How to Take Graduate Courses, and Use Them to Advance Your Career

I have been on a grant writing hiatus from my blog, but this semester, I am back! I am starting a series designed for graduate students early in their career based on the first-year proseminar I teach to our human development and family science graduate students. When I designed this course, my hope was to reduce the variation in graduate student achievement that is attributed to the advisor. Thus, I wanted all students to have a good, solid base of information and advice that would benefit them in the coming years. This first post is on taking graduate courses.

Undergrad is very coursework focused. Most PhD programs are not. That said, it is important to do reasonably well in your graduate coursework. Graduate courses require a different set of skills that many students easily catch on to.

It's your first semester of graduate school - do you feel like this? photo credit: Buried Alive via photopin (license)

It’s your first semester of graduate school – do you feel like this?
photo credit: Buried Alive via photopin (license)

Skill 1: Be engaged. Many graduate seminars are discussion-based, and to be seen as an engaged graduate student, you need to be asking questions, and answering questions. Some courses will even require you write discussion questions each week. When you are in class, look at the person who is speaking, or the professor. Make eye contact with your professor and classmates. Comment on readings and answer questions. Talk at least twice during a 3 hour discussion based seminar. Use the readings as your resource, not your own personal experiences. And, do not talk just to talk. If you are an extrovert, make sure you are not dominating the conversation with another extrovert in the course. One way to be sure you are not dominating the conversation is to keep a tally of how much you talk compared to the other students. Try not to double or triple their talking turn count. Do not interrupt the speaker. Treat the other students and your professor with respect.

Skill 2: Be professional. Show up to class on time, or even better, 5 minutes early. Don’t look at your phone or websites that are off topic like Twitter. I often let students have laptops in seminars so they do not have to print the papers, but I have had graduate students shopping on Amazon when they were supposed to be engaged in class discussion. I have also had graduate students scrolling when we were engaged in an activity that didn’t require looking at the readings. That is really irritating and I always assume these students are looking at social media or the news or shopping and aren’t engaged in the class.

Skill 3: Produce quality work, and turn it in on time. Take advantage of professors’ offers to read rough drafts or to revise papers. You do not need to blow away your professor with your writing acumen, but you do need to write papers that are well-argued, formatted to your graduate program’s preferred style, and have been proofread. Do not turn in papers late unless you talk to the professor.

Do not be afraid to talk to the professor if you are feeling overwhelmed at the end of the semester. Professors will often consider short extensions on final papers to students who are overwhelmed for any reason. Reach out and ask for help. Other students are doing it, and are benefitting.

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