How to Prepare for the Academic School Year

A couple of weeks ago, Cohort Sistas and Black Women PhDs invited me to be a part of a panel on how best to prepare for the academic school year. Let me start by saying it was such a fantastic experience and I came out of it so energized. I learned that I love passing on knowledge and advice like that. So, invite me to more panels, people. I can speak on a myriad of topics and to a myriad of people, but especially to black women.

Okay, so as I mentioned, the conversation was about PhD students can prepare for the academic school year. I decided to blog about this based on some of what I said or planned to say because I don't think there is enough of this type of advice out there. I do realize that the academic school year has already begun but I still thought to codify this because much of what I say below will apply in subsequent years and throughout graduate school. By the way, it is certainly not too late to apply these principles towards this academic year. 

Now, how do you best prepare for the academic year? Let's get to it. Please know that I  will frame most of what I say below  based on my own experience, and as you’ll see this is much customizable based on your own needs and circumstance.  I will start with much earlier stages in grad school and then up to when I was much advanced, even though there is some overlap.

Going into my first year, while I learned a lot about broad plans and overviews of phd programs, and even read books about getting the most of your phd program, I didn’t nail down the specifics. And that’s one thing I certainly could have done better.  It was not the worst thing in the world but I was very disorganized, often overwhelmed, and just getting by day to day; so much that after just the first year, I started getting burnt out.  So the summer after my first year, I decided to change my approach. Two things really solidified that decision for me. I was very broke that summer. I also realized that my first year was done, and apart from the grades of all the classes I took that year, I didn’t really have much show for it.

So that summer [before my second year] I started with writing down everything I needed to achieve in a year. There are, of course, broad goals and somewhat vague ideas of what you want to get out of the phd program. But then there are specific goals that you need and that are attainable but that you need to plan for. And that’s what I did that summer. I made all these plans and further broke them down into how to achieve them. Each semester had its goal, what should be achieved, and by what month.  So for instance, I planned to present at conferences, work with professors, get fellowships, get started on publishing, get an internship, or other non-academic experience.  I also got a planner, a physical literal planner and I still use planners till this day. I can't imagine my [professional] life without my planner. It helps tremendously. Those semester goals I mentioned? Each week I would go over them and ask, what can I do towards achieving these goals? And then plan each day based on that. It also meant that nothing came as a surprise, I didn't miss meetings, or miss deadlines etc.  Having that plan the summer before the year began was helpful.


As the years passed, of course, I tweaked and adjusted, but the goal, the foundation was the same. Plan for what you seek to achieve in the academic year, but not vaguely, and write them down. Or If you’re more of a technology person, then yeah type them up. But they should be very visible and there should be tangible plans to achieve them. So the first way to prepare for the academic year is to do some planning.

It also helps to think a little bit further ahead. Circumstances will differ of course, but planning that early in advance, allows you to know for instance, when you need to start applying for dissertation fellowships or any other fellowships especially if you're going to do field research. It means the summer before the academic year begins, I look for fellowships I’m eligible for. Then you note information about them like deadlines, requirements, eligibility. And start planning. If it means I can start drafting essays, then it will mean I have a little less load when the semester starts and I’m being a RA or TA or writing my dissertation proposals or working on papers. 

Speaking of proposals, depending on your program requirements, the summer before the academic year begins is a good time to get ahead of some requirements of your program for that year. I'm not saying to get them done, but you can get started. Each program will have requirements depending on the year.  For instance, in my program we had to do a qualifier in our second year (and I think one comp), and then our proposal was due in the third year. It’s so much easier to work on something like your proposal during the school year if the summer before you’ve drafted or scribbled what you think you want to work on or even created a draft template to work with. This is all very customizable depending on your eventual plans of course, but you get a groove of things as the years go on. Now this all depends on how busy your summer is. Maybe you have to get a full time job, that’s okay. I would advise getting a day or two off before the school year starts to get in the frame of mind and make this plan. But the plan is essential. 

I was lucky to go to the field twice. Once in my third year before I had a fully drafted proposal. The summer before that year allowed me to set this in motion.  As you advance in your program, some may advise collecting data during summer. I couldn’t do that; both times I went to the field was during the school year. Yet during the summers before the school year, I took the time to plan almost every aspect of my field research including reaching out to people in the field, planning where I would be collecting the data in the field and other logistical aspects. 

The summer before the school year starts is also a good time to write papers or think of ideas for papers and get started. Once the school year starts, it can be so hard to be creative and to think. But If you already have the plans, executing during the school year is a little easier. So before the school year starts, apart from planning for the upcoming year,  the second way to prepare for the school year is to do some groundwork

Now if you’re really advanced; that is, you have collected data, published at conferences, have a draft of your dissertation (depending again on your program), and you’re think about graduating, the summer before the school year starts is when you put your application packages together. In my discipline, they start posting academic jobs as early as July and can go into maybe even March. So it’s a marathon,  but again, if before the school year starts, you have put mechanisms in place to help along the process, you’ll have an easier time. So that when the school year starts, and you’re working on your dissertation, being an RA, trying to publish and also flying out for interviews and campus visits if you’re lucky, your plan helps you be a little more efficient. Before the school year starts, have a good teaching statement draft, research statement draft,  a good cover letter, and diversity statements (most schools are asking for this now), and polish your job market paper. Of course, these are not the finished product, but editing is always easier than writing from scratch. Immediately school starts, you can send them to your advisors and professors and others to help you review. Because they are not in the weeds of midterms and such, they can also get it back to you on time. I know this sounds like a lot, it’s why I roll my eyes when people think professors or phd students get summers off. Because we know that’s not true! But yeah, this point is mostly similar to the previous one about doing groundwork but just on a more advanced level now.

One other way to prepare for the school year is to just hone your skills. We learn a lot by doing, that’s true! But sometimes, we need to create time to actually learn the skills we use. Again, to give an example from my field as that’s what I know well, quant/data science/analytics is a HUGE thing in my discipline. We were mandated to take three quant classes  throughout our coursework years. However, the summers before the school year, I would take some time to  learn more quant and/or software skills so that during the school year I can put these skills to practice whether it's by writing papers or just running analysis of my data. In sum, one way to prepare for the school year is to hone skills that will help you.

So much of the above is about planning towards your academic progress. But before the school year starts, it also time to think about how you plan to take care of yourself during the school year. You have to be intentional about this. Do you want to exercise every day? Do you want to make plans to go see family every month? Do you want to eat better? Whatever that means for you, plan for it. But you must take care of you. 

To summarize, set goals and make a plan on how to achieve them, lay some groundwork, hone your skills, and take care of yourself.

Have a great academic year ahead. Good luck!



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