by Kerry Hentges, Programming and Administrative Coordinator for University Life SciTech, pursuing her Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture at George Mason
I decided to apply for graduate school 6 years after graduating with my Bachelor’s of Fine Art. I had decided I wanted to be an art teacher, and graduate school was the next step in that process. I was excited to get back into art-making and learn new techniques.
The first thing I was told upon entering graduate school was that I was going to make bad art. The next thing I was told was that I wasn’t even going to have time to sleep during the next three years of my program.
Those were not the words of encouragement I was expecting to hear on my first day. Both of those remarks were meant to be motivation from my advisor, but instead just made me feel awful about the huge commitment I had made to graduate school. Being a graduate student can be one of the biggest time commitments that you have ever faced. Not only is there class time, but you also have to attend countless professional development workshops, build relationships with faculty, and get through mountains of reading. Right now, I am juggling a full-time job at Mason while pursuing my Master’s of Fine Art in Sculpture and trying to maintain family responsibilities and a social life. Graduate school has taught me a lot, but the most valuable lesson is how to find balance in my life. And how to do so while getting 8 hours of sleep. Here are some tips that have gotten me to this point and will hopefully take me all the way to graduation!
Tip 1: Get to know your cohort
One thing that makes graduate school easier is having support. Sometimes a partner, family member, or friend won’t understand the pressure you are under in your program. That is when it’s great to connect with your fellow classmates. Not only do they have the same workload, they understand the feeling of pressure. Sometimes the only thing keeping me in the program are the friends I have made in my cohort. They can help with simple things like lending class notes or be a listening ear when you need to vent. I have been saved by friends lending me a last-minute art supply or talking to me after a bad critique. One great way to make connections is to attend graduate events hosted by your college or university. Another great way is to stay after class to get to know people. Plan a graduate barbecue or coffee meet-up with your cohort. Remember they want to make connections just as much as you!
Tip 2: Take it slow
My program is “supposed” to be completed in 3 years. So far, I have been in classes for 4 years, and I still have my thesis left to complete. That’s why one of my pieces of advice is to take it slow, while staying within the overall time limit for your degree.1 When a class feels too difficult to manage, it’s okay to drop and wait to take it another semester. It’s okay to take a semester off to focus on work or your personal life. As I balance my full-time job with graduate school, I often find I don’t have time for anything else. Taking a semester off is one of the greatest gifts I’ve given myself. I also have semesters where I only take one class. It helps keep my workload manageable and gives me time for things outside of work and school. (Editor’s note: I would encourage you to consult with you academic advisor or faculty as you consider these decisions to make sure you can still make the progress you need toward finishing.)
Tip 3: Make a schedule
Another big thing that has helped me is maintaining a schedule. I make sure I set all my work meetings and class times, and block off time for homework. Once you get in a routine, it gets easier to juggle everything. Schedules aren’t just for meetings and classes; you can also use them to schedule down time! I block off one hour each day where I can do whatever I most want. That might mean baking cookies, watching Netflix, or reading a book. It might just be taking a nap. I reserve that time for myself and I don’t let other meetings or conflicts take away my hour of “Kerry Time” (as it’s called in my calendar).
Tip 4: Believe in yourself
This tip is the most important, but also the hardest to do. I have struggled with imposter syndrome, that feeling like I don’t belong and don’t deserve the achievements I have.2 It is something that affects a lot of graduate students. That is why my biggest tip is to believe in yourself. You have made it this far, and you can keep going! Do whatever it takes to get yourself to believe that. Try writing a motivation phrase on the mirror. Stick post-its up around the house that let you know you rock. Make a list of your achievements and reference it when you are feeling low. Before I face a big presentation, I take a second to look at myself in the mirror and say something affirming, like “I can do this!” or “I am confident.” Even if you don’t really mean it, saying it out loud can give you a confidence boost.3
Graduate school is time-consuming, but ultimately we will walk across the stage and start new careers. Trying to balance everything may seem impossible, but with a little effort and a lot of confidence, you can do graduate school and take good care of yourself, and even get a full night of sleep.
1For more information about degree time limits, visit https://catalog.gmu.edu/policies/academic/graduate-policies (see AP.6.9 for master’s degrees and AP.6.10 for doctoral degrees)
3For more support for your mental health during your time in graduate school, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is a great resource that students can utilize – and all costs are covered by your student fees.