What I Wish I Knew When I Started Grad School at UT

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The pursuit of a graduate degree is about the discovery of new knowledge and the advancement of professional skills.  As a new or returning graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin, you are faced with many decisions, from where to live to how to balance your academic and personal life to how to make the most of your time in graduate school.

University graduate students from various departments were asked to share their thoughts and advice regarding making the graduate school experience as fulfilling, productive and enjoyable as possible.  Here are a few of their best suggestions, many of which are as applicable to current students as to those new to campus.

If you would like to share your own words of wisdom with other graduate students, send your advice on success in graduate studies to kmabley@mail.utexas.edu.

Getting Involved

I’d suggest making an effort to find activities outside your own department or even (gasp!) grad school to make friends who can talk about subjects besides what you’re spending your days and nights researching.  The Graduate Student Assembly offers a variety of social activities to meet other grad students, and serving on the assembly can be a great way to meet people while working to improve the grad student standard of living.  The Informal Classes offered through the Texas Union can also be a good way to meet people with similar interests apart from your major course of study.

Life, study and work habits

Many graduate students find themselves extremely overwhelmed with the sheer amount of documents they are expected to read and produce, and they do it without stopping to reflect. I wish I had known during my first semester to pause every so often and take stock of myself as a scholar, to pay attention to myself and ask: Which times of day do I work well? What inspires me toward new ideas? Which social interactions energize me and which sap me completely? When do I feel that my time is being well-used, and when am I distracted and feeling guilty that I am not doing something else? I wish that I had spent my first semester paying more attention to these types of questions so that early on I could have set a healthy template for my life and work habits.

Ask for Help and Support

What I wish I knew going into Graduate School at The University of Texas at Austin was how much the community offers. The people who work in the university are truly amazing, and they all are here to help and support you through these years of study. They also know a lot about grants, Austin, and apparently everything else. It’s a good investment to meet and talk to them.

Step-by-Step

Break your work down into very small steps, and do five or six of them in a day. It’s the only way to measure progress in such long-lasting and often abstract work.

Enjoy!

The main advice I wish I had taken with me from the first day to the last is to enjoy it. These are great years, and the university is a great community. Use the freedom you are given to create a world within graduate school that you wish to inhabit, and then have fun in it!

Professors Care

Although I knew it intellectually, I wish I had known instinctively how much the faculty are on our side. Coming out of college, where faculty—even the really cool ones—still feel like authority figures, I was astonished at the graduate school climate, which plants all of us together, facing our work. Professors know that graduate students are adults (we are), and that we have come here because we care about knowledge (we do). None of them want us to fail. Rather, they want to show us as much as possible—the good and the bad—about the field we are about to enter. They want to educate and inspire us, and most of all they want to work alongside us to see what kinds of work we produce.

Try Something New

If I had done it right, I would have read the daily list of events and the newsletter and other chronicles of the community, and strayed from my routine every few days to try something new. Amazing how the best ideas come from taking breaks.

Find a Change of Scenery

If your research allows it, study away from home and school. A café, coffee shop or a park will do—just some place that signifies "leisure" and reminds you of the benefits you have given yourself by choosing to stay in school a little bit longer.

Remember, You Chose to be Here

The voluntary nature of graduate school is something that I wish I had thought more about before entering. We as graduate student choose to be where we are. We take absurd tests like the GRE, we apply, we select schools and are selected or not, and we make sacrifices to come here. Some are financial sacrifices, which is no well-kept secret. Others are sacrifices of location, time for the people we love, and the finiteness of work. Being a graduate student means always having homework and never really being done, not for five or six years at least. But throughout all this, I wish I had known the importance of remembering the active choice I made to come here, and that complaining about having too much reading or too little time is a pretty futile task. I chose to come here. I am getting funded by The University of Texas at Austin to study what I love. When put that way, even the most sympathetic listener would be hard-pressed to feel pity.

August 2007

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