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Heading to graduate school?

Seven tips from a master’s grad and PhD candidate

1. Pick the program that scares you most.

When deciding where to complete my master’s degree, I had to choose between two very different programs. One was a single year and seemed cutting edge and fun, with classes on quality television and popular fiction. The other, a traditional two-year master’s, was more rigorous, with course work of a highly theoretical nature. The primary factor in my decision was my relative level of fear. I chose the university with the more fun program and came to regret that decision. The experience was a good one in many ways—my supervisory team was wonderful, and I was able to continue working part time—but by making the safe choice, I didn’t set the bar high enough. Instead of leaping into new and challenging work, I ended up rehashing much of the same material I had been exposed to in my undergraduate degree. If I had it to do over, I’d take the bigger risk.

2. Write every day.

This will keep you in the right headspace, so that when it comes time to get that twenty-page term paper done, it’s not so agonizing. Whether it’s making précis of readings for class or blogging about pop culture, the habit of writing will serve you well. When drafting my thesis, I made a promise to sit down with the work every day, no matter what. If I couldn’t eke out more than a paragraph, that was okay; the point was just to commit to showing up ready to work. I devoted four or five hours daily, five days a week, to my thesis throughout the summer, and had my first draft finished before Labour Day. Writing daily didn’t make the process painless, but it did make it much less overwhelming.

3. Choose subject matter you’re passionate about.

As an undergrad, rather than focusing on grades and scores and how any given class would look on my resume, I followed my curiosity. In graduate school, I didn’t lose that idealistic notion of what higher education should be, but it did fall by the wayside as more practical concerns came to the fore. If there’s one overarching piece of advice I’d give to those agonizing over lists and charts and trying to pick the best path, it would be to follow their inquisitiveness. Funding and employment are important to consider when making decision about graduate work, but nothing will help you slog through the difficult days—of which there are many—like a passion for what you’re studying.

4. Don’t get too hung up on grades.

Most people take their master’s degree in a subject similar to work they did at the undergraduate level, the result being an inevitable overlap. In my case, I was familiar with nearly everything covered in the core course. When it came to presentations, everyone chose the material they were most well-versed in. It makes sense: grades matter, and presenting work one feels confident with helps secure a good grade. That said, studying at the graduate level isn’t solely about deepening your knowledge, but also broadening it. With that in mind, opting to work with unfamiliar and challenging material is a better strategy.

5. Get involved outside of class.

The most successful graduate students are the ones who take advantage of as many opportunities as they can. Partly because I was a commuter, I was not one of those students. I regret it. I did once stick around to see a talk given by Galen Weston, but that wasn’t so much in service of enriching myself as it was indulging in a bit of eye candy… but I digress! The point here is to seek out extracurricular events that will make you feel a part of the community and open you to new things.

6. Find a grad school best friend.

This is crucial. Your grad school best friend is the one you can text at 3 a.m. when preparing a presentation and PowerPoint gives you trouble. She’ll make sure you don’t drown in beer after a disheartening meeting with your supervisor and won’t complain when you ask her to act as a plant in the question period of your conference presentation. She’ll be your wing person and you’ll be hers.

7. Take your reading week somewhere sunny.

Grad school is stressful. There’s a reason why reading week exists, and it’s not just so students and faculty can get caught up on work. Everyone needs a break. Grad students aren’t rich, but if you can find a way to use reading week to get somewhere warm and sunny, do it. Leaving your parka and boots for just a few days will do wonders for your focus, stamina and mood. I recommend heading to the most magical place on earth—my grad school best friend and I made annual trips to Walt Disney World. If exquisite simulacra isn’t your thing, an all-inclusive resort will do just as well.

Keri Ferencz earned a Master of Arts in Popular Culture from Brock University and is working toward her PhD in Social and Cultural Analysis at Concordia University. Follow @KeriFerencz.