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  • lauren 11:04 pm on March 24, 2014 Permalink  

    Finding Work/School/Life Balance 

    By Jill Chiasson – MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, American University

    Jill ChiassonIf I had to select one word to best describe my life as a graduate student, it would be “busy.” I am perpetually busy, and there never seems to be enough hours in a day. In a perfect world, as graduate students, we would all be able to dedicate ourselves to studying full-time, with no other demands on our time.  The reality, however, is that many graduate students also juggle jobs (full or part-time) and family. The trick is learning how to balance all these elements in order to maintain your focus—and your sanity.

    I began my graduate degree program as a full-time student with two part-time jobs (a total of 25 hours a week). That first semester, my life felt a bit like a whirlwind.  The only way I got through it was by learning how to use “the spaces in between”— those small windows of opportunity between jobs or between work and class. It was a crash-course in learning how to work incrementally, seamlessly (and sometimes not-so-seamlessly), picking up where I left off from one mini work session to the next. I also had to block out large chunks of time on the weekends, which meant giving up time I would have rather spent relaxing or socializing.

    After my first semester, I took a full-time job. Because I (thankfully) recognized that it would be difficult to balance working 40 hours a week with a full course load, I took only two classes my second semester. This proved to be a smart decision as I found managing a full-time job with just two classes incredibly challenging. Life took another turn when I had a baby, and suddenly became a full-time mom and part-time graduate student. In some respects, working full-time and going to school part-time was easier than being a full-time mom and part-time student.  Because of the unpredictability of an infant’s schedule, I’ve had to be even more diligent about time management, using each of my son’s naps as a short opportunity to accomplish some school work.

    Carving out quality time to spend with my husband, son and friends has been an important counter-balance to the demands of graduate school, and has helped me maintain balance in my life. I have to admit, though, that there are some times when I just barely manage to get it all done!  Balancing the demands of school and work, or school and family can seem an overwhelming prospect, but it’s not insurmountable! In order to help encourage you to find balance as you embark on your graduate journey, here are some humble words of advice.

    • Check your expectations
      If you plan to be a full-time student, it is probably not realistic to expect to work full-time. While there are some (amazing) students who manage this, it cannot be easy, and requires very careful time management. Burnout is a real possibility in this scenario. Maybe it is best to seek out part-time employment, particularly as you first begin your degree program. Once you have a better understanding of your academic demands, you can then reevaluate whether you have the time to work more hours at your job. There are many part-time employment opportunities to explore on campus, if you are looking for part-time employment. If you already have a full-time job, do your best to leave your work at work. If taking work home is an issue (and even an expectation) at your job, you may want to have a conversation with your supervisor about your workload.
    • Time management
      Don’t underestimate the amount of time that graduate school demands. Most graduate classes only meet once a week, but expect to spend a significant amount of time outside of class reading, doing homework, writing papers, participating in group projects, or doing research. Professors have high expectations, in terms of quantity (of reading/work) and quality (of your work). Time management is especially crucial if you’re working, as you have even less free time. Create a schedule, and then stick to it! One thing that helped me was a marathon cooking session  on Sunday, which left me with enough food to eat the rest of the week. Find the “life hacks” that work for you.
    • Remember to take a step back once in awhile
      Remember that you have a life (and self) outside of work and school! Everyone needs some downtime, so schedule some time for yourself to do something enjoyable, whether that’s taking a nap or spending some quality time with friends or family. Sometimes doing nothing can work wonders for your productivity— it refreshes your mind and allows you to return to your studies with renewed vigor and purpose.

    If you strive for balance in your work and school life, you CAN do it all, and remain (mostly) sane.

  • lauren 6:54 pm on February 24, 2014 Permalink  

    Preparing for “the Real World” 

    By Morgan DeHart – MA in Mathematics, American University

    College, be it undergraduate or graduate level, is a time for self discovery and exploration. They create a nice little “bubble” for people in the early and mid twenties to learn academically and socially. Students are tested in their chosen majors at great length, but the true test comes post graduation when they enter “the real world”.

    After growing up in a small town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and attending a small liberal arts college in rural Maryland I knew I wanted to attend a graduate school in the city. I applied to schools in cities up and down the easy coast, as far north as Boston to as far south as Atlanta. After receiving both acceptance and rejection letters I began looking more closely at each school to find which one was the best fit.

    Coming from a smaller undergraduate college it was important to me to have a similar atmosphere for graduate school. The Mathematics and Statistics department at American University has everything I was looking for. Their small size encourages a great community of faculty and students. Every professor knows every student by name and they are extremely friendly. They are all excited about teaching, the research they are doing, and encourage students to get involved with them. Within my first year of study I joined two research teams on campus and by the end of this semester will have presented work for both at two nationally recognized conferences, both giving me great experience and helping to develop my resumé.

    The professors do an amazing job preparing you to start your career. They all have varying backgrounds and talking with them can help steer your career path. I had no clue what type of career I wanted and what type of jobs would best fit my skill set and interests, but after talking with my adviser and other members of the department I know I should pursue Analytics.

    The classes I am taking are preparing me to dive right into the workforce. While each class thoroughly develops the mathematical theory required, they each also have a strong application component. Bridging the gap between theory and application can sometimes be the hardest thing, but the professors at American University do a great job helping students overcome this obstacle.

    Choosing to attend American University has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, both academically and personally. As my graduation date looms closer I know that with the help of the professors at American University I have both the technical training and the mental preparation to start life in “the real world” post college.

  • lauren 2:14 am on February 10, 2014 Permalink  

    By Stephanie Sunderlin 

    MS in Health Promotions Management, American University

    Sunderlin 3It can be a difficult decision to choose the University where you plan to pursue your graduate studies. After spending four (+) years at an undergraduate institution and possibly a few (or many) years working, you are electing to invest significant time, resources, money, and effort to further your education and personal /professional growth. I understand that it’s a big deal!

    When I worked as a tour guide at my undergraduate institution, I used to tell prospective students that they should try imagining themselves at the University… “picture yourself on campus, at the library, in class, grabbing a bite to eat. If you can picture yourself here, it’s probably the right choice for you.” Granted, graduate school is a much different experience. You are arguably more focused on your area of study and you are probably juggling a job, rent, even a family…  There are many important variables to consider including the quality of the program, financial assistance, academic resources, class offerings, etc.

    However, the location of your school and your experience outside of the classroom should not be overlooked!

    I moved from a suburban neighborhood in New York to pursue my graduate education in Washington, D.C. I am not a city person and I have to admit I was a little nervous about finding housing, navigating D.C., and thriving in a new place. I’ve come to learn that D.C. is the perfect combination of greenery and relaxed living combined with the opportunities and activity of a big city.  It is a mecca for opportunities to pursue professional growth with so many government agencies, large companies, and conferences located in the surrounding area. The city is also home to sprawling parks, walking/biking trails, and other outdoor activities. Further, if you love food, there are TONS of options everywhere you look and almost every culture is represented. I have tried so many new foods in the last year; it’s been a delicious journey!

    American University is nestled close to the northwestern border of Washington, D.C. It has a large grassy quad in the center of its main campus (which the library looks out over) and there are trees everywhere! Fun fact: the campus is classified as a National Arboretum.  Neighborhoods surround the University with a metro stop and a more commercial area only two miles away. Getting to campus (via the FREE shuttle from Tenleytown metro) and traveling into the heart of D.C. is super easy via bus, metrorail, bike, or car.

    My fellow graduate ambassador mentioned the empty pockets of a typical graduate student. I won’t lie to you — D.C. can be an expensive place to live, but students seek housing a little farther up the red line in Maryland to gain some reprieve, bunk up with roommates, or find basement apartments in homes to help mitigate costs. Although you will be studying A LOT, it is very important to maintain a work-life balance.

    There are SO many free activities in the D.C. area for you to be entertained and grow as an individual. The Smithsonian Museums along the National Mall, historical monuments, the National Zoo, Jazz events in the summer, etc. are just a few that I have visited. I have also attended several conferences and found opportunities for professional development.  My personal experiences (as a Health Promotion Management student) include attending a conference at the Institute of Medicine regarding standardization of Nutrition education for schools across the country and a conference dedicated to furthering physical activity participation for youth. My peer and I were also able to present research from a grant we worked on with an AU professor at a local conference held by the American Society of Nutrition. I even attended a lunch briefing on Capitol Hill discussing the implications of obesity on eligibility for the military.

    Graduate school is an exciting step! Take advantage of all American University has to offer including the location and opportunities of D.C. and the surrounding region. Also, look outside your department on campus to optimize your experience. Attend events, visit the career center, work with people in other departments, enjoy the library’s view, etc. This is a place to a get a great education and so much more.

    Come check it out for yourself. Reach out to your department of interest to schedule an informational interview and tour the campus. There is also a Graduate Studies Day in March for the College of Arts and Sciences. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about campus offerings, resources, the application process, and to visit!

    So, tell me, where do you picture yourself?

  • lauren 4:26 pm on January 15, 2014 Permalink  

    What to do while waiting 

    By Ellen Forsyth – MS in Professional Science: Biotechnology, American University

    After the hustle and bustle of getting all your applications together submitted on-time, it seems like there’s nothing to do but wait for your fate to be determined by a panel of graduate admissions professors. As nerve racking as it is, there are some things that can lessen the worry. Here are a few of the things I have been doing to ease my mind while I wait for feedback on the PhD programs I have been applied for:

    1. Apply to jobs

    I know this might sound pretty strait forward, but applying to jobs while you are waiting to hear from graduate programs gives you a back-up plan.  This will expedite the process of getting a job after you graduate so you are not left out in the dark if you don’t get in to your program. (Helpful tip: make your resume searchable if you can. It will help employers find you faster!)

    Sense you are already looking at jobs, carefully look at the duties/qualifications sections. You can start to get a feel of the types of jobs available in your field. During this process you will most likely come across jobs that require the degree you are trying to pursue. Pay close attention to these job descriptions. They will give you an idea of what employers are looking for and what you can work on while you are in graduate school (i.e. specific techniques, leadership skills, etc). As always the job market is always changing, but knowing what is available is a good start to getting ahead of the competition.

    2. Go to Interviews

    If you are lucky, you will get invited for job interviews. These are, at the very least, good practice for your graduate school interview. You can prepare by going to the career center at your current school. They have tons of information about applying for jobs and what to do/ not do for interviews. (Helpful tip:  know the company who’s interviewing you and bring questions!)

    3. Talk to professors

    If you haven’t already, email some professors in the program you are applying for. Ask about their research or the program in general. The worst that can happen is that they never respond

    4. Get a part time job.

    If you don’t already have one, get a part time job. Something easy on the side to give you some cash your last semester in school.

    Finally, reconnect with long lost roommates or friends. This will give you a chance to see what your peers are doing, and you might get some more ideas for post graduation activities too. They also might help you relax a bit and take your mind off your worries. You can also visit family and friends over the holidays and enjoy a drink or two (if your over 21). But most of all try and relax!

  • lauren 8:35 pm on December 16, 2013 Permalink  

    Applying to Graduate School 

    By Charise Johnson – MS in Environmental Science, American University

    I see you’re applying to graduate school.  You are clearly a dedicated, ambitious individual.  But before you start envisioning your postgraduate future, let’s survey the map of graduate school success.  Like my father always told me, “Prior planning prevents poor performance”.

    Most prospective graduate student advice columns begin with a preliminary list of good and bad reasons to attend graduate school. If you’re anything like me, you create your own path and march to the beat of your own drum. Instead of letting someone else dictate what you should or should not do, you put on your walking boots and stubbornly trudge through the uncertainty.  It is thus that I arrive at the most sage advice I can offer you, prospective student.  Whatever admirable reason you have for applying to graduate school, I hope it is based on an undying passion for the subject and not anything superficial. Because you’re going to need that intrinsic motivation to keep going as you reach for your nth cup of coffee to make it through the day.

    Many of the things I am going to say will be old hat to you, since you’ve pored through every prospective student manual and blog available on the internet.  But if you hadn’t been forced to memorize that song about the 50 states and capitals when you were a child, there is a strong possibility you would still not know Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota.

    Tip 1:  Get involved in research during your time as an undergrad, even if it isn’t in your field of interest.  The experience with the vigors of research will be good for you. Not to mention, you can lock in a good letter of recommendation, which can only increase your chances of being accepted into a graduate program. If you’ve already graduated, it isn’t too late.  You can apply for seasonal research programs, volunteer, or get a job in your field of interest.  Making connections is key.

    Tip 2:  Whether you like it or not, the GRE’s matter.  Study for it and take it a few months before application deadlines, in case you need to retake it.

    Tip 3:  Do your research on graduate programs to find out which one is best for you.

    • Make sure the curriculum allows you to take classes essential to your goals.
    • Find a professor who could serve as your advisor, become familiar with his/her work, and contact them early in the process.  Don’t wait a month before deadlines. Remember that others are vying for a spot in the program as well.  Craft a cover letter and CV that explain your research interests and relevant experience succinctly. Professors are busy people.  You’ve got to grab their attention within the first few sentences.  If you don’t get a response, which is highly probable, follow up after a week.
    • Talk to current graduate students at your school/program of interest.  They have been in your position more recently and can provide you with invaluable advice. They are also more likely to be closer to your age, which might make them less intimidating than the professors.
    • Check into the financial aid packages offered for the program.  The broke graduate student tales you’ve heard-they aren’t a myth.  Many schools offer different forms of aid through assistantships or scholarships.  Browse through government and private resources as well. Student loans are an option, but they come with a caveat:  you actually have to pay them back.

    Tip 4:  Be realistic about your expectations and what you are capable of achieving.  For example, if you want to go into a marine biology program simply because you want to swim and frolic with sea turtles or dolphins, it would be wise to reassess your decision.  Academics and professionals rarely get to bask on the beach with sea lions, and their work is often quite intensive, requiring many sacrifices.

    Tip 5:  Be confident.  Just apply, even if you don’t think you are qualified.  You never know, you might have impressed the selection committee with your excellent recommendations and statement of purpose, or your potential advising professor might see you as a great asset to the team.

    Tip 6:  Finally, my greatest pearl of wisdom.  Manage your time efficiently. I cannot emphasize this enough.  Proper time management will carry you through both the application process and your Master’s or PhD program relatively unscathed, but it requires a tremendous amount of self-motivation. Graduate school is a full-time job (often with extended work hours), and you are your own supervisor.

    So far, I have likely only succeeded in framing graduate school as a terrible, dark dungeon of academia.  This is generally a worst-case scenario.  Things will get stressful, but with proper time management and focus, you might be able to dodge the last minute all-nighters before a deadline.  Always remember what brought you there in the first place.  Hold on to that light, and it will lead you to your end goal.  Welcome to graduate school.  You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

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