Control the Controllables: Dealing With Challenges All Graduate Students Face

A guide to maneuvering the challenges that come with applying to and attending graduate school.

Deciding to attend graduate school is a life-altering decision that sets the direction for your professional life and passions. However, as with any big change, it doesn’t come free of difficulties.

One helpful way to keep your new situation in perspective is to control the controllables (or at least try to!). This is where you identify things that are within your control while trying to minimize the negative effects of those that are not. For example, you can control your preparation, dedication, and effort from the moment you start researching grad schools to your first day on campus. You cannot control the number of students looking at your same program in a given year, the admission committee members who review your application, or the people you’ll eventually be sitting in class with.

Here, we’ll discuss some common issues for graduate students as well as how to identify what’s truly within your control and tips for doing well in those areas—so you can face your challenges with positivity and ultimately become a stronger grad student.

Related: How to Start Your Grad School Search

Challenge: selecting the best program

Today there are more graduate programs than ever, and it can feel overwhelming and be difficult to choose between institutions. Don’t be discouraged by the options. If you’re proactive in starting the search early and take initiative along the way, you’ll have the opportunity to ask important questions and thoroughly review all of the schools that end up on your list.

First, it’s crucial to do research on your own to ensure that your graduate school goals align with a prospective program’s offerings. Some other things to pay attention to include overall institution reputation, accreditation, on-campus student resources, career outcomes and placement services, notable alumni, graduation rates, average student debt, and tuition rates.

If possible, visit your schools to get a true feel for the on-campus culture as well as the opportunity to meet current students with similar academic interests. Be sure to check out faculty profiles and individual department websites too; they can offer extra insight to whether a program will be a good fit for you.

Control the controllables:

You can’t control the number of schools that offer the type of program you’re interested in. But by giving yourself enough time to sort through all of the available resources and information, you’ll be prepared to make the best possible decision.

Related: How to Find the Right Graduate Program for You

Challenge: Navigating the application process

Once you’ve figured out your top choices, you’ll begin the application process. This is your opportunity to stand out as a potential candidate and showcase your accomplishments. By this point you’ve put thought, effort, and time into your grad school search, so you’re aware of various program requirements. Every institution is different and has its own set of application policies and procedures, but it’s fair to assume that you’ll need to gather the following materials:

  • Undergraduate transcripts—either attached to the application or official copies sent from your prior institution(s)
  • Updated résumé
  • Cover letter or statement of purpose that speaks directly to your interest in and qualifications for the program

You’ll also likely be required to provide references who can speak to your academic aptitude. You may find it helpful to reach out to your potential recommenders as early as possible, even before you apply. Faculty members are sometimes away in the summer, and learning of a recommendation request in the spring can make it easier for them to find time to help you.

Lastly, the earlier you submit your application and all supplemental materials, the better. This doesn’t mean rush through the process though. Stay organized from the beginning and pay attention to detail. Set an early goal “deadline” and work toward it. When your application is polished, you can send it in with confidence (and hopefully time to spare).

Related: 7 Things to Do Before Applying to Grad School

Control the controllables:

You can’t control the number of applications a school will receive in a given year or the strength of the pool. But if you’ve started your research early and have narrowed down your list of institutions, you’ll have extra time to devote to submitting a high-quality application.

Challenge: Transitioning from undergraduate studies

It’s called a master’s degree for a reason: you are literally becoming a master of the subject of your choosing. Now is your opportunity to specialize in an area that you have a true passion for.

This isn’t to say you won’t be challenged in your course work. In fact, graduate-level academics are far more rigorous than undergrad. But the actual format will be different—which can take some getting used to. For example, you might have one giant group presentation to give at the end of a semester and nothing due in the meantime. In that case, you’ll be relying heavily on your classmates for collaboration and be responsible for managing your own time. Stay organized, be flexible, and manage your time well.

Finally, find things to do that you enjoy to ease the transition. Check out graduate student–specific and local organizations geared toward your interests. Were you part of student groups as an undergrad? Check out what your campus offers. Are you an athlete? Join a running club or recreational team. You get the picture—opportunities will present themselves when you make the effort to look for them.

Control the controllables:

You won’t be able to alter a syllabus or the number of hours you spend in class, but you can stay as focused as possible during challenging courses and find meaningful activities to participate in and enjoy during your free time. You’re in charge of your schedule now, and it will be different than undergrad. It pays to be at your best mentally, physically, and emotionally. Finding ways to stay healthy and positive will only help you become a stronger student.

Related: How to Be a Successful Grad Student: Insider Advice

Challenge: Making connections

No matter what your current situation is, becoming a graduate student will be vastly different than your previous experiences on a college campus. You may find yourself living in a completely foreign environment; you might be relocating and living off campus.

Even though you may no longer be living in a residence hall with 87 of your closest friends, it’s important to make yourself accessible to other students around you for academic and professional collaboration, not to mention camaraderie! It can be uncomfortable to put yourself out there, but make an effort to attend events such as new student orientation and social gatherings. Talk to people. And try to remember that everyone is feeling the same way.

Control the controllables:

You don’t know who you’ll end up going to class with, but it’s important to go out of your way to engage with those around you. By the very nature of graduate school, you’re going to be surrounded by people who share your interests. This is an opportunity to build strong, lasting relationships.

Related: The Art of Networking in Grad School

Final thoughts

The journey ahead of you is exciting! There are so many things in life outside of your control, but thankfully the way you approach graduate school is not one of them. By learning to effectively manage the common stressors of a new graduate student, you’ll put yourself in a position to be successful every step of the way.

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