Making the Most of Your First Year of Grad School

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By now, you’ve likely heard a lot of advice, formal and informal, from graduate students and from ‘civilians,’ as to how you can survive and thrive in your first year of graduate school. We have a few more ideas here, from former and current Lehigh English students.


Check out the advice below, and remember: find what feels right for you! Gather your toolbox, test techniques for time management, and, amidst the challenges, take pleasure in knowing that you have the ability to share and discuss books, writing, and theoretical concepts with faculty mentors, graduate peers, and undergraduate students throughout the next two or more years. 

What advice would you give to incoming graduate students?

Jess Snyder (MA 2015): Oooh so many things! One thing that I know made a big difference for me, was how close our cohort was. I think we were all open to forming friendships when we came into the program, so we ended up having a really awesome sense of community – one I very much miss and likely won’t be able to replicate. I feel that there’s often a sense of competition in grad school and I think, when overdone, that can get in the way. I felt motivated to earn my cohorts respect, but I also felt incredibly supported and encouraged by them.

It's all about building community.

Kyle Brett (current): I second what Jess says above and I want to add that you should make some effort to spend time with members of your cohort (and the rest of the department!) outside of Drown, Linderman, and Saxbys. If this means after-seminar drinks, a monthly exodus to the movies, or random themed (or not!) get-togethers at another’s house/apartment, then go for it! A change-up in environment can really, shake the academic dust, so to speak.

Emily Shreve (current): I third Jess and Kyle, but I would also suggest taking time to maintain or–if you are new to the area–make friends and acquaintances outside the department and Lehigh. Sometimes you need a break and some outside perspective!

Abby Aldrich (PhD 2016): I suspect you will have heard this already, but it’s really true: do not let your teaching consume you! It’s easy to fixate on the minutiae of teaching tasks and spend hours planning lessons or grading papers, but spending too much time on these tasks can take away from your own student responsibilities [Editor’s Note: and remember that time spent does not automatically equate to strong or effective teaching]. The more efficient you can make your teaching practices now when you only have two full seminars and one class to teach, the easier things will be as your workload increases.  For instance, try setting specific hours when you’ll plan your lessons or grade papers.

Timer--pomodoro technique

With grading, in particular, the timer/alarm on your phone can be a great resource.  Try setting the alarm for a set time limit (anywhere from 15-30 minutes could work) and train yourself to grade a paper within that time frame.  Doing this can make you a more efficient grader and free up more of your time to devote to your studies.

Please don’t hesitate to ask your fellow graduate students and faculty their specific techniques for balancing their teaching and study/research commitments. There are lots of great ideas to test and try; you don’t have to reinvent the wheel!

Joanna Grim (current): Self care is so important! Don’t ignore it. Go to the gym, go for a walk, take breaks, cook and eat healthy food, call your best friend just to say hi. Call whoever you need to cry. And if you feel overwhelmed reach out. Reach out to your adviser, a teacher, a friend. Don’t give in to capitalistic pressure to go it alone. Fuck the man and ask for help. A late assignment means nothing to your happiness and mental health. [Editor’s Note: We strongly suggest you read Sarah’s post from last semester on mental health issues in graduate school; self-care is essential!]

rocks balanced on a beach

David Fine (PhD 2016): Know what else you can do, should you leave (especially important for incoming PhD students). You do not want to feel trapped or held hostage by your degree program. Plus, knowing what else you can do allows you to focus on and develop a range of skills suited to both academic and non-academic jobs.

Emily Shreve (current): I came in knowing that academic life was broken into teaching, service, and research components, and I’ve used those three areas to plan and manage my graduate school career. Checking in each semester with how I am doing with each skill set and setting goals for where I want to be allows me to approach the work of the year with purpose and helps me maintain balance, not letting myself become too narrow in my development.

Besides this blog, there are a number of resources available online. Check out the Vitae primer on graduate school, and visit Inside Higher Ed‘s Gradhacker blog. They have lots of great pieces, such as “Self-Care for the Introverted TA,” using 5-minute timers to get through a heavy workload, encouraging student participation in the classrom, or “Combating Cynacism in Graduate School.” (And if you find helpful posts, please share them in the comments below!)


Finally, don’t forget about writing to learn! Use your writing skills to process and crystallize what you are learning, doing, and feeling, whether that writing is in an informal school notebook, on a cocktail napkin, or in a post for this very blog!

Any additional advice for incoming students? Students new to Lehigh: do you have any questions for those of us who have been around? Share your thoughts and comments below! 



1 Comment

  1. Dashielle Horn says

    All of this advice is great! I would add the importance of planning ahead as much as possible. If you have a seminar paper topic in mind by Halloween and scholarship gathered by Thanksgiving, for instance, writing seminar papers will be much less stressful! Writing as many lesson plans as possible before the semester starts takes a huge burden off you once your own classes get busy! If you’re thinking about PhD programs, writing your personal statement and polishing your writing sample during the summer between your first and second years will enable you to stay sane during the semester you apply. I’m a big fan of planning ahead!!

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