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What I Wish I Knew Before Going to Grad School

man with a miniature version of himself in a cap and gown whispering advice into his ear

Making the decision to continue your education with a graduate degree isn’t one you take lightly. You already understand from experience the sacrifice and time it takes to pursue higher education. While you know that you can do it, you want make sure you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into before diving in. You’re a strong critical thinker and you know that a well-informed decision starts with research. We sought advice and stories from a wide variety of grad school graduates so that you can begin your own grad school journey with a smidge more confidence. 

Things graduate students wish they heard before getting started

While there’s no universal grad school experience, there’s a lot to be learned from the individual experiences of others who’ve walked the walk. Here’s what they wish they would have heard as they began their graduate school journey.

1. Know what you want

Going into graduate school with clear goals can make your whole journey, even the hard parts, feel more purposeful. While researching take time to reflect about what you want to get out of grad school.

“Think about what you want to be an expert on once you graduate,” recommends Dr. Salman Khan, marketing analytics manager at Pet Valu. Whether you’re hoping to get a promotion or enter a job you can only qualify for with a master’s degree, consider your program options with that in mind. If your goal is less tangible, see if you can connect with program alumni to hear more subjective outcomes.

Your goals may shift or become more specific throughout your time in graduate school so keep adjusting as you keep going. Being able to clearly connect the dots between your educational experiences and goals will make you a more appealing candidate to future employers.

2. It’s a serious time commitment

While you’ve honed your time management skills already through undergrad, you may find that graduate education requires another step up—particularly if you’ll be working while taking classes. If you’re intending to keep working full- or part-time, you’ll want to consider programs that provide flexibility in scheduling.

Parker Adams, account manager at WRAL Digital Solutions, says the commitment needed to be successful in graduate studies should not be underestimated. “Before starting, I expected grad school to take a lot of time—but I wish I would have known how much self-motivation you have to have,” Adams says. “It takes a lot of self-control to make sure I’m consistent and don’t miss any deadlines.”

Though it’s demanding, the bright side is you’ll be spending time focused on subjects you’re truly interested in, and many programs are designed to accommodate working professionals.

“It’s all about just taking a hard look at your lifestyle and what’s going to work best for you and your needs,” emphasizes Adams.

3. Invest in community

While your grad school social life will look very different from the traditional undergraduate experience, it’s important to still invest in relationships. Though maybe you won’t feel inclined to attend homecoming or other events, your social life will blend more with your studies than before. Keep in mind that your education includes more than just textbooks and research. Forming relationships with your classmates can be as valuable as any lecture. “I went back purely for the knowledge and education but the biggest boost came from the network of people I met there,” says Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder of Mavens & Moguls. She credits a lot of her career-building success to her network’s ongoing support, referrals and advice.

While you’re a student, be sure to connect with your classmates and take advantage your student status to ask for information interviews with program alumni and people whose careers you admire. After graduating, be sure to stay connected with alumni groups as well.

4. You’ll have support

Not only will your classmates and professors be meaningful connections for you after graduation, you’ll also be able to support each other as you progress through grad school. Though you may be used to working in a competitive environment and functioning independently, don’t dismiss the support of the people around you.

It can also help to have an academic advisor or mentor who is an expert in your area of interest who can help connect you with other professionals, help you select courses, and provide additional experiential opportunities.

5. Don’t compare yourself to others

It’s natural to want to do the best you possibly can. While that’s a wonderful instinct, comparing your best to others’ efforts isn’t helpful. Your peers will have range of experiences—each different from yours. Instead of trying to measure your performance according to others’ focus on what’s best for you. You’ll be busy—so there’s no need to spend your time and energy doubting yourself.

When comparing yourself to your grad school classmates it’s easy to wonder if you’re as capable of succeeding in grad school. Sam White, marketing manager at Verday Smart Solutions, found it helpful to remind himself that he was accepted to the school for a reason. “The school accepts those they believe are capable of completing the program well. If the school thinks you’re capable—guess what? You are!”

6. You’ll need to take care of yourself

New classes, research meetings, extracurriculars, and new friendships in grad school can all act as stressors. Especially at the beginning, you might become overwhelmed. Finding ways to practice self-care consistently is key. Establishing and fiercely protecting a routine that rejuvenates you is of upmost importance, emphasizes clinical psychologist Molly S. Tucker.

Whether that means sticking to a regular sleep schedule, meal prep regimen, exercise routine, or consistent video calls with family or friends, stick to it. While it might be tough, preserving a sense of balance while prove invaluable.

7. You can do it

Grad school will give you the opportunity to challenge yourself and become an expert in something you’re passionate about. You’re likely nervous just thinking about those challenges, but chances are you’re well prepared to take them on.

Do your best to enjoy this experience as well. “Grad school was one of the best times of my life and I think you’ll enjoy it a lot too,” says Andreas Johansson, UX specialist.

Ready to start your grad school?

Choosing a grad school and pursuing advanced education is a challenge for anyone, but nothing you can’t handle. If you feel encouraged hearing the advice of those who have walked a similar path, consider taking the first step and finding a program you’re excited about it.

Visit the Master’s Degrees pages to learn more about the graduate programs offered at Rasmussen College.

Kirsten Slyter

Kirsten is a Content Writer at Collegis Education where she enjoys researching and writing on behalf of Rasmussen College. She understands the difference that education can make and hopes to inspire readers at every stage of their education journey.

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