Grad School for Beginners

Image Courtesy of Flickr User Jason Verwey

“A scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar.” – Lao Tzu

Graduate school is a large life decision that can both enrich your life and frustrate you.  Like our friend Lao Tzu alludes, it’s not the pursuit of comfort that you exercise by entering graduate school, but the pursuit of knowledge.  As I put the close on this semester and look back, I think about how many challenges and triumphs we had this Fall.  For one, my husband recently completed his first semester of graduate studies.  Now, I have been a student or worked in an academic environment for the last 11 years, so I took for granted the struggle of a professional coming back to school for the first time in a decade.  In this blog post, I want to give a little “Grad School for Beginners” for those who might be needing a little refresher in the basics.  Some of you may be seasoned veterans who are teaching a class for the first time,.  I hope this post serves as a good starting point for your students.  For others, you may be dipping your toe in the grad school waters, taking a class this Spring semester.  As we get ready to get back in to the swing of things, here are some of the best lessons and resources that I’ve learned to help get you through it.

When MBK started school in the Fall, a wave of new questions filled our conversations.  As a distance ed student and a first time graduate student, there was so much to figure out.  How do I find resources in the library?  How does style formatting work for papers?  What’s the professor really saying when he says “read”? How do you find your cohort mates when you are working isolated (this can be an issue both distance ed and small department students have)?  How much can you get online?  Thankfully, in this age of technology, there are a lot of resources that you can access easily from on- or off-campus.  The key is familiarizing yourself with resources early and reaching out to your on-campus librarians.  For the cohort question, I would refer you to my post on utilizing the Twitterverse to find a community of scholars.  For your scholarly searching, using the right database for the job is imperative.  If you are lucky, you have a cast of talented librarians who have organized the information in library guides or subject-themed pages that allow for easy access.  At the very least, you should have access to some resources such as EBSCO and JSTOR that aggregate a wide variety of resources for your needs.  And of course, make sure that you are using reliable resources.  Look for peer-reviewed work or work that comes from a known institution with credentials on the subject at hand.

In the further wisdom of Lao Tzu, one must anticipate the difficult by managing the easy.  When you have breaks, use them to get caught up, but also make sure that you set time aside to truly shut off.  Even if for a few hours, do something that allows you to rest.  Pushing through exhaustion rarely yields better work, and that switch in functioning can get you motivated to keep going when you return to your task (the key there is set limits on the break, even employing the Pomodoro technique if you have a tendency to get derailed).  Finally, keep yourself as organized as you can from the start.  While this means different things to different people (everyone has different methods for their madness), stay consistent.  If it means chucking all of your papers in one heaping folder, but the folder makes sense for your easy finding, then do it.  I used to get so frustrated when, 3 weeks into the semester, I wrote something in the wrong notebook that had been color-coded for a specific aspect of my life.  I then learned, when you get home, just tear out the sheets, stick it in a folder, and keep it chronological.  Is it pretty?  No.  But it helps me manage the easy when the difficult comes barreling around the corner.


  • OWL (Purdue): The Online Writing Lab from Purdue University is an essential resource for anyone who needs a refresher or is starting from scratch on academic writing.  From APA to MLA to in-text citations to punctuation, the OWL is one of the most respected and complete resources for students and scholars.
  • Library Guides (Lehigh University): The librarians at Lehigh University have compiled the best resources for majors and concentrations offered at the university.  If you do not have such a handy listing at your institution, you can start here and then search your library for the databases and e-journals listed under each subject heading.
  • Duke University Research Guide: Give tips, resources, and guides to help you find, sort, and cite material for your scholarly work.
  • GradHacker: Excellent blog from the Chronicle of Higher Education that explores not just the scholarly side of higher education, but also finding balance, managing stress and commitments, and navigating post-graduate life.
  • The Thesis Whisperer: This is an excellent compilation of blog posts from different contributors, all around the topic of writing one’s thesis and the practical, philosophical, and emotional ups and downs of that process.
  • PhD Comics: A helpful outlet for your comedy needs.  When you start to think you are crazy and no one is responding to your emails, flip through the archive of PhD Comics and know you are not alone.

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