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How to Build Your Graduate School Community

By SMU Graduate Studies on October 24, 2019


The thought of starting graduate school can be intimidating. Maybe you’re finishing up your undergraduate program, and you’re concerned about spending more time in school while your friends are getting jobs. Perhaps you’ve been out of the classroom for a while and are nervous about adding school and research back into your workload. The work itself can be demanding, but many also worry that graduate school can be a lonely experience.  

In reality, your graduate school experience is what you make it. That's why it is important to find a program that not only meets your career goals, but offers opportunities to build a strong support system during those challenging moments. Read our advice below to help you find your community while getting a doctorate.

Are you just starting to apply to graduate school? Check out our Guide to  Graduate Admissions to get all your questions answered! 

Attend Welcome and Department Events

As a new student, you’ll be bombarded with orientation and welcome events. You might be inclined to skip a few sessions, but this is a prime time to meet other new students just like you from the start, before people get too settled into their work. It can be awkward to initiate the conversation, but most likely everyone else feels the same as you and wouldn’t mind an invitation to grab lunch or coffee.

Once you are an established student in the department, the same concept can be applied to department colloquia, guest lectures, and other events. Get out of your research for a bit and take the time to be an active participant in your department. Not only is it a professional benefit, but staying socially engaged will help you feel more connected to your program, your peers, and your professors.

For the next year’s incoming students, help create a student-focused event to welcome in your new colleagues at the beginning of the year. It could be something as simple as a quick lunch to give people a chance to socialize, or maybe you can introduce them to your lab group’s favorite hangout around town. If your department hosts a dinner at the beginning of the year, make an effort to go so you can be a welcoming presence for new students.

Attend Campus Events

At SMU, the Office of Research and Graduate Studies has a weekly newsletter that we send to all graduate students to let them know of professional development events and social activities that are open to everyone. If you are not already, you should subscribe to those kinds of resources, either through your graduate studies or student services offices, so you can stay plugged into what’s happening on campus.

Professional workshops and Research Day are great ways to see what kind of work is happening on campus and what your future opportunities are. You might even discover that there’s a Graduate Student Lounge in the library that you can use as a dedicated study or group work space. Themed parties, happy hours, and ice cream socials may seem silly, but events like these help provide a break from your day-to-day work and allow you to meet people outside of your department. This is an excellent way to network, but also make friends who can relate to you as a graduate student and who are working through the same challenges as you. Also, who can resist free food?

Related Reading — Check out this article for a deeper dive into some, of the many, professional development opportunities at SMU!

Create a Study Group

You can create a study group at any time. If you’re in a class that goes beyond your comfort zone, there is no shame in reaching out to others to ask if they’d like to discuss the material with you. Set aside a regular time and location once a week, and keep an open invitation to anyone who wants to join. Doing this early on in the course helps you better connect to the material, figure out which areas need the most of your attention, and keep you accountable to the classmates who are working with you. When it comes time to write a paper or study for a test, you have an automatic support network to help you prepare, and friends to commiserate with when the work gets tough.

This habit becomes even more beneficial when it’s time to study for qualifying exams. Ideally, you’ll connect with those who are also preparing for their exams. It could also be beneficial to include those who will take the exams the following year and those who have already passed it, to bring a more well-rounded perspective to your group. Those who are still a year out from completing their exams can help quiz you while they learn, and those who have taken their exams can provide useful feedback from their experience. Again, the accountability will force you to keep up with it on your own, and you’ll have a cheering section supporting you when it comes time to take the test.

Graduate school can be lonely, but only if you let it be. By taking the time to make connections and actively participate in your campus community, you’ll find there are many ways to feel supported through your everyday work and the most stressful moments of your program.

 Continue exploring what graduate school would really be like by reading "A Guide to Choosing, Applying for, and Thriving in a Ph.D. Program"!

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SMU Graduate Studies

Written by SMU Graduate Studies

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