Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

Whether you are a first-year grad student or a fifth-year graduate student, the start of a new year is always overwhelming and a bit daunting. There are myriad due dates swirling around your syllabi and your head. Maybe your new cohort seems nice, but everyone pretends like they know everything (and they for sure, like you, know nothing. Right??). Perhaps your advisor is awesome but so intimidating. Maybe you’ve been in grad school for three years but suddenly sort of suddenly miss your mom. Without a doubt, you have no idea where you’re allowed to park on campus yet. And why do all the freshman skateboarding around look like they just walked off the set of Full House?

While we can’t necessarily provide answers or comfort to all of these questions and fears (certainly not the last one!), we do have some tips that will help you set yourself up for success this semester. Here are five simple suggestions for how to have a good semester, whether it’s your first or your tenth.

  1. Start off on the right foot with your PI/advisor/faculty mentor. Go to their office. Introduce yourself. Reintroduce yourself. Ask them how their summer was. Tell them a little about yours. Compliment the picture of their kids on their desk. Be a human being and give them the chance to be human right back. Don’t be above bringing cookies. It certainly takes two to tango in a good advisor/advisee relationship, but as far as you are able, don’t let your half of the effort trip up the dance.
  2. Set up a regular writing time. If you are brand new, reach out to your new cohort and suggest starting a writing group. If you have been here a while, reach out to some colleagues and get a group off of the ground. If you really want to make it productive, reach out to people beyond your own department (then it’s less likely to turn into a departmental gossip sesh). Regardless of how you get your group started, pick a sacred time each week to write for a large chunk of time (at least 2.5 hours). Even if you are a brand new baby grad student who hasn’t written anything yet, use the time to just write at length about what you are reading, learning, and thinking about. These jottings can eventually turn into something that can become an article, and it builds a habit of writing early and often. Pro-tip: the deadline for Fall Writing Groups has passed, but the Graduate Writing Center facilitates writing groups every semester – be on the lookout for signups for the spring!
  3. Get to know older AND younger students in and out of your program. We don’t mean “older” or “younger” as in having more or fewer grey hairs than you, though that may be the case! Talk to and befriend students who have been in your program longer than you have. This goes for new and seasoned graduate students. We always need wisdom and care from people who have walked the path ahead of us, and we all need support and love from people who understand. Likewise, get to know the new kids on the block. They may be over-eager, but remember that you were too. New students try to compensate for a lot of insecurities, and more experienced students can go a long way in assuaging or exacerbating those fears. Offer a helping hand or a coffee date. And finally, get to know people outside of your department. Departments can get a little insular sometimes, and it’s good to be reminded that your world isn’t the only world. Make friends in other fields. You’ll learn from them and their perspectives. And get to know faculty in other fields – who knows, they may end up as an outside reader on your dissertation, or just become a friend or mentor.
  4. Read publications from the journals you want to get published in. We all know we’re here to publish or perish. So don’t perish if you don’t have to. As you begin writing papers and reading articles for your classes, take note of the journals that are home to articles or scholars you really like. Then pick up or download a copy of a few recent volumes of the journal. Read it cover to cover. Take note of what the journal seems to like, and start to include such things in your own writing. Do they like theory-heavy research? Then you should probably take that theory and criticism class next semester. Do they like terse, minimal prose? Then be sure to take your papers to the Graduate Writing Center for feedback on concision. Start writing now the articles you want to read someday.
  5. Find other things besides graduate school to do. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” the saying goes. By extension, all graduate school and nothing else makes Jack insufferable. Don’t be the person who only knows how to talk about their research. Even your mom will get sick of you. So, read the news. Join a pickup soccer league. Find a true crime podcast to get into. Join a local church or religious community. Go to Wednesday trivia nights at a brewery. Get on a dating app. Get eight hours of sleep most nights. Call up old friends. Start a garden. Get a dog. Get obnoxiously into running or CrossFit. No matter what it is, don’t let graduate school be 100% of your life. Let it be more like 65%. There are so many other wonderful things your life can be.

Anna E. Beaudry is a third-year English PhD student studying 19th-century American literature. Her primary area of research focuses on female writers in the New England regionalist movement and material feminisms. She earned her Master’s at Baylor University in May 2020. Anna is Baylor’s Graduate Writing Center coordinator and executive vice-president of the Graduate Student Association. She is also BearTracks blog editor for the Graduate School.