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5 ways to get the most out of your graduate classes

Graduate classes can be fun. With less of a focus on factual knowledge and more emphasis on discussions and critical thinking, they are a sandbox where you can experiment with ideas and learn from others. And yet at some point I felt like I was wasting my time sitting in class and working on assignments.

Some classes didn’t relate to my research interest. Others repeated the same information we had already covered in previous courses. In others, the structure and teaching methods left much to be desired.

At one point I was trying to follow of a class discussion when the feeling of almost cosmic-scale boredom and deep dissatisfaction overwhelmed me. It all seemed repetitive and useless to me. That’s not an uncommon sentiment for me to have in general because my best learning mode is alone, at home, and intensely focused for a few hours on what I do. That said, that made my life a lot harder.

To mend the situation, I came up with a few solutions. Some of them I implemented back at the time and others I thought of in hindsight. I hope these ideas will help you get the most out of your graduate classes - especially if you feel dissatisfied with them for whatever reason.

1. Start a blog about the research or ideas in your field

This idea hit me when I was finishing up my coursework and was focused on different priorities but, looking back, it would have been an amazing use of the class content that can also serve others. If you are in the Social Sciences (can’t speak for STEM and other areas from my personal experience), your classes will cover tons of content. You will write papers for the 1-person audience (your instructor) multiple times. You will spend hours reading articles for discussions. You will have a lot of notes.

What will happen to all these when you graduate? Correct, they go out of the window. So much effort wasted in vain! Granted, content knowledge is an important outcome of your coursework, but who said it has to be the only one?

You can make all your efforts count, preserve your knowledge and share it with others by setting up a blog. Just think about it: if you spend 5-10 hours a week (or more)  reading research papers, why not briefly summarize them so that you can refer back to them later and give others the opportunity to gain access to this knowledge? Your university might have access to academic journals, but many people don't have the luxury to read these sources. Moreover, not everyone was trained to understand and interpret academic language, scientific reasoning and statistics, so even the most enthusiastic readers might not be well-prepared to deal with this type of literature - or they might simply not have enough time to go over each article.

You are being trained to do this. You know the game. And you can totally share your knowledge with others.

How can you approach to this blog? Well, that’s up to you. You can write blog posts summarizing readings for each week. You can dedicate each blog post to a single article. You can post your course papers there. You can go on and promote the blog to reach a wide audience or use it yourself and only share it with your classmates. You can invite your classmates to participate as authors or blog admins. You can share your thinking on certain issues in your field. The choice is yours!

Creating and maintaining a blog will also enhance your technology skills because it's harder than it seems and requires a lot of creativity and solid organizational skills. And it’s a hell lot of fun! Contributing to your blog can also be a great motivator to do the coursework, do the readings carefully, and survive through even the most boring discussions.

2. Use course content to create an extensive bibliography

This is something I did occasionally but never in one big document; I am currently doing it for my dissertation. The idea is to create a spreadsheet document (I recommend Google Spreadsheets or any spreadsheet services in the cloud for easy cross-platform access) and fill it with the information from all (or most relevant) of your readings.

You can include the following:

  • Full article citation (to save the headache of formatting it later)
  • Quick theoretical background (only the main framework the study uses)
  • Research questions
  • Methodology
  • Results
  • Your comments
  • (optional) link to the article file if you store it on a cloud-based platform

You can remove or add sections depending on your purposes. I also recommend adding tags or keywords if you intend to include a lot of studies about different topics.

The advantages of this approach are clear: you get an amazing reference document that can save you tons of time down the line. As an additional perk, it also makes classes more meaningful because you are working toward your own goal (completing the bibliography).

That said, updating the spreadsheet might be taxing. First, I couldn't find good software that would store my comments in different categories in a text-based doc and include the file with the texts well. If you know something like that, please let me know - I really want it to exist! Existing software (such as Mendeley) is too clunky to use for my purposes (though great for an automatically inserted reference list in papers). Typical spreadsheets are not always intuitive and convenient either but they are better for keeping the info in one place. Second, it just takes a lot of time to type all this information.

Nevertheless, creating an extensive bibliography is a great way to get more out of your classes and boost your motivation, so give it a try!

3. Tie the class material to your research interests - or other interests

Some courses will offer you a certain degree of freedom when it comes to the topics of papers and presentations. For example, you might need to apply a theory to a practical problem, or present about the topic that aligns with your line of work. Use this freedom to connect the class material to what you are interested in. This will give you the opportunity to spend class time working on your own objectives.

Here are some examples of how I did it in my courses:

  • I am a practitioner to the core but a lot of my courses were theory-centered. When assigned a theoretical paper, I always illustrated my points with practical examples and tied it back to the issues that were of interest to me.
  • My research interest is technology in education. When given an opportunity to choose any paper to present in class or lead a discussion, I picked technology-related articles and topics.
  • I used one of my final projects to write the first plan of my dissertation (very short and far from what I’m doing now but it was incredibly helpful at the time!)

Don’t be afraid to bring your interest in the picture. After all, we learn better when we make connections across concepts and fields and bridge the gap between theory and practice.

4. Turn your course assignments into real papers or projects

Gotta write a 20-page review paper for your course? Why not make it an actual publication? Sure, it will take more work and all, but is it worth writing 20 pages only to see them buried in the desk (or computer desktop) of your instructor?

Obviously, you can’t turn every single assignment into a manuscript to publish but it’s worth doing it with larger projects that you will spend a lot of time on anyways. It’s especially relevant in stats courses - seek out real data, run the analysis and publish the results. It will teach you more and benefit you as a scholar.

5. View your classes as regular networking events

Everyone in your class can be a potential link to future collaboration or job opportunities. Class time allows you to get to know your classmates and professors and establish a relationship with them. You might find that some classmates share similar research interests and end up collaborating with them on a study. Others might have relevant experience in the field that they can share. Some of them can just become good friends.

Learning more about your professors is incredibly valuable because (a) you will need to search for Master’s/Candidacy/Dissertation committee members in the future and they might be a potential candidate for that, and (b) they can be your liaison with their or other research groups that can help you get involved in research projects. Some of these research projects might give you funding; others lead you to your dissertation topic, and so on. You also need to consider that some instructors in your program have the power to make or influence certain decisions related to your academic progress, including funding and assistantship position funding. As much as I hate playing the social game, it is important to make a good impression to avoid problems down the line.

Remember that while your people in your network can help you, you should be willing to help them too. It’s not a one-way street. Think about how you can support them and offer help if they need it.

And there you have it - 5 ways of making your coursework count, improving your motivation and using classes to achieve your personal goals.

Have you ever tried any of them? Do you have your own tricks that you use? I’d be happy to hear from you in the comment section below!