your education, as well.
Plus, you'll have a great time in the process.