Advice for Moderate Graduate School Success

Cody Holland

October 2, 2017

“This isn't working... I won't succeed. I'm not cut out for this line of work.” ~ Journal Entry 9/26/16

The words pulsated through my mind. It was late September and I had just had a week with a major failure in my new assistantship. On top of that, each class discussion left me reeling; how was it that everyone else had it figured out already? I was at a low point and I wasn’t sure where to turn or what to do. I felt as though every interaction I had with undergraduates ended with me apologizing for my lack of skills and knowledge. With everything that was happening, I started questioning if I was on the right path. Luckily, I had extensive support and some great mentors that helped me navigate the hurdles of being a first-year graduate student. Below are the lessons I learned along the way.

Allow Yourself Space to Fail.

As I started my new role planning community service events, I had a major case of imposter syndrome. Do I belong here; is this the right field; were my supervisors wrong in hiring me, were all questions that permeated my day to day thoughts. These thoughts stemmed from some small mistakes early on, and then were magnified with one major issue before my first community service event. Using a new registration system, I had forgotten to delete the past responses from our volunteer sign up before making assignments, and thus two of our community partner service sites would be without volunteers.

I was distraught in talking with my supervisor. How could she trust me with anything again after such a stupid oversight? But, she did. In fact, she guided me through the next steps to take to mitigate the damage, and then after the event, she asked me to reflect on what my failure meant.  I did as she asked, and in doing so, found not only some great lessons around event planning, but that my life’s most salient lessons had been learned through failure.  

As with all new transitions, you are bound to screw up. That’s ok! And I honestly would say it is expected. Hold yourself to high standards, but practice self-care and love when you fall short. Also, while some screw ups are more serious than others and appropriate measures should be taken to ensure they don’t occur, recognize that to fail is to grow and that you shouldn’t harp on yourself too much when things go awry. Showing that you fail also adds a layer of authenticity to your work and makes you more human and approachable to students. All in all, failure can be a positive thing so long as you learn from your mistakes and make changes to prevent it in the future.

Set Boundaries and Practice Self-care:

I have come to find that self-care is a word that is incredibly vague in this field. Everyone has a different idea of what it entails and everyone thinks they do it well. Just like driving a car, most people overestimate their abilities. Professionals routinely come in early and stay late, work weekends, and respond to emails while away on vacation (guilty). While this is sometimes a necessity in our work, I’ve come to realize that if you want to prioritize your own well-being (which you absolutely should!) you need to set your boundaries early on and stick to them. That goes for your students AND supervisors. For a quick easy guide for setting and upholding boundaries check out: You may have to work to find what works for you, but spend some time early on figuring out how to take care of yourself.  Future you will be glad you did!

Take Charge of Your Graduate Education

There are many skills and experiences needed for landing that first job out of graduate school, (or so I’ve been told) but your program may not always give you what you need individually to get them. After talking with graduates from other universities this summer, I actually think it is far more common than most of us realize. My advice: recognize that this is YOUR education and YOU are responsible for what you put in and get out of it. It is great to preach self-advocacy to our students, but in this case, it is us who need to fight to get what we need.

First, start looking up job postings that you might be interested in ( and start comparing your resume to the job responsibilities, highlighting the elements that you still need. From here, you can start mapping out potential practicums, research opportunities, conferences or conference sessions to attend, and even professional networking opportunities. This can also help you figure out which class readings you want to really sink your teeth into versus those you should skim.

Also on that note, if you’re not getting what you want from class, make your own reading list on an area of interest. It is especially helpful to know applicable theories and high-impact practices for your assistantship office. Enlist the help of the professionals here and ask your professors for help with the reading list.

Also, while we’re on the subject of self-advocacy, make sure you use the resources you’re being given. Make advising appointments. Go to office hours. Use campus resources. Do all the things they told you to do in undergrad that you never did! One mistake I made, was being hesitant to ask for help. Higher Education is a small world, and chances are that if one professional can’t help you they know someone who can. Which brings me to my next point...

” If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” -African Proverb

The longer I work in this field the more I realize the value of networking and coalition building. We cannot operate in silos if we want to address the major issues on campuses today. Major issues such as sexual assault, equity and inclusion, and civic engagement all require offices, professionals, and the greater community to work together on solutions so that things are addressed from multiple angles.

Also, networking can help you if you don’t have an idea of a path post-graduation. Network with professionals who have interesting positions, do a practicum in an office you think you would enjoy, and meet with your career services office and take a career assessment (yes, they help graduate students too!).

The best advice I can give you, is to force yourself to meet with a new person each week and to bridge different departments. As an introvert, I struggled with networking for such a long time until a supervisor pushed me to do it. The first meetings were a bit awkward, but over time I felt more and more natural. Professionals in this field care and most of the time will be able to meet for a 30-minute coffee date or phone call. Come prepared with questions and be respectful of their time, but know that they care about the future of this field which is you!

Build Up Your Cohort

Too often have I heard of graduates who have used questionable means to achieve a moderate leg above the rest of their cohort. This hunger games mentality, which pits everyone against each other, is quite ridiculous and frankly misses the bigger picture.

I got the opportunity to work at UNC Chapel Hill this summer and it shocked me how many times I would mention my home institution, a small to medium sized liberal arts institution in Ohio, and people would excitedly start listing off the names of everyone they knew there. My point here is that this field is smaller than you realize and it is ALL about relationships. It is quite possible that you will end up working at the same institution, working on a national committee, or want to reach out to one of your old cohort members for advice at some point in your career. So, recognize that while you may literally be competing for the same job after graduation, by actively working against them you burn bridges that could be crucial in the future. 

Furthermore, your cohort members are the people who understand your experiences. They too are in the trenches reading papers through meals, bringing their laptops to the bar, and sacrificing their social lives for the well-being of their students. Everyone is going through this new transition. Explicitly tearing them down leaves you without additional support, insight, and inspiration and leaves them more anxious and stressed out than they already were. Establishing relationships with them allows you to share collective victories, mourn in defeats, and work together for the betterment of this field’s future. These individuals could become some of the closest friends of your life, but right now, they’re going through this too, and you need to be intentional about supporting them.

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Cody Holland is a second-year graduate student in the Leadership in Higher Education M.Ed. program at Baldwin Wallace University and volunteers with the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Knowledge Community. In his spare time, he enjoys craft beer, hammocks in the shade, and coffee shops on a rainy day. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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