Monday, August 26, 2013

Back to school strategies for adult students

This post is a repeat, however I'm posting it again for those who are just starting their programs, back to school after a long time away. The following tips are based on my own experience as well as that of colleagues in my PhD program and more recently, my own master's students.

A space of your own. Carve out a space at home, a desk or work area where you can leave your materials, so that you know where everything is, and can resume work without having to reorganize.

Determine an overall work schedule as to which days/evenings you will do homework and which you will not. Be intentional about carving out work time, rather than imagining you’ll fit it in when you have time. And this leads us to….

Take something off your plate. By committing to this master’s program you are taking on significant work that also requires time to think and reflect. Now is the time to make a shift: ask for help with responsibilities at home, put a hobby aside, say “no” to additional commitments, etc. You don’t need to give it all up, but something has to give, temporarily, to make room for this new gig.

Do something, anything, even when you think you can’t. Even though you have carved out your work times, there will be plenty of days/evenings when you had planned to work and feel too tired or distracted or whatever. Do something! Read the most accessible chapter, read half a chapter… do something, anything to get even a little work done and keep the momentum going.

Get to know your rhythm and honor it! Observe yourself in your first few weeks… what time of day/week do you most effectively read, reflect, write, work online? Get to know when you are at your best for the various kinds of work and then work strategically in those times. If you notice that you write best in the morning and read best in evening, honor that, and so on. Also, how long can you effectively read or write and what kinds of breaks best keep you going? Figure this out and do it.

When you are in the water, swim! Graduate students sometimes expend significant energy worrying about school, feeling guilty if they aren’t working etc. I believe this ultimately makes people less effective when they are working. When you are working, be present with it and try not to let thoughts about other responsibilities creep in. This is your time to work, honor that time – you deserve it and you will work more effectively. When you aren’t working, for whatever reason, don’t expend energy worrying or feeling guilty – be present to whatever responsibility you are dealing with, or if you are taking a break, take a break and enjoy it. You will return to your work refreshed and ready to be productive.

Step away from the desk. When you find yourself getting frustrated, not able to make sense of a reading or unable to write, perhaps your head is too full and the ideas need time to simmer. Take a break and perhaps you will gain clarity by giving yourself space.

If you get overwhelmed, break it down. If thinking about all the work that you will need to do for a course, or in the next month, or in the next week, feels overwhelming, focus on the next step. Sometimes it is helpful to break work down into small chunks – try to focus only on what you are working at the moment and get through that, and then on to the next chunk.

Take good care of yourself. While I encourage you to put something down (an extra area of responsibility, etc.), I’m also encouraging you to hold on to something that is good for your well-being. Exercise, meditation, walking – do something that will get your body moving and help you clear your head. Also, this sounds simple, but eat right (make sure to eat before class) and try to get enough sleep.

Get to know your faculty and advisor. These people are here because they love to teach and are committed to your growth and development. Great conversations await!

Have fun. Enough said.

Cheering you on!

Photo by HLS

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