Just starting out: What I Wish I Learned in Graduate School
First off, I want to be clear that I am still a graduate student. Although I have a couple of years under my belt, I still have quite a journey ahead of me. The information gathered and presented here is from actual young career professionals—ones who are just endeavoring out in their careers. They have been kind enough to share their wisdom and some information that might help out other young career professionals. We’ve compiled this information into a cohesive article of ways to get an edge in the field.
DEVELOP GOOD TIME-MANAGEMENT SKILLS
You’ve heard it a million times before—learn how to manage your time. I’m sure that as a graduate student you feel compelled to keep strange hours. You’re up all night getting your homework done no matter how hard you try to budget your time. There are simply too many things pulling at you that need a portion of your attention!
Please believe me, you are not alone.
Most people who are in graduate school feel the same way. Especially in a such a field that values integrative and multifaceted approaches to research and treatment, being overwhelmed with a myriad of responsibilities is the norm. However, please understand that because our field encourages its experts to be more eclectic in their approaches, this overwhelming feeling that you have will likely continue into your post-graduation and professional life. Developing good time-management skills in your graduate school career can set you up to be able to take on the number of tasks required of you later.
To help you get started, I’ve included a few helpful methods to help you get started developing your time-management skills. Keep in mind, this is quite a truncated list. If there’s something that you have in mind that you use feel free to share it in the comments!
Make a schedule
More than just making a schedule – keep it. In order to best set yourself up for success, make a list of things that you need to accomplish each day. Even if you have to spend the first 15 minutes of your day setting up what will be done each day, it will pay off in times saved by the end of the day. It will also allow you to better understand how many things you can reasonably accomplish in one day.
This requires us to prioritize our to-do list. Knowing that something will need to be cut out from the day, you will have to be rather judicious about what gets cut. I know that everything on the list is important, but you will simply have to use your judgement to decide what is something that can wait until tomorrow’s schedule.
In addition, the schedule can remind you to devote your entire attention to the task at hand. Rather than worrying about where to go next or what else needs to be accomplished, you can know that you are able to devote your attention to what your current appointment is, and that you will get to those other, equally important things, later.
Using an e-calendar such as Google Calendar or iCal could also help. On these applications, you are able to set up certain appointments to be recurrent, which can help you to avoid accidentally double-booking yourself over a class (not that that would ever happen). These applications can also help you budget in drive-time or even just the time that it would take you to travel from one meeting to the next. Through push notifications, they can even act as a personal assistant to remind you of your next appointment. As busy students with a million different things on your mind at one time, a personal assistant is a welcome help!
Carry a notebook with you
How many times has it happened? You are working on something whole-heartedly, with no time to be interrupted by trivialities, when something else demanding your attention pops into your mind. Almost invariably, the little voice in your head that reminded you of that thing promises that it will only take a minute. And then, while you are doing that other important thing, one more quick thing pops into your mind. And another, and another, and so the story goes until it’s two hours later and you still haven’t finished your original project.
Even worse, you think to yourself when that important thing pops into your mind that you will get to it in a minute—after you finish your present project. However, once you finish the task at hand, and you remember that there was something very important that needed your attention, you simply cannot remember what that task was!
Carrying a notebook with you will allow you to jot down that “super important one-more-thing”. Then you can guarantee that you will be able to finish the task that you’re working on and be able to recall what needed your attention at a later time.
Don’t get weighed down by the small things
I know I’m guilty of this. I know you are likely guilty of it as well, graduate student. Perfectionism is not the answer, and in fact, it can be stealing your time. You don’t need to get all the small details perfect. Of course, you should do your best on all your tasks. What I mean to say is that you should not spend inordinate amounts of time on tasks trying to get the project just perfect. There will always be something that could take some revision or some small change to make it better. Trust in your own abilities and understand that there is no way that something will ever be the best that it can be.
Make the most of your down-time
Inevitably there is down-time in your schedule, even if you haven’t budgeted any for yourself. If you live in a major city, maybe there’s time waiting for the train to come. Perhaps you got to class a bit early and your professor isn’t yet ready to begin. Whatever it may be, there are plenty of little minutes and breaks that seem to go to waste during the day. Plan ahead and utilize these little minutes during the day! You’ll be surprised how much you can get accomplished during these little sessions. Answer emails on your phone, work on a schedule for the coming day, write out some notes, or anything else that doesn’t take up too much space or time. Even if you’re just taking a minute to breathe or practice some small meditation, it can be a better use of your time than just scrolling through Facebook.
GRADES DON’T ALWAYS MATTER
Don’t take this to mean that you just shouldn’t try in your classes. But it does mean that you don’t need to stress out focusing on primarily getting an A. As long as your GPA is getting you through and you’re learning and comprehending the material presented—you’re going to be fine. Your future supervisors are going to be much more concerned with your mastery of the material and your ability to demonstrate an understanding in the subjects.
Grades and GPA are only one measure of your ability to perform in school and to master the subject material. There are innumerable reports of students who graduated near the top of their graduating class yet still flamed out when it comes to practical experience. The fact of the matter is that while grades are test performance is important, it is not the only thing.
It feels appropriate to share something my dad used to tell me when I was upset over a mediocre grade: “You know what they call the guy who graduates with the lowest GPA in their doctoral cohort? Doctor.” Of course, no one is hoping to graduate last in their cohort, but it is a good reminder. The fact that you complete the program is much more important than your class rank at the time of graduation.
JOIN PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATIONS
It’s something that the professors don’t really tell you. It’s just one of those things the “seasoned professionals” just seemed to know about. Being in a professional organization like the American Psychological Association, Psi Chi, or a regional psychological association can be helpful. The professional organization can connect you with resources that you might not have otherwise, let you know about some trainings or other professional development opportunities, offer networking prospects, and so much more.
Student fees for professional organizations are often extremely discounted, which is just an added bonus to join! Frequently, professional organizations know that students are already on a diet of ramen noodles and will try to help you out as much as possible. It also just develops the good habit of networking and maintaining professional connections while you’re in graduate school. Even though it feels as though you are drowning in responsibilities, deadlines, and projects, I’m sorry to report that things will only get busier after you graduate. Once you are out on your own, having a base of connections and professional groups can alleviate the stress of making those connections while you are trying to establish yourself. Having the habit of attending professional mixers and going to CE lectures will absolutely propel you further in your career.
GET TO KNOW YOUR PROFESSORS AS PEOPLE
As weird as it may seem sometimes, your professors are real people outside of the academic setting in which you know them. In fact, if you’re in graduate school, they may very soon become your peers! In my opinion, that it absolutely wild to think about! If it is a part of your training, you will likely need to select a certain professor to chair your thesis or dissertation. To get a feel for who might be a good fit, ask to set up meetings with professors during their office hours to just go over what their professional and research interests are. Although it may feel uncomfortable at first, you’ll begin to realize that professors actually love it when students choose to come speak with them about their interests—especially if that student is expressing interest in a similar topic. When you find a small group of professors whose professional interests seem to in some way align with your own, attempt to get to know them. These individuals will become some very key professional references from the very outset of your career and likely throughout your professional development.
MAKE SOME BUSINESS CARDS
Getting your name out there is critical. Even while you’re still a student and you might feel like you’re no one special, it is important to have the psychological community know your name. You are much more likely to get a practicum placement, internship, or other job position if someone has heard of you before. Business cards are one good way to get other people to know your name and some of your basic qualifications. Of course, there are many different ways to make a connection. Having a small tangible something to pass along to the potential connection seems to leave the best impression, at least at this point in time.
Going into what could be written on a business card and what should be excluded is largely up to the individual. However, several recent graduates have indicated that many of their business card-related slip-ups occurred when they had too much information on the card. Try to keep it short, sweet, and to the point. Including something unique like a QR code or your LinkedIn profile could help distinguish you. Further, including a unique graphic, distinct shape, or colorful background could help your card stand out from the stack. However, it is important to remember that your business card is still representing the professional side of yourself. In that regard, you will need to be sure that anything you do to give your card a unique flair stays well within the social limits of professionalism.
Being educated in the business side of the psychology world was something that I heard echoed again and again. Although we are getting superb training in research, clinical, and practical aspects of our great field, as students we often neglect to develop the businessperson in the psychological professional. Even though it seems like the complete opposite of what your interests may be, business training is something that most recent graduates recommended for current students.
Recent graduates had several major concerns about key areas of business training they wish they had. Knowing how much you should charge is a big factor. For many budding clinicians, we’re so used to being paid nothing or next-to-nothing that charging for psychological services seems like a foreign concept. Figuring out how to be on an insurance panel can be another small battle. In addition, carrying your own malpractice insurance as a student is not a bad idea. Knowing appropriate instances and levels of your own malpractice insurance seems to be a major maze that confuses several students, so don’t worry if you don’t feel like you are entirely lost.
Generally speaking, being educated on the business aspect of psychology is something from which we as clinicians and researchers are often excluded. While we walk out of graduate school knowing exactly how to handle a certain type of client in session, we still have no idea how much we should be charging that person, or even what a fair number would be.
Although each recent graduate that I spoke with described different areas that they believed would be helpful to an early career psychological professional, nearly everyone had one similar thread: make the most of your graduate school years! This is a big time in your life where you are making a lot of new personal developments—make sure you set aside enough time to really appreciate everything that is taking place!