So, you're going to graduate school. Congratulations! Now, brace yourself. The next few years — or several if you're going for a Ph.D. — will be a pretty wild ride. You'll learn more than you ever thought imaginable, all while becoming an expert in an exciting subject you have handpicked yourself. No more boring Psychology 101 courses, mediocre cafeterias, and starkly decorated dorm rooms. You have a lot more autonomy over your field of study and lifestyle. There will also be more diversity in the classrooms than you saw in your undergraduate days, so you'll make some fascinating new friends from all walks of life. But make no mistake: graduate school is harder than college life, that's for sure.
The years I spent in graduate school were some of the best in my life, but it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. Before I started my Masters program at Harvard University, I imagined my day would go something like this: I would begin with an 11 a.m. class, have a nice lunch on the groomed quad grounds, maybe get to a spin class after my meeting with my thesis advisor, and spend an hour or two in the beautiful library before a nice dinner with friends. In reality, of course, it was a bit tougher than that.
Don't fret, though. Prepare yourself accordingly and it will so rewarding — and maybe even fun. Here are eight ways to get yourself ready for graduate school.
1. Commit To A Hobby That Has Nothing To Do With School
No matter how much you love your degree program and your colleagues, you’ll crave your own life outside of school. One way to keep a healthy balance is by keeping up a regular pastime you really enjoy. Take French cooking classes or start volunteering at a hospice home. I did the latter on a weekly basis and, although it wasn’t always easy, it was a rewarding way to take a break from my hectic schedule. Those small respites from academia will keep you fresh and curious about the world.
2. Set Aside Time For Skype
Whether it’s with your bestie across the country, your worried mom, or your moody cat staying temporarily with your significant other, commit to seeing them once a week via cyberspace. Seeing the most important people in your life who were around before grad school will keep your sanity intact. They will tell you how proud they are of you (even your kitty, in his own way) and remind you that you have a strong support system whenever you need it. My Sunday FaceTime sessions with my parents never failed to bring a smile to my face.
3. Promise Yourself You Won’t Give Up Exercising
Your regular workout routine is usually the first thing to go when you’re pressed for time. Make a pledge of allegiance to your body that you won’t put it on the back burner! Even if you take a brisk 15-minute jog around the block to get your heart rate up, do it. Without a healthy body, you can’t excel in your studies. My Masters program was actually the reason I started doing yoga. Inquire at your local studio, like I did, about their Karma program — you can sometimes clean once a week in exchange for free classes.
4. Stay Away From Packaged Foods
What’s easier than grabbing a ready-made burrito at the dimly lit gas station on your way to an afternoon lecture? Not so fast. Processed, packaged foods will slow down your brain function. Combat rookie mistakes like this by planning ahead. Stock up on healthy snacks, like trail mix or dried fruit, to bring to class. Sipping on coconut water throughout the day also helps keep you satisfied and hydrated. And if you find yourself in a pinch, remember the golden rule: If you don’t recognize three or more of the ingredients, don't eat it.
5. Invest In A Fantastic Bed
A good night’s sleep will be your savior for the next few years. The long hours that you sit at a desk, hunched over books and a laptop, will add up pretty quickly and you may experience back pains that never bothered you before. In addition to exercising regularly (which, remember, is a must) to keep a healthy body, go the extra mile and buy a nice mattress. Look into Tempur-pedic pillows, which changed my life for the better. Waking up rested will make all the difference.
6. Choose A Couple Of Professors To Establish Strong Relationships With
Make a short list of professors you admire — two or three — whose work is relevant to your area of focus. Carve out some time regularly, maybe a couple times a month, to visit with them and have a little chat. Tell them what you’re working on and ask for advice. Not only will they be able to guide your work, they could connect you with some important folks — maybe the kind who can hook you up with a job after graduation. My mentor was even a fantastic emotional support when things weren't exactly going right in my life.
7. Get To Know Your Neighborhood
Orientation will give you some information on the surrounding area, like which restaurants accept your student card for payment. But it won’t nearly be as useful as the research you can do on your own. Take a full day to walk or ride a bike around your neighborhood. I learned the Boston subway like the back of my hand and even made day trips to Jamaica Plains to escape the school crowd. Notice the mom and pop joints and ask around to find out which cafes have the best lattes. After all, this will be your home for a while — you want to make it an enjoyable one.
8. Take Advantage Of Campus Events
Events aren't just for undergrads. I became weirdly fascinated with architecture my first year of grad school. I went to a lot of the Graduate School of Design’s free events and luncheons, where students would reveal their latest project. Find similar events at your university where your brain can have a break from your stack of assignments. Even things like spoken word readings and gallery openings can be interesting things to witness. These are also great reminders that there’s a lot more than just your work happening on campus — and in the world.
Images: Getty Images; Giphy (8)