- Identify Sources Available –Juggling the demands school and work can be difficult. I’m lucky my job as a part-time faculty member for two different colleges give me the option to access three different online libraries. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning how to navigate and use your school’s online library. As great as Google is, using an online library automatically sifts through all the BS for you. It provides the legitimate stuff so you can rest easy knowing it’s credible info to use in your research papers. Not to mention you have librarians who are lifesavers when it comes to research. Use them! Google Scholar is another great source. If I find an article or book I’d like to access on Google Scholar, but it’s wanting me to pay a fee, instead I take note of the article and request a copy be provided by the library. I’ve learned some other nifty uses of Google Scholar, so I’ll write another blog that focuses specifically on that topic later. It’s pretty damn cool. Also, don’t be afraid to ask peers and former teachers for advice or help. You’d be surprised how even a tiny suggestion from one of them can save you from wasting a ridiculous number of hours on searching for something they already knew where to look. Build a list of classmates you know are hardworking and trustworthy. Include on that list your favorite teachers you feel are open for questions, even after you’ve completed their class. Trust me when I say they can help save you lots of tears and avoid blood pressure spikes. And then there’s social media. What a goldmine! Twitter is an excellent platform to tweet a quick question and get quick responses. More on that later also.
- Invest in Software – It’s been 10 years since I was a student, so naturally some things have changed. Everyone uses MS Office, so get with it. I’m amazed at how many students don’t understand the basics of using Word or Excel or PowerPoint. Welcome to the 21st century! And there are so many cheap options for students to get these programs; there’s really no excuse. One software program I discovered that I now cannot live without is Endnote. It interacts directly with MS Word, so as I’m writing, it will automatically put in citations and references for me. Seriously! And it will do this in multiple writing styles. You need to use APA? MLA? Harvard? No problem. By the way, I don’t want to hear anybody complaining about having to use a certain writing style for academics. When I began my bachelors program 100 years ago, the style used in my field was MLA. Then, my senior year, the entire field changed to APA. I got completely familiar with APA through graduate school. Now that I’m in an English program in the UK, I’m now learning Harvard. Endnote has literally saved my life.
- Use a Calendar – You’re going to need time for reading, for researching, and for writing. Depending on the class, you might even have to do a bit of data collection and then figure out how to sift through and manage all that data. All of this takes time! And then add a job and family responsibilities on top of that, it seems there are not enough hours in the day. But there are. I bet you’re not using them to your advantage. This is where Google calendar comes in. I put deadlines on my calendar and then work backwards from there, looking for days or hours I can dedicate to school. I will create an appointment in my calendar for library time or office time. Dedicate those days to whatever needs to be done to complete the assignment down the road, whether that be researching and reading through articles, or writing notes and summaries, or finalizing a paper. I even work in time on the calendar that is dedicated “data cleanup” time since that is so time consuming and requires focus. You’d be amazed at how much you can accomplish in one day when you adhere to a schedule. A note about day planners: I understand some of you might still be “old school” and prefer paper calendars. I just don’t understand why! One of the best things about using technology is you can setup reminders. I can’t tell you how many times an assignment would not have been completed if my phone didn’t yell at me to get it done.
- Include “Me” Time on that Calendar – Years ago, my dad said to me, “you need to exercise your body as much as you exercise your mind.” Thanks, dad. That was the best advice I believe he ever gave me. Honestly. Remember that calendar I mentioned previously? Work in some physical activity at least 3 times a week. For me, going to the gym has become a sanctuary where I can destress away from everyone else and all my responsibilities and keep my sanity. So, get out from behind that desk and set appointments (that you cannot break) to go on a long walk, or a run, or a swim, or to the gym. Not only will you physically feel better, but you will feel mentally refreshed.
- Get to Know Your Professor – This is perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give from the perspective of a student and a professor. As you’re working on your next assignment, check in and ask a question or send a rough draft to make sure you’re on the right track. This worked wonders for me just a couple of weeks ago. I was sifting through a small amount of data (just about 10,000 tweets I had collected – no, seriously) and ran into a roadblock. A quick email to my instructor and boom! The answer was provided. No more stress. Since she is in the UK and I’m in the US, we Skype once every 6 weeks or so. This time is so incredibly valuable. I write down questions before our meeting so I can maximize our time together. She’s given me great advice on areas of research, key authors to review, how to use certain programs and helped me polish my research questions. I noticed when I begin to doubt myself, it’s usually about time for another Skype session. Afterward, I feel 100% better and have a renewed self-confidence. So if your professor holds office hours, go and visit them. Even if it’s just to say “hi.” And if they don’t have office hours, send them an email or text or call (find out what they prefer). I guarantee the bridge you build through communication will pay off in the end.
I’m now eight months into the program and neck deep into the crap. It didn’t take me long to realize just how little I know about pretty much everything. After successfully courting my Ph.D. supervisor and convincing the admissions committee that I can do this, I have had about a thousand moments of doubt since my journey officially began. It has become painfully clear how long it’s been since I’ve been a student and even more embarrassingly clear how lazy I’ve become with the self-discipline it takes to take on a post-graduate program. But all is not lost. One of my strongest traits is the ability to self-reflect and acknowledge the areas I can improve and design a plan to improve them. And in the spirit of spreading knowledge, here are the top 5 lessons I have learned to date. If it’s been a minute since you’ve been in a classroom and you’re planning to return to get a bachelors, masters, or doctoral degree, take heed. These lessons just might save your sanity.
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Jennifer Furlong has 25 years’ experience in the communication field and teaches communication and public speaking courses in the Savannah area. She earned a B.A. and M.A. in Communication from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She currently resides in Richmond Hill, Ga. with her family of canines, felines, and humans. Let's be social! Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. Just look for Professor SpeechLady. See you in cyberspace.
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