My first semester as a student is done and I am about to start the second next Tuesday (after the long weekend due to the MLK Birthday). Sadly, I cannot tell I had the best results, but I am certainly confident to have learned very valuable lessons for the future.
*UPDATE*: I was reading this post today (March 22nd) and decided to add some more info and correct some things around.
1. Try to adapt to your environment as fast as possible. And even force it. I am certainly fortunate to have come to a city which I have been visiting for over twenty years, where I have friends. And I am even more fortunate because this city is very near to my hometown (about 250 miles). But believe me it is a completely different thing to know a city by visiting it than by living in it. If you can adapt quickly, you’ll have a great advantage. Even going to the store and select groceries is a challenge at first.
2. Be ready for a different system. Having studied in my home country for all my life, including bachelor and masters, changing educational systems has been interesting, to say the least. I now understand the value of a professor taking care of you, and appreciate them to help me in that way. *UPDATE*: Also try to make friends, they can be an unvaluable support and help. Try both with locals and even international students, since each will have different experiences. Also, support your friends; in Grad School we all can use a pat in the back.
3. Take advantage of everything you can. American universities have a myriad of services which are very useful for students, many of them not available at home or at least not as consolidated as they are being offered here. In my case, I have been taking prfessional psychological counseling due to stress and anxiety issues. It has been a tremendous help to get back on my feet and keep this going. Counseling, athletic facilities, library, cultural events… You name it, you are already paying for it! Use them! *UPDATE*: Of course, if you have time. My case, I have not been able to use the athletic facilities. And also, get involved in the activities and traditions of your university! Such experiences will go a long way and will surely provide great memories! Extend yourself, do not only do what you are supposed, become a “universal” man/woman!
4. Network. I have always felt uncomfortable with this word considering that professionals use it as a pretext to take advantage of other people, but from now on for me it means to know people which have different abilities than yours and that can complement you and your work. I was fortunate to attend a seminar by the end of my first semester (future post coming), and it really nourished me to meet people facing challenges like my own, each with their characteristics. Even though you think of yourself as a shy person, always try to talk and contact the people around you: you will be happily surprised if you are open and sincere.
5. Find a topic for your thesis / dissertation AS SOON AS POSSIBLE! Even though it sounds corny and cliché, I can’t stress this enough: Find a topic which makes you passionate for research, and do it fast! I was fortunate that I took the Graduate Research Methods class, and that the professor made us complete a first draft of our research proposal. I won’t lie to you, it was HARD to find a topic, especially within the limited time of a semester. Within the first two months, I switched topics three times, but thanks to the professor and my dissertation advisor I managed to find a topic which really intrigues me and makes me want to start working on it. I feel I am on a solid track to get something done, and it is something worth! And once you have it, make a plan on how you will be making your advances towards your goal.
6. Pay attention to your family. You can get deeply immersed on your studies, I know it gets hard and you feel you have to. In my case, I am married and have two little kids, and I have my parents back home, my brother and his family, my in-laws, some of my cousins… During my hardest time this semester, my immediate family resented my stress and lack of quality for them. Be careful with it, even if your family is not with you, always find some time to keep in touch. Work will not be over, never. But you may lose your family. Don’t risk it. Work hard, of course! but always make time for your family and give them all you can during that time. Make it special, show them how you love them and that you are truly caring and sacrificing for a better tomorrow.
7. Take care of yourself. Long hours, hard work, sleep deprivation, malnutrition will take a toll on you. Manage yourself carefully through the tide of assignments, exams and even work. Find a time for you. Keep track of what you eat, and try to eat healthy: your body and mind will thank you and keep helping you. Try to exercise; it goes a long way with stress.
8. Keep the faith. If you do not actively profess a religion, jump this point. I am Catholic, but sadly I must confess that all the work and pressure took a toll on my religious life. Do not. Always find your time for God, find refuge and comfort in your belief.
*UPDATE*¨: 9. Find support. I mentioned something about in a previous point, but let me go further. Many of the guys/gals you are next too will also have similar problems as you. Being overworked, stressed, missing their family… You name it. Help this people, care for them and let yourself be cared. Such relations may end up been truly endearing and enduring.
That’s all I can think right now. There are certainly other more personal lessons, but I wish to keep those private. You will certainly have your own.
I hope you have a great Spring 2015 semester. Keep working hard!