Fall is coming. If this is the year you’re planning to go back to grad school, you can start making the most of it now. Success in graduate school depends on four important accomplishments: re-learning how to read, getting organized, fostering relationships, and finding your voice. Here’s an insider’s look on what you can do to achieve these feats in your first year:

1. Re-learn to Read

Ask any graduate student: the most difficult part of the first year is learning to read like a scholar. Unlike when you were an undergrad, reading to understanding a theoretical concept is no longer the goal. You need to be able to apply concepts to your own research and say something new about a phenomenon by integrating information.

Scholars also read quickly and frequently. Consider taking a speed-reading course before school starts, and schedule consistent blocks of reading time into your calendar to begin building good reading habits.

You’ll also want to hone your ability to “read without reading,” which includes techniques such as:

  • Reading book reviews or secondary sources to find summaries of texts
  • Reading only the introduction and conclusion of an article or book in order to determine its main argument
  • Asking a classmate to point out the most important passage of a required reading for you
  • Another good habit to foster is creating an informative annotated bibliography for every course and subject you study. You are going to read a lot during grad school, and if you don’t take notes, you probably won’t remember half of it—let alone be able to reference it when you’re writing your thesis.

    2. Get Organized

    The majority of graduate students work either part- or full-time in addition to their studies. Yet time spent at school is largely unregimented. Courses are generally offered as once-a-week seminars, and study time is not scheduled by instructors. If you’re going to balance school and work responsibilities, you’ll need to organize your time and your tools!

    Time: As soon as you receive your class schedule, make a weekly calendar that includes specific time for reading, writing, meetings, classes, meals, exercise, and socializing.

    Having a weekly schedule will help you to stay on task and not succumb to distractions like talking with classmates for hours after class or roaming the library aimlessly.

    Scheduling regular reading and study time during the week is particularly important. Tell yourself the allotted time is all you have, and make yourself finish your assignments during this time. This may mean you’ll have to “read without reading,” but doing so will protect your work and personal time.

    Tools: To keep track of all the information you’re acquiring, you’ll also learn to rely on some organizational tools: your laptop, external hard drives, filing cabinet, and maybe your smart phone.

    Make sure you have a reliable laptop that you can bring to class. Create embedded folders for each course before the semester begins, and backup your work onto multiple external hard drives at least once a week. This may seem obvious, but you’ll be surprised by how many students run into problems with disorganized electronic archives and lost information. Your notes are only going to help you if you can find them.

    If you’re one of those students who prefers to print out course materials and take notes in the margins, the same principle applies. If you accumulate paper documents, you should have a filing cabinet or binder system that will let you find things a semester or a year later.

    Smart phones can be useful, too. Sync your phone’s calendar to your computer to help you stay organized, and check out these great apps for grad students.

    3. Build Relationships

    One of the wisest things you can do during your first year is encourage a collaborative culture among your classmates. Share your notes. Organize group study sessions. Discourage people from being overly competitive in the classroom. Later, when you’re done with coursework, the relationships you’ve established with classmates will still be important, and it’ll be extremely helpful to have peers who are willing to read and comment on thesis drafts.

    Get to know your departmental staff and faculty, too, particularly your graduate coordinator and director of graduate studies. Your graduate coordinator will be able to help you with issues related to funding, interdepartmental employment, and program requirements. The director of graduate studies can help you identify potential advisors and committee members.

    You’re first year is also a good time to start establishing a professional network. Attend colloquiums and conferences when you can, even if you are not presenting research, and interact with other attendees. Join professional societies and relevant special interest groups.

    Lastly, remember that the most important relationships to invest in during grad school are the ones you already have. Your family and close friends will help you stay motivated and inspired through the long and challenging years of advanced study. Busy though you’ll be, make time for your loved ones. Lean on them, and you’ll make it through.

    4. Find Your Voice

    As a graduate student, you’re transitioning from a consumer to a producer of knowledge. This requires you not only find something novel to say, but also learning how to say it with conviction.

    To develop your own authorial style, try these exercises:

    • Identify examples of strong voice in your favorite articles and books. Then, take something you’ve already written and rewrite it as if you were the authors you are trying to emulate.
    • Play with different voices—authoritative, unpretentious, descriptive, succinct—as you write essays for your coursework. Then, ask you peers to give you feedback on which style sounds most like you.
    • It can be a slow process, and you will inevitably feel like an imposter at first. But try not to get discouraged: you will eventually find your voice.

      Now that you know how to make the most of your first year—hop to! You’ve got work to do!

      Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon.