How I Survived Grad School: Five Tips to Help New Students Through Two Very Tough Years

by Beth Swenson

When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 2006, I swore I would never do another day of school. I love learning, but I hate homework with the fire of a thousand suns. However, in 2009, an opportunity presented itself that would allow me to earn my master’s degree from the comfort of my own home, and I would have been foolish not to take it. The Idaho Commission for Libraries (ICfL) worked out an agreement with the state libraries of Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming that created a learning cohort, nicknamed SWIM. This was for the University of North Texas to provide a way for interested librarians to get their master’s degrees online. I was highly encouraged by several people to apply for this program, and so I did. I was fortunate enough to earn a scholarship that eventually paid for all of my tuition. This was an opportunity that you just don’t turn down, and so, with trepidation, I found myself back in the world of academia. I’m not going to lie, the first semester was pure hell. There were many times I felt I had made a huge mistake in going back to school, and not only was I not going to excel, but that I was going to fail miserably. I know I’m not the only one who felt this way. For me, it had been a scant four years since I last hit the books. For others, I know it had been many more years. Many of us had fulltime jobs, families, and religious and community commitments. How were we going to get through this?

On August 18, 2012, I graduated with my Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I am proud to report that I earned an “A” in each class, and I aced the final week of tests. When my year anniversary came a few months ago, I started to reflect on grad school and some of the things that helped me get by. I hope that this advice will help those who are nervous about going back, or to those who have just started and are feeling as inadequate as I did.

1. Find your support group.

One of the only reasons I got through grad school is because my husband helped me in any way he could. He cooked, he cleaned, and when we had our daughter, he spent endless hours taking care of her so I could focus on getting homework done. He was my rock. I was also fortunate enough to have three of my coworkers and a close friend of my mother-in-law also in the same program, so I was able to rely on them when questions arose about specific assignments. It doesn’t matter who your support group is (family, friends, drinking buddies, etc.), just know who to turn to when the need arises. Grad school is stressful, and it’s nice to have someone who will listen when you need to vent, or help you keep your sanity as you try to juggle school with life.

2. Find the classmates and the mentors who can help you.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. There are some really bad students out there, ones who don’t check in that often on group work, or who will write the most inane comments on your work that you’ll want to pull your hair out. Fortunately, I only met a few of them throughout my time at school, and I can tell you from personal experience that there is nothing more frustrating than someone who won’t pull his or her own weight. On the flip side, there are really good students out there, too – ones who take charge, have insightful comments, and are really good spellers. My hope is that all your classes will be filled with the latter type. I know this won’t always be the case, though. Strive to find those good students, or – better yet – become that student. Your fellow classmates will thank you.

As part of our SWIM agreement, all those who received scholarships agreed to become mentors to other students who are pursuing MLS degrees. In addition, there are other librarians throughout the state who have agreed to become mentors. For that information, contact Shirley Biladeau at shirley.biladeau@libraries.idaho.gov or (208) 639-4149. She will put you in contact with one of us, and we are more than happy to help you, even if it’s just a shoulder to lean on. Also, if you’re attending the same school we did, we can tell you which classes are really worth taking.

3. Find the time to get your work done.

I think it’s very natural to procrastinate (or maybe I just think this because it seems like I’m the queen of procrastination). However, in grad school, procrastination will quickly become your enemy, especially if you’re completing an online degree. For me, because I was doing an online degree and I wasn’t going to a regular class, it was easier for me to think that I could play now and do my homework later. I found out that “later” needs to be today. It is so easy to put things off until the very last minute, but it’s not always the wisest course of action. I remember one time when my in-laws called me concerning a medical emergency, and they needed me to watch their daughters while they were in the hospital. I had a five page paper due the next day, which of course added to my already high stress of the medical emergency. I was up late that night, and had to be up early the next day to get the girls to school. Fortunately, I got the paper in on time, and I think it was somewhat coherent. Of course, we can never plan when emergencies are going to come up (hence the reason they’re called emergencies), but that is why it is even more important in grad school to not put things off. Also, you should carve time out of every day to get schooling done. I would start mine about an hour after I got home from work and went until I needed to go to bed. After I had my daughter and because she had a crazy sleep schedule, I found myself studying at random times during the day (and night). Find the time that is best for you and your life, and stay on top of things.

4. Find your stress release.

This is my favorite thing to tell people. As stated before, grad school is very stressful, and I firmly believe that all students need to find the thing that calms them down the most. Maybe it’s a quick run, knitting, or cleaning. It doesn’t matter what it is, just be sure you have something you can do when school gets to be too much. My stress release was a punching bag, and this is how I found out that I needed one: In my first semester, which also happened to be my most stressful semester (mainly because I didn’t know what I was doing), I had to do a group project with some other classmates. Funny enough, I don’t remember what the project entailed, but I do remember that I was in charge of taking notes from our discussion and getting the whole project started. The next day, when I went to start the project, I couldn’t find those notes anywhere. My husband and I scoured the house, but we both came up empty. The pressure and the stress got a little much for me, and in frustration, I kicked the wall (I had wanted to punch it, but luckily I remembered my walls are pretty thick and I probably would have injured my hand). Then I burst into tears and sobbed for about five minutes straight. My poor husband was stunned and unsure what to do, as he had never seen me act this way. Eventually I was able to calm down and recreate the project from memory. We found a punching bag for me not too long after that. Anytime I became frustrated with schoolwork, I would go throw a few punches, and then get back to work. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s what worked for me. Sometimes, you just need to take a few steps back and do something that gets your mind off of whatever is stressing you out.

5. Find time to relax.

I can hear your questions now: “What? Find time to relax? Didn’t you just say not to procrastinate?” Yes I did, but I also think it’s very important to take some time away from studying. Catch a movie, read a book, or do game night with friends. If I didn’t take a break every now and then, I’m pretty sure I would have gone crazy. Take a night off and remember what life was like before grad school started. Trust me on this: you’ll be glad you did.

Grad school is not fun. Anybody that goes through it knows that. However, there is nothing like that feeling of accomplishment when you get that piece of paper that proclaims, “I did it. I finished grad school. Now I can have a life again.” But until then, to use a phrase I heard constantly during my own schooling, just keep swimming. You can do it. You can make it through. It will be hard and miserable, and at times you will wish a pox on your professors for assigning all of the reading and papers. All of us who have our degrees are rooting for you and we understand what you’re going through. Good luck.

Beth Swenson is the Outreach Librarian at Twin Falls Public Library.

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