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Mentally Preparing for Graduate School: What You Need to Know

You overcame the first obstacle: getting into graduate school. Yet now it might feel like a dozen other challenges lie ahead. After all, this is a new experience, which is nerve-wracking in itself, but this choice also requires a large financial and time commitment.

The good news is: You made a wise investment. The number of jobs that prefer a master’s degree is projected to increase 18 percent by 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and more than a third of employers are hiring professionals with a master’s degree for positions previously held by those with a bachelor’s.

Earning a graduate degree will equip you with more than just a competitive advantage, however; you could also increase your salary potential. Individuals with a master’s degree are estimated to earn an average $1.38 million more over their lifetime than bachelor’s degree holders.

So while this graduate school experience might seem daunting now, remember the benefits. Knowing what’s on the other side of your degree program will help you start mentally preparing for graduate school—as will these other tips.

How to Mentally Prepare for Graduate School

1) Start Planning Now

Scour through your syllabi and map out all major assignments on a calendar, so you have a holistic view of what’s due and when. Seeing project deadlines next to your work and family commitments will help you more effectively allocate your time. If there’s a particular week that looks overly hectic, start strategizing which to-dos you can check off early to avoid any last-minute scrambling.

Now is also a good time to reflect on your undergraduate days. Were you a procrastinator who regularly pulled all-nighters, constantly refreshing your social feeds to avoid work? It’s easy to revert to old habits, so develop better patterns early, whether that means prioritizing a full eight hours of sleep, establishing a morning routine, or activating website blockers when it’s time to study.

2) Read Ahead

If you’re still nervous about falling behind, or simply want to get a jumpstart on the semester, begin reading the assigned articles, cases, and books listed in your syllabus. By familiarizing yourself with the subject matter early, you can ask more informed questions in class and start connecting the concepts being taught with the research you’ve already read.

3) Prioritize Finding Your Balance

Establishing work-life balance in graduate school is important—particularly when you’re already juggling a 40-hour or more workweek on top of other commitments. In order to avoid burnout, prioritize balance. 

This could mean improving your time management skills, taking breaks when necessary, or knowing when to say “no” to certain work or social engagements. “Balance” means something different to everyone, and so you need to establish a schedule and routines that feel right for you. Graduate school should be an enjoyable experience, not a stressful one. Although the stress won’t always be avoidable, balance can help minimize it.

4) Leverage Your New Network

Remember, you’re not in this alone. Any doubts or questions you have, your peers have likely had too. Get to know your fellow classmates. Learn more about their current jobs, why they enrolled in the program, and their professional goals. Through that process, you can start to build a support system, which makes the grad school experience more manageable and more fun. Plus, you never know where those connections might lead you.

“Once you graduate, you could be working alongside some of the greatest minds in your field,” writes Christopher Dousharm, a graduate of Northeastern’s Corporate and Organizational Communication program. “And before that time, any of those people could be in your classroom. … Make friends, build connections, and be ready to learn from your peers.”

The same goes for your professors. Faculty bring decades of shared industry experience and thought leadership to the classroom. Leverage their expertise, absorb their lessons, and ask a lot of questions—whether about past lectures, your work, or how they’ve applied what they’re teaching in the field. Your professors want to help, so don’t be shy in reaching out.

5) Remember That This Is Temporary

One of the key things to remember when you’re mentally preparing for grad school is that this experience is temporary. You won’t be juggling all these commitments forever; there’s an end in sight. And when you achieve that end goal, the payoff will make the sacrifices and hard work worth it. Immerse yourself fully, and enjoy this time while you can.