By Derek Attig
Graduate school can sometimes feel like running on a hamster wheel, like you’re in constant motion but not really sure that you’re getting anywhere.
There are a ton of one-week deadlines (I have to write that literature review by Tuesday!) and a few five-year deadlines (I’ll defend my dissertation!), but bridging the gaps between those can be tough. And that makes it hard to figure out whether you’re headed in the right direction. Planning can help you build those bridges effectively, preparing you to make choices with your goals in mind so you don’t just keep spinning until you’re dizzy.
So what makes a good plan? What will help you leave the wheel to the hamsters and make the most of grad school? Here are some approaches we recommend:
Connect your dots
A really great grad school plan is going to be one that connects where you’ve been, where you are now, and where you want to be after graduation. You need to figure out which of your past experiences have contributed to your growth to this point. Then you need to know how your current activities will continue or adjust that trajectory and to make decisions about what comes next with your background and goals in mind.
Let’s say you want to do something related to teaching after you graduate. You know you started gaining some skills as a tutor in undergrad, but right now you don’t have a teaching assignment. You might plan to land a TA gig in the next few semesters while practicing your mentoring skills in the lab.
A strong plan also connects you to resources that will help you achieve your goals. Once you landed a teaching position, you could run-run-run on the hamster wheel, teaching class after class and hoping you get better. Or you could connect with the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning to attend workshops or pursue a teaching certificate.
Whatever your goals, research what’s out there, identify what would be useful, then make plans to take advantage of them.
Give yourself time
Alas, you probably aren’t going to reach your long-term goals next week. (But, but I guess that’s what makes them long-term.) So you’ll need to think about how much time your goals require, how much time you have available to you, and what you need to accomplish before you’re done. For example, to improve as a teacher you’ll ideally want to TA for more than one semester so you can try out new strategies. But if you only have one semester, your approach might need to be somewhat different.
How much time you have will depend on where you are in your program. But whether you’re here for a year or for five, you need to plan ahead to make sure you use the time you have to the fullest. And be sure to schedule blocks on your calendar to make sure you make time to execute your plans.
Talk to people who are doing what you want to do
It can be really easy to spend your time mostly surrounded by other graduate students, talking mostly with other graduate students, hearing mostly about other graduate students’ experiences. And that can be really great. Grad students, especially those further along, can be fantastic resources for figuring out what comes next in school. (And, you know, they make great friends.)
But don’t stop there. When it comes to setting goals and clarifying plans, it’s a great idea to talk to people who aren’t graduate students anymore. One of the best ways to connect your dots—to figure out how to get from where you’ve been to where you want to go—is to talk to people working in your target fields, people who’ve already made that journey. Based on their experiences, you can decide what skills you need to focus on and which experiences you should pursue. You can always make an appointment with the Graduate College Career Development Office to talk about finding connections and having these sorts of conversations.
Make a Plan with GradMAP
If you’d like some guidance in setting goals and making plans to achieve them, the Graduate College Career Development Office offers a program called GradMAP that does just that. In GradMAP, you will set a medium-term goal, figure out which skills you need to develop, then make concrete plans to develop those skills. We’ll help you connect with campus resources, too. This year, we are offering GradMAP on October 28, February 12, and April 4. Register for the October, February, or April session. Stay tuned for registration information for those. Or we can bring GradMAP on the road to your department or research group.
So ditch the hamster wheel, and I think you'll find things are pretty great out on the open road. You can see where you're headed, watch for milestones to check your progress, and experience the satisfaction that comes with reaching your destination. Not to mention that sometimes it's nice to feel the wind in your fur.
Hamster image courtesty of Doenertier82 at commons.wikimedia.org.
"The Hamster Wheel of Academia" courtesy Belle Kim and A Prolific Source.
Derek Attig is Assistant Director for Student Outreach at the Graduate College Career Development Office. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Career Development team. A devotee of libraries and all things peculiar, Derek is currently writing a book about bookmobiles.