5 Ways to Start Grad School Off Right

Jan 09, 2020

By Sojourner White

Congratulations, you did it! You wrote the essays, gathered those recommendations, took the standardized tests, and submitted your application to the grad program of your dreams. Applying and being accepted into grad school is no easy feat; however, your work is just beginning. Yes, you have classes to attend and a syllabus full of papers and projects to do. And there is probably a practicum or a thesis to complete later down the line too. But – what’s next? What are other activities you can do to make the most of your time? Though there is an outlined process to get into grad school, what happens when you get there is totally up to you. 

Heading into the last semester of my Master’s program, I’ve reflected on things that have paid off and what I wish I would have done more intentionally coming into my experience. There are some connections you can make and resources to utilize to get your grad school career on the right path. To help you figure out what’s next once you get on campus, I’ve outlined 5 steps to do to start your program off right.

1. Make friends

Grad school is not like undergrad where everyone lives in dorms and you can meet new people in your pajamas headed to the bathroom. Building bonds will require a bit more work as you balance classes, internships, group projects, and work. So, attend all the “corny” orientation events. If your grad school has a student group fair, go and seek out ways you can get involved. Many campuses have student affinity groups (i.e Black, Latinx, LGBTQIA+, African, Asian, International, etc.) for various identities. There can also be student interest groups such as those who advocate for climate change, global health, and self-care. Making friends at work, roommates, or at community events outside of campus is an option too! 

This may seem like a pointless step, but having a community to turn to has been pivotal for my personal success. Grad school depression is real. It will get tough at times, and it’s always helpful to have people to bond with during the good and not-so-good days. Whether it’s a listening ear or a vent buddy, taking the time to invest in friendships in the beginning while you may have more time will pay off in the long run.    

2. Get to know the location of your grad school

For those attending grad school in a city new to them, this is for you! I moved for grad school and experienced firsthand that knowing your surroundings can impact your sense of belonging in your new home. Similar to getting to know people once you arrive, also familiarize yourself with the surrounding location of your grad school. Utilize resources such as Eventbrite to find social events near you and network once you attend. Some local tourism agencies also have connections to local community organizations that help more permanent visitors find their places of interest in the community. If you are working at a community agency, looking to join a local association in your field, or connecting with faculty and staff beforehand, you might run into someone who could send events or hotspots your way as well. 

3. Connect with your academic and career advisors early on

Networking plays a pivotal role, not only in grad school, but in life. Just as you are not super busy in the earlier days of grad school, your academic and career advisors may also have a (slightly) lighter schedule as well. While you may have more concrete questions to ask about your grad program or their office’s services, take this time to introduce yourself and get to know your advisors. There will be ample time to ask for class and internship guidance throughout your grad experience. Instead, ask your advisors about their experiences that led them to where they are today. What were impactful career moments? What do they wish they would have known at your stage of life? What places do they recommend you eat, see or experience? Chances are that your advisors have Master’s degrees as well, so ask for any and all grad school advice. You never know who or what they know. 

4. Stay in contact with the financial aid office

Grad school is not cheap, and financial inconveniences can arise no matter how much you prepare. Don’t let this habit start with your practicum experience! It’s not all about the money; however, getting a Master’s degree costs a lot of it. Visit the financial aid office and touch base with your financial advisor throughout your time in grad school so they know your face. When people know who you are, they can recommend scholarship and fellowship opportunities to you that align with your interests. Advocating for yourself is one of the best tips I’ve gotten throughout my grad school career. I suggest you do it too for financial purposes and beyond.  

5. Find a non-school related hobby 

Though time is hard to find once the homework begins to pile up, having a hobby gives you something to focus on outside of school. And no – being the head of a student group does not count! This activity could be health-related, such as adding workout or cooking classes to your weekly schedule, or you could consider joining a photography or writing club. You could do something simple such as seeing different tourist attractions, such as museums, in your city every week. Balance is just as hard to find as time is during grad school. However,  taking space to do something, even for an hour, that does not involve grad school will do wonders for your mental health down the line. 

I value honesty so I won’t lie to you…grad school can be a rollercoaster. Throughout your program, you can go from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows without realizing it. Having friends, getting familiar with campus resources early, having non-school related outlets, and all of the above can help make that transition as smooth as possible. You will be challenged and grow throughout this process, and you have to trust that it will all work out. Grad school is a marathon, not a race. You wanted this experience, now let’s see what you do with it!

Sojourner White is a second-year Master’s of Social Work student at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. Her concentration is International Social and Economic Development with a specialization in Social Entrepreneurship. Prior to graduate school, Sojourner taught English in Spain as a Fulbright Fellow and served in the AmeriCorps program Public Allies. Sojourner is an alumna of Bradley University where she completed her Bachelor’s Degree, double majoring in Psychology and Spanish and minoring in Women’s and Gender Studies. When she is not studying or working, you can find Sojourner writing on her travel blog Sojournies.

© Victoria John 2020, all rights reserved