What I Wish I’d Known Before My First Semester of Grad School

Ten units down, thirty-three more to go! I completed my first year of graduate school this month, and in the spirit of the new year, I thought I’d do a little reflection. This time last year, I had applied and been accepted into the San Jose State University Master of Library and Information Science program, had registered for my spring classes, and then…sort of felt at loose ends. It felt like I should be doing something, but had no idea what that something was. Had I missed a step on my new student checklist? Was there a book I should read? What was the best way to make the most of the short amount of time I had left before jumping into full-time work and part-time school?

Now that I’ve been through my first year and have a little better perspective, I thought I’d share some things I found useful (or would have been useful had I done them). Hopefully this will be of help to some of you as you begin your own educational journeys!

  1. For U.S. students – fill out the FAFSA as early as you can and as often as you need to. Even if you don’t think you’ll need to take out a loan, it’s better to have already lined up your eligibility and not need it, then to need it and realize you waited too long to fill out the paperwork. The first time around it can be a hassle to fill out the form, but in subsequent years, it will remember your answers and auto-fill for you, and it goes a lot faster.
  2. See if your school offers any new/incoming student scholarships (mine does!), or, if not, any continuing student scholarships you might be eligible for in the future. Before my first class ever started, I made a Prezi about OER and financial equity among community college students and ended up with my summer tuition entirely paid for! Even if there’s nothing you’re eligible to apply for right now, you can still make a note of any interesting opportunities you find to remind yourself to check back in the future (see tip #4 below).
  3. Stock up on flash drives. Like any good information professional, I know the importance of backing up my work. What I did not anticipate was that my entire collection of free, giveaway, conference swag, branded flash drives were all way too small capacity to handle backing up my first video group project. Who would have thought, right? (Rookie mistake.) I’ve since bought two much bigger capacity flash drives, and recruited my external hard drive into service, and now feel much better about my ability to keep all my work, throughout my program, backed up in multiple places.
  4. Set up a calendar. I’m a huge calendar proponent, but mine mostly focuses on what I need to do today, right now. It’s not very good at showing me an overall picture or spanning multiple years (or semesters). Partway through my first semester, I started a Google Sheet, private and just for me, that maps out what classes I want to take, when I want to take them, and what requirements they satisfy. I added due dates for future scholarship opportunities (see #2 above) and any conferences I might want to attend. It’s easy to access and easy to update. My daily calendar still keeps me on track, but my spreadsheet reminds me what my track is.
  5. Check your syllabi and textbook lists for the upcoming semester. If you know you’re going to need a textbook, better to start shopping earlier rather than later. I shared my top tips for getting low-cost textbooks here, and don’t forget to plug your assignment due dates and quizzes into your calendar.
  6. Make sure you’re following Hack Library School on Twitter, Facebook, or your favorite RSS reader for more useful hacks, advice, and news in the library and graduate school world!
  7. Take a break. I know, easier said than done, and it’s not like anyone has ever successfully just talked themselves out of stress and worry. But I wrote this while watching an Indiana Jones marathon, petting my dog, and drinking a hot chocolate. Which is to say – taking a break is no bad thing. Last year, I let myself dwell too long on the fact that I had a twelve-year gap between finishing my undergrad and starting a graduate program, and it ended up not mattering in the slightest. My professors knew they were dealing with new students – who else would be taking all the core courses that are prerequisites for the rest of the program? – and I was learning right alongside other new students, and we all commiserated with and helped each other get into the swing of things. It was, all in all, a pretty seamless transition, and worrying about it beforehand was just wasted time and energy.

So, in that spirit, share your own plan for winter break in the comments below! Are you prepping for your first, final, or somewhere-in-between semester, or checking out and (mentally) spending time elsewhere for a few weeks?

Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

Lauren has just finished her first year of library school at San José State University. She works in circulation at a community college library, which during 2020 mostly meant doing curbside pickup, finding places around the library to quarantine items, and answering frantic emails from her bedroom. She tries to always be in the middle of one Charles Dickens novel and one Star Wars canon novel, and estimates she will finish this project sometime around 2032.

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