STEM Grad School Bootcamp: Week 2

This will be part 2 of 4 in a weekly series focused on preparing for graduate school in STEM if you come from a humanities based undergrad or other graduate experience. Please make sure to follow my blog to get the latest update to the series.

Now that we have established our ideological framework for graduate school, we ought to shift focus toward our material environment. This week we will be getting organized.

Getting organized is about more than color coding files, printing out a calendar or sticky-notes. Graduate school has the sneaky ability to render any tips and tricks for organization useless. This post will focus on the few but wildly important material and environmental factors that contribute to your success.

1. Streamline your finances:

This should really be step zero, because it forms the foundation for all other “hacks” meant to enhance your transition to grad school in STEM. Yet, few students seem to really grasp the day-to-day impact of this lifestyle (speaking peronally as someone who stacked additional loans on tuition just for living expenses). Most of our elders will lecture us about staying frugal, pinching pennies and saving more than we spend, etc. It’s likely that 90% of you ignore this, as I did. You have to experience it for yourself before deciding the real importance of decreased spending.

Do this: Try to monitor your cash flow as closely as possible for a few days, then try a week. Certain days will inevitably buck the trend, but generally you should be able to estimate what you buy on a bi-weekly basis. Have an honest conversation with yourself about what is essential (bonus point: loop in a close friend or intimate partner) and what is not. The money from your loan will seem like monopoly money at first, so it is vital that you run these pilot spending weeks before this influx of cash. Apps, message boards, and banks can be marginally helpful but they try to remove friction from spending and tracking finances. You should actively add healthy amounts of friction early on to really see a change.

2. Make a scholarship/grant/fellowship action plan:

Congratulations if you are already studying at a reduced rate! It not only saves you money, but looks better down the line for interviews and hiring committee review. If not, don’t worry- use the first semester of your courses to build your case for why you should have been on scholarship in the first place.

As you kick butt, find a free period to do the following: Spend an afternoon looking into scholarships (of any amount) that you qualify for, then spend another day to draft and write applications, have them looked over by someone you trust, then submit. Seriously, apply for as many as possible. Dr. Karen Kelsky of The Professor is In blog and eponymous bestseller advises thousands of students to do this with the goal of getting on the “grant gravy train.” By getting a foot in the door of the scholarship world, you demonstrate that you are vetted. You’ve earned independent, peer-reviewed academic stamps of approval. You are therefore far more likely to be given subsequent scholarships and keep the grant gravy train rolling.

3. Sort the particulars:

While you may have covered some of this last week, it may be worth repeating that straightening out the details of your daily experience will be fundamental to your success. On my first day, I didn’t know where to park, where to go for lunch, where my desk would be, or when tuition needed to be paid. These are things that some programs will not hand to you like an orientation leader. Do you know when you can drop a class at the latest to avoid fees? When are your breaks in the semester? Do you have weekend plans or conferences for the fall or spring that need to be prioritized? Bug your advisor and program coordinator about the finer points of your daily and weekly schedule that if mismanaged, can add up to serious degradation of your mental health over time.

4. Get (physically) organized:

Where do you study? What tools do you need to start working? Don’t get to syllabus week and assume that future you will sort this out. Think it through now, open up Amazon (or your local office supply store, preferably), and buy the binders, file folders, calculators and pens you may need. Some places will offer discounts to students with a valid ID, so make sure to ask for one from your school and start saving money right away. See if your school library offers carrel (private study room) rentals per semester or academic year. Having this (or any quiet, dedicated space) be your Camp David of focus will pay huge dividends later in your degree.

Conclusion: In many ways, material preparation for school can equal the importance of philosophical preparation. Ideas without a plan remain so. However, if you can sort your finances, make a scholarship action plan, sort all the specifics, and get your educational environment organized, you will be well-positioned to succeed in STEM graduate programs and beyond.

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