As someone who has been through an extensive graduate program and is currently a higher education professional, here are my top 10 tips you should know if you are entering your first graduate program or continuing on to another graduate degree.
- Begin at the beginning. Admissions requirements and processes often change each year. The application and interview process may not be like what you experienced for a previous degree. Difficult enough for continuing students, these fish-out-of-water feelings will most likely be amplified if you haven’t gone immediately from one degree to the next. Keep in mind that you’re not supposed to know how everything works just yet – that’s what the degree program is for! Utilize your resources and ask questions.
- Know what you want and DO YOUR RESEARCH. Graduate school should not be the default option if you’re in the midst of a life crisis. Master’s and doctoral diplomas are incredibly expensive wall decorations if the program you’re in doesn’t help you achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself. Overall “fit” is really important. If a school values a theoretical learning style, but you’re looking for an experiential, hands-on approach, you’re most likely going to 1) drop out after the first semester or 2) stick it out and be miserable. Students who don’t enjoy their educational experience (or feel like they don’t “fit in”) have more trouble being academically and professionally successful.
- Find out what is required. Each school and/or program has different requirements and processes for their applicants. Just because one school requires an autobiographical essay, doesn’t mean another will. Some will interview candidates, some won’t. Make sure you take a thorough look at each admissions website and if anything is unclear, call an admissions counselor! As a counselor myself, I can tell you I’d rather have someone call and ask versus backtracking and having to correct mistakes.
- Maintain your best “professional self.” One of the biggest mistakes students make is “letting loose” once they’ve been admitted. Student X has been using proper spelling/grammar/salutations in emails and showed up for the program interview in a suit; once he begins class, X is using text slang and shows up in pajamas. Your fellow students, faculty, and staff will eventually be your colleagues in the field. How you carry yourself, communicate, and perform under pressure speaks more than your degree GPA ever could.
- Know the difference between authenticity and “TMI.” As an applicant and then (hopefully) an admitted student, faculty and staff want to know who you are both personally and professionally. We want to know the kinds of experiences/expertise you bring to our school and your cohort – we admit a diverse group of people for a reason! There are some things, however, you probably aren’t going to want to share with the professionals who are involved in evaluating your performance. It is important to know and maintain those boundaries. If you don’t have a mentor or confidant of some sort for honest feedback, I always tell people, “When in doubt, leave it out.”
- Recognize the commitment. To best understand the level of commitment it requires to be involved in graduate-level study, you need to speak to several people who have been through it firsthand. Not only will you be sitting in a classroom for hours, you will be completing additional hours and hours of reading/writing/studying per course each week. In more urban and/or weather-effected areas of the U.S., you also have to factor in a significant amount of travel time to and from class. Typically at some point in your program you will have to add in all of the responsibilities of an internship and any extracurricular activities/organizations you’re a part of. Keep in mind that you’re also going to have to maintain your life outside of academics. All of the aforementioned items take place before you even think about eating, sleeping, spending time with family, etc.
If you would like to speak to someone currently in a master’s or doctorate program at the Michigan School of Professional Psychology, take a look at our Student Ambassador Program.
- Have patience. Most likely, you are going to have to perform an intricate juggling act between academics, work, internship(s), family, friends, food, sleep, etc. Your kids are not going to understand why you’re never home. Your professors are not going to understand why you didn’t get the term paper done on time when you’ve had an entire semester to finish it. Your brain isn’t going to understand why you haven’t made time to sleep. It may take a semester (or two or three) to nail down some type of schedule that works, but be patient with yourself. Do your best to plan ahead but know that conflicts will arise no matter how much you try to avoid them.
- Don’t be afraid of your areas of improvement. In a broad sense, graduate degree programs exist for professional development. A large part of professional development is to explore multiple areas for growth (both personally and professionally) and work on them in a safe environment. In some capacity, being a student gives you a pass to make mistakes and take risks you wouldn’t be able to otherwise – failure is bound to happen regardless. Luckily, while in school you are surrounded by faculty and staff who will give you constant positive and constructive feedback to help you increase your knowledge and improve your skill set.
- Build relationships. Your classmates will be competition for some of the same scholarships, organization roles, and jobs after graduation, but nobody is going to understand what you’re going through quite like them. You will vent to each other, work on group projects, have study groups, socialize after hours, and eventually learn more about each other than you probably care to know! In the end, your classmates will become your colleagues and professional network. Be sure to maintain and utilize those relationships for mutually beneficial purposes.
- Make it your own. Saving the best (and most important) for last! All graduate programs are built on self-directed learning. If you build positive relationships with classmates and faculty, involve yourself in campus organizations/programming, join a research team, volunteer, and run a study group, you are going to leave the program with a strong beginning professional network and concrete experiences to enhance your degree. Additionally, if faculty and staff know who you are, they can better connect you to school and community resources if you need help with a class, information, or during your job search. Current (and extensive) research shows students who remain actively engaged in the educational experience are typically the most successful post-graduation.
Tori A. Holmes, MAE, is the MSP Coordinator of Admissions & Student Engagement.