Asking for Help When You Need It and Knowing When to Help Yourself

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on April 2, 2014.

Do you remember what it was like to be an undergraduate?  I took a few years off between college and my MLS, but I can still recall the endless “student social events,” the finals-week pampering and “de-stressing” events that my college hosted without fail.  The intro-to-the-library session all the first-years received. Basically, the hand-holding.

I’m not saying undergrad is a breeze.  There’s plenty of work involved, and those degrees are earned.  But undergrads enjoy a lot more basic support structures and failsafe measures to keep the clueless from falling through the cracks.  Masters and PhD programs, while wonderful, are a whole different deal (especially when you’re online). There are very few measures to catch you if you screw up, and while I’m sure your program wants to see you succeed, you’re the only one responsible for your success.

But that’s not to say you won’t get help if you need it.  The key is knowing who to ask, when to ask, and when you should really be helping yourself.  Here are some common problems and ways that they might be solved.  Please add your own problems and solutions below the line!

You can’t get organized

If this is just a matter of you losing your stuff and forgetting due dates, then it’s time for some self-help.  Spreadsheets of your major assignment due dates for each semester, digital copies of important stuff (saved in Dropbox so you CAN’T lose them), and reminders on your phone are a great place to start. You could also try one of the many free organization apps and websites out there.  I’ve heard great things about Evernote and Trello.  Basically, you need to establish good routines and habits.

This might not be about you though.  If your professors aren’t making important things like due dates clear then it’s time to take action.  Contact them in whatever way works best and (politely) ask for clarification on ANYTHING you’re confused by.  This should do it, but if you’re still not getting the information you need it’s time to e-mail your advisor.  Nobody should fail an assignment because they were given the wrong due date.

Of course, if you have or think you may have an attention disorder like ADHD or similar then this is a totally different conversation. You owe it to yourself to be properly treated and your professors need to be fully aware of your situation.  Start with your own doctor if you have one, the student health center if you don’t. Medical conditions will generally entitle you to special considerations, but your professors can’t give you this help if you don’t tell them you need it.

You feel out of the information loop

Most programs will drown you in important information by any means possible, so this is probably all you.  Are you signed up for all the listservs? Do you visit your programs website or blog?  Do you open your e-mail regularly?  I’ve been guilty of missing useful announcements and indignantly asking why we weren’t told about cool things (like the program subscription to  Don’t be like me.  Read your e-mail.

You’ve got tech issues

If you’re a regular on-campus student, the university tech office will probably be your best bet. Not only will it be the cheapest option, they know exactly what your network requirements are and what perks you get as a student.  Make that technology fee count.

If you’re an online only student like me, you might still be able to get help from the tech office.  Remotely controlled desktop technology is a wonderful thing.  Whatever your problem is, at least try the tech office.  If they can’t help, what kind of IT support is in place at your workplace?  The IT team probably isn’t going to devote huge amounts of time to fixing a non-work issue, but it never hurts to describe your problem and ask what they’d do. This is generally more successful when the IT team knows you to be a responsible user. Don’t piss off your IT team.

You’re drowning in your coursework

If your problem is purely a lack of time, then see what you can cut out of your life until you’re back on stable ground.  Can friends or family help out with babysitting?  Can you travel less for work? Sometimes all it takes is committing to a hermit-weekend or two in the library to recover yourself.  But if the problem is more ongoing, it might be time for a serious self-evaluation.  Remember, there’s no shame in going part-time or even taking a semester off if that’s what you need.

If the problem is lack of comprehension, then it’s time to get some outside help.  Start with your professor’s office hours (virtual or face-to-face) and get as much advice as you can.  If that’s not an option for some reason, think about who else you know that could help you. Your classmates are a fantastic resource, and working with them to solve problems could end up forging professional contacts you’ll draw on for your whole career.  You could also try asking an actual working librarian (radical, I know).

Don’t stop with “library people” though. I can’t tell you how many times my scientist SO has explained basic coding problems to me, and coworkers with database experience have kept me from weeping over Microsoft Access more than once.  Taking a project management class?  I bet your boss knows a thing or two. Most importantly, swallow your pride and admit that you just don’t get it. Nobody’s going to help if you don’t ask.

How the #*&% do you register for class, pay your bill, etc…?

Possibly the most maddening part of my MLS thus far, but relatively straightforward to fix.  Figure out what campus office can help you, then call and call and call and call and call some more until it’s right.  Ultimately you are one student among thousands and your schedule/student account/financial aid is nobody’s responsibility but yours.

You don’t want to be “That Kid”

Remember this kid from college?  They knew the answer to every question, dominated every class discussion, and always aced the final.  They studied their butt off, always showed up on time, and introduced themselves to the professor on the first day. They were driven, eager, and totally unashamed for it. And they probably caught a little flak for it.

I get it, nobody wants to be thought of as the weird one.  But it’s time to grow up and get over it.  This is a Masters program, you chose to be here, and you’re probably laying out a significant chunk of your very own money for the privilege.  If you’re not trying to be “that kid” you’re wasting your time.

Ultimately, my take home point is don’t wait to fix your problems.  Support structures might not be as obvious as they were as an undergrad, but they do exist.  You just have to ask for them.

Photo by Vardan Papikyan on Unsplash

Categories: Honesty

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