Elizabeth Dunn is a Ph.D. student in Information Science at the University of North Texas. She also works as an administrator and adjunct faculty instructor at Tarleton State University in Stephenville,Texas.
I’ve got a pretty unusual amount of insight into student behaviors. Several years ago, I moved my career into higher education when I took a job in a graduate admissions office. From that point on, I’ve been immersed in grad life all day, every day. At my full time job, I communicate with and design communications for graduate students. In order to do this job well, be strategic, and solve problems, I’ve got to truly listen to the students I work with. I’ve also got to understand their needs and the issues they may be facing. I don’t just listen, however. I empathize, because I’m a graduate student, too.
Over the years, I’ve heard and seen a lot (especially when I also began teaching as an adjunct), and my experience got me to thinking: What insights do I have that I can share with other students to make their lives easier? Maybe when I finish my PhD I’ll write a book on the topic, but until then, here are a few things that your university wants you to know and utilize.
Know about important dates. It’s critical that you not only keep track of deadlines for assignments and term papers, but also that you keep track of important university deadlines and events. Universities don’t try to hide this information; sometimes it’s just about digging around a little to find it. Here are a few examples:
1) Registration. In a doctoral seminar class recently, for example, I overheard my classmates complaining about choosing and getting into classes. I’ve never faced that issue in graduate school. Because of my day job, I know that classes fill up quickly once registration starts, so I’m always prepared to register on day one. Here are some tips to avoid registration frustration:
Use the registrar’s website to know when registration opens each semester. Most universities will post the schedule for upcoming semesters well before registration opens.
Look for this information ahead of time and have an idea of what courses you want or need in the upcoming term.
Keep a copy of your master plan and degree plan handy to help guide your choices. For my Ph.D. program, I have built out a schedule of courses in a Google Drive Spreadsheet to track my progress.
2) Degree completion and graduation. Most schools have hard deadlines for submission of thesis or dissertation proposals, qualifying or comprehensive exams, defense results, and graduation applications. Do you know where to find these dates? If you miss these deadlines, you could miss windows of professional and personal opportunities. Consequences include delaying your graduation date, missing a job opportunity, not having your name printed in commencement materials, or scrambling to get graduation tickets for your family. For example, every semester someone calls me in a complete and total panic because they applied for graduation late and don’t know anything about getting graduation tickets. These panicked calls are always after numerous emails have been sent about graduation and ticket distribution is nearing its end. Bookmark a link to your university calendar or keep your academic college number handy so that you can stay informed of important dates well ahead of time.
Use university email. At many schools, official university notifications are sent exclusively to students’ official university email addresses. (They’re also, unfortunately, going to send you some unimportant stuff.) Your university’s primary means of communicating with you is through your .edu account. Not checking your student email puts you at risk for missing crucial information. Please don’t put yourself in that situation. Learn to be an inbox ninja and utilize email as a tool for student success. If you don’t want the inconvenience of having to login to your university’s email system, have your university email forwarded to an account that you check frequently.
Advising. Success in grad school takes a team! You have a right to expect your advisor to take an active role in your success. Your academic advisor’s role is to guide you through your degree and help you to make informed decisions along the way. Pick your advisor’s brain and have an open conversation about what you’re doing and considering, as well as about your goals. Ask them about classes you are considering, and have conversations about outcomes as well! If you don’t have an advisor that you can talk to about these things, don’t be afraid to ask your graduate office, academic college or department to be put in contact with someone else. Be your own advocate if you’re feeling like you’re not getting the guidance you need and reach out.
Use the website. Your university is full of resources. To discover them, the best thing that you can do is to familiarize yourself with the university’s website. It is a tool that is abundant in information for everyone: students, administrators, faculty. Most universities keep calendars, forms, degree plans, step-by-step instructions, catalog information, student handbooks, and A-Z directories on their website. Because it is a central point for sharing information with all of these groups, the website generally remains current and virtually everything that you need to be successful can be found there. Seriously!
Graduate school is tough enough without unnecessary pressures, especially around the holidays. If you’re like me and reflecting upon your year that has passed, you’re probably also thinking about resolutions. Compared to going to the gym regularly and writing your dissertation, becoming a better grad student is easy! Start with a few of the tips I’ve mentioned and embrace some realistic goals for the new year that will help you to become a more successful on the path to graduation.
What tips do you have for becoming a better grad student? Please share them in the comments below!