Begin Your Degree in Full Swing

Advice from Kelicia Hollis, IRT ’11 for the Current IRT Cohort

It’s springtime, and flowers aren’t the only things budding. Likely, you too are abloom with the possibilities this fall presents you as you vet graduate school offers. You might be an undergraduate student going “straight through” to a master’s or doctoral degree, or reentering school after time spent caretaking or in the workforce. Whichever it may be, there are a few tips I’d like to impart to ensure you begin your degree in full swing.

As you navigate springtime, think about lovely spring colors such as pinks and lavenders and teals: T-E-A-L-S.

T: THINK about next your goals for summer break—it’s not too early. This is particularly true for master’s degree students, but Ph.D. candidates shouldn’t disregard this advice either. Spring and summer vacations are important career development breaks for graduate students, so you won’t be vacationing in Miami Beach without a care in the world like some were fortunate to do back as an undergrad (at least not the entire break!).

Even before I decided on the University of Michigan’s CSHPE M.A. program, I knew I wanted to go to China as part of my graduate student experience. How I would get there was still an unknown that previous spring, but I did have a sense that U Michigan had a LOT of international affairs-related offices just from applying to different assistantship programs. In addition, I talked to current students and faculty to make sure that students in my degree program landed great summer opportunities before I matriculated.

Write down a short list of priorities for your time in graduate school including how you might want to spend next summer break (both downtime and professional development), then make sure that the institution you’re choosing can offer those things. If the school isn’t ticking the right boxes, it may be time to consider another institution.

Finally, applications for special fellowships and summer-contained jobs often come out in late fall, so keep your eyes open for opportunities after you land on campus.

E: EXPECT fun—it’s not all work. Yes, I was quite serious about excelling in my M.A. program (the IRT summer workshop whipped me into shape!), but my social calendar stayed full, too! My roommates were always tickled by the type of events I wiggled myself into. My secret was watching the message boards for undergraduate student events and reading the student affairs emails everyone else automatically deleted. I slid into free ballroom dancing lessons, joined a fantastic women’s Bible study, and signed up for the Passport to the Arts program to attend events that almost none of my peers were taking advantage of—I saw everyone from Esperanza Spalding to Audra McDonald for FREE!

Remember how I wanted to visit China during summer break? I joined a free weekly Chinese cooking class on campus hosted by two older Chinese ladies and used the opportunity to improve my cooking and Mandarin skills at the same time. It was literally the best kept secret on campus! Plus, spoiler alert: I did end up interning at a university in China the next summer, and the ladies were so proud I was going to their homeland.

A: ALERT people of your matriculation and make plans to meet up with them once you arrive on campus this fall. One cool thing about IRT is that you may be entering your institution with other people in your cohort and/or there are IRT alums on campus already. Reach out to them! Make plans to connect once on campus. You can even connect sooner either in-person if they’re local or online. It’s a great way to ease the tension of making friends and having a support network while there.

I connected and roomed with another IRT alumna the first year of my M.A., and I went out of my way to connect with the network while in graduate school. Outside of the IRT network, I reached out to my advisor and future coworkers at my assistantship the spring before entering. This effort led to an amazing graduate student experience both inside and outside of the classroom.  

L: LEAVE all doors open as you transition from your current life and burn no bridges. Write thank you cards to the people who made your current opportunity special. This could include your favorite professor, the supervisor who always championed you, or the administrative staff who always shared a bright smile. I’m also a fan of status update emails to people who have impacted my life positively both professionally and personally. Even that little ding in the inbox every so often makes people feel appreciated for the impact they’ve had on your life. It also makes reconnecting one-on-one much smoother when you’re in need of a reference or passing through their city and want to catch up after a long time.  

Leaving a positive last impression and keeping doors open is important because you never know how your path will intersect with people down the line. My biggest full-circle moment came when I took a position at Phillips Academy eight years after my IRT summer intern year. The same IRT staff I thought I’d only see at reunions ended up being colleagues! You just never know.

S: SOAK up the season you’re in. For some reason, people expect much more work and maturity out of graduate students versus what you remember from undergraduate school. Wild, I know. Thus, my recommendation is to soak in the right now. You’ll never be doing exactly what you’re doing now in life in the exact same way. If you’re finishing up a degree right now, enjoy time with friends and schlepping around the world with reckless abandon. If you’re working a 9-5 p.m., enjoy walking away from the job when you clock out—trust me, graduate school work does not have an off switch. Give yourself permission to relax and rejuvenate before heading into this fall. You’re getting this degree to advance yourself, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pause things just a bit and enjoy this moment.

Well, that’s all I have for now. Hopefully TEALS serves as a helpful reference for you as you jump into spring. I truly wish you all the best in this exciting, gratifying, and curious time. Feel free to contact me through our IRT alumni network as well with questions or just to say “Hi”—I’m always happy to share more about my experiences in graduate school or beyond. Congratulations on making it thus far, and I wish you a wonderful next season in life!

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