Things I wish I knew before I started grad school (and j-school again)

Friends and I on graduation day in May 2017.

When I moved to New York City in the fall of 2016, there were a lot of things I suddenly needed to adjust to. I hadn’t been in school for six years. I had never lived on campus before. I had never lived alone.

I felt like during the eight and a half months I spent completing graduate school at Columbia — running across the campus between my classes at the School of Journalism as well as my business courses at the School of International and Public Affairs — I was constantly learning about all the ways I was doing things wrong and struggling to figure them out in time, often online.

The first month of school, I tweeted a list of advice I wish I could have given to my younger self in undergrad or while working at The Varsity. Things like: “New beat or subject? Tell people that. ‘I want to be fair and accurate, but this is a new area for me. Can you help me get it right?’”

Around the time I graduated in May 2017, I wrote up a list of around 50 life, studying and j-school specific tips I was planning to give to some of the next class of Columbia students. I figured I had learned so much from my many mistakes, someone else could benefit and hopefully avoid my blunders. I ended up sending it to the head of my program, then a few students, and then some more.

I am finally publishing it here in an updated version. I am not a professional advice-giver by any means, and a small amount of this advice is specific to Columbia’s M.S. and M.A. journalism programs. However, I have been told it has been useful to the people I have sent it to and one of them is already more successful than I was at graduation. It won’t be long before students come back to campus. I hope this list helps some of them too.

General Life Tips

  1. There is no greater planner than iCal or Google Calendar. (But if you prefer paper, the important thing is to use it every day.)
  2. If you are prone to pressing the snooze button, put your alarm clock (or your phone) on the other side of the room.
  3. Buy more toilet paper when you have two rolls left.
  4. Always give yourself 20-30 extra minutes to get anywhere, especially if you’re taking the subway.
  5. Buy at least one pair of really comfortable shoes you can run in and wear to an interview if necessary (I recommend black Chelsea boots and leather sneakers by Ecco)
  6. Put a sticker on your charger. That way if someone else finds it, it’s easily identifiable.
  7. If you’re prone to losing things, don’t buy a fancy reusable water bottle. Charging cables are easily repurchased from Anker. Buy Tile or Trackr devices for your keys, backpack, purse, and wallet. Register your laptop and bike with campus safety.
  8. Almost everything you want or need can be purchased gently used on Facebook or Craigslist. Sometimes it’s even free. Check groups like ‘Free & For Sale’ for your college or university.
  9. If you’re moving away for school, chances are you will only use half the clothes you think you need.
  10. If you’re going home for Thanksgiving, put all your winter stuff in a duffle bag and pick it up then. Move only with the stuff you need for the first part of the semester.
  11. Buy a backpack you don’t hate because you’ll use it every day. And then buy a pack cover for it.
  12. Don’t buy a cheap pillow or a mediocre desk chair. Your body will pay for it and it will be harder to pay attention in class.
  13. If you’re prone to letting food spoil, buy frozen stuff. You can also freeze bread.
  14. In New York, it can be hot enough the first two weeks of September to melt plastic bags, so buy a good fan.
  15. You only really need one pair of jeans.
  16. Have some sort of filing system for key documents and receipts. You’ll be grateful you did when filing for expenses, doing your taxes, and applying for your OPT.
  17. You don’t have to drink or smoke weed if you don’t want to.
  18. The easiest ways to save money are: making coffee at home, packing your meals, not buying clothes, avoiding cabs, and rarely ordering takeout. Also, cutting down on your meat consumption. Sometimes, campus events will also let you take leftover food home. Ask kindly at the end.
  19. Always bring a charger for your phone. A battery pack is helpful too.
  20. Back up your cell phone and laptop regularly. External hard drives are pretty inexpensive. When in doubt, back up another copy again. Trust me on this.
  21. Earplugs are cheap and often useful.
  22. Clif bars (and snack bars in general) are terrible meal replacements.
  23. File your expenses as soon as possible.
  24. Don’t be a dick.

Study Tips

  1. Order your textbooks as early as you can. I recommend getting used copies or renting online.
  2. If you’re someone who easily gets distracted by the internet, print all your readings and class slides out and take notes using paper notebooks. One notebook per class.
  3. Assume every assignment takes twice as long as you think it will. You’ll get sick, sleep deprived, your voice recorder might fail or something else will come up. It always does.
  4. Every semester there are other students and professors literally being paid to help you answer all your ‘dumb’ questions. Go see them during their office hours and ask them whatever you’re unsure of about assignments. Sometimes they also give you great life advice. Start early in the semester. Do not wait until the week before the final.
  5. Put it every deadline, every class change, room number, and every appointment into your planner or Google Calendar as soon as you get that information. Otherwise, you will forget. Set multiple alarms if you need them.
  6. If there is a recitation for your class, GO TO THE RECITATION.
  7. The previous rule also applies for the exam review.
  8. No one can make you show up to do something, but if you do, you’ve already beat everyone who didn’t. So go to as many things as you can that you are interested in and can make time for.
  9. Figure out a good question to ask a guest speaker, professor or lecturer and then ask it. You might be asking something a few other people are wondering about. This especially applies to women and people of colour.
  10. No one likes the person who thinks they’re smarter than the speaker, or has “more of a comment than a question.”
  11. If you need to see a therapist, your campus Health Service department may do free assessments. On-campus services at Columbia are free for students, but if you need to see someone weekly, it’s only $20 per visit to referred professionals with the student health plan. Make sure to look at the details and max out those benefits!
  12. Don’t sacrifice sleep unless you have to. You’re learn so much more if you’re in bed before midnight and not exhausted.
  13. It’s okay not to date for nine or ten months.
  14. You will always read less than you think on the subway.
  15. Do the goddamn readings. Your professor can tell when you haven’t.
  16. Just because you’re not taking a class with a professor, doesn’t mean you can’t talk to them. But email first about when would be the best time to see them during their office hours. Respect their time. Don’t be late.
  17. It’s really difficult to audit classes on top of the ones you’re already enrolled in. Not impossible, but know you’re spreading yourself thin on something else.
  18. It’s normal to feel dumb.
  19. Don’t be afraid to use lists for packing, your thesis, study reviews and what you want to do before your program is over.

Career prep tips

  1. Offer to buy people you respect in your industry lunch or coffee when you don’t have class. If they say yes, thoroughly research them (Twitter, LinkedIn, their website, YouTube, podcasts, other interviews), show up early (15-30 minutes!), and ask good questions. Send a thank-you email and/or paper card afterwards. Do this at least a few times during the school year.
  2. Very few people get their dream internship, job, or a major scholarship applying the night of the deadline. Read the requirements, input the key dates into your choice of calendar ASAP, and set alarms for the weeks and days before the deadline for each of the components. Check if you need references or clippings packages. Budget time for getting letters of recommendation or editing from a friend.
  3. Prepare for the job fair like it is the final exam that determines the next five years of your life.
  4. International students: Apply for your OPT unless you are 90 per cent sure you’re not going to stay in the United States. Yes, it’s $600 in various fees and costs. But you’ll regret applying for it after the Spring Break or missing out on an unexpected opportunity, like working for the New York Times.
  5. GO TO CAREER SERVICES. Have them review your resume/CV and look over your cover letters. Attend a mock-interview, panels with alumni, or other career-related professionals. Sign up for every opportunity you can with their staff. It pays off.
  6. If someone says, “Hey, I’d like you to write for me,” and they are not asking you to do it for free, do not laugh and think you’re unqualified or that opportunity will easily happen again. It might be the only time you’ll be asked by that person.
  7. Twitter is more effective for networking with other journalists than LinkedIn.
  8. Don’t say anything on Twitter or Facebook you wouldn’t want a potential employer to see. Be prepared to defend what you Tweet, Retweet, and Like.
  9. Sign up for the local chapter of diversity or specialty organizations like AAJA, NAHJ, NABJ, NLGJA, ONA, SPJ, SABEW or SAJA. Attend their events. Apply for their scholarships, fellowships, and travel grants for their regional and national conferences. Volunteer to offset costs. It will never be cheaper to participate than when you are a student and they often have serious scholarships and grants set aside to help you pay for school.
  10. Don’t be cheap when it comes to business cards.
  11. No one will care more about your career than you will.

Additional for j-schoolers

  1. Read the magazines you’re interested in writing for. (Most of them are available for free in the library.)
  2. Break down your favourite photos, podcasts, radio shows, books, features, articles, and news packages with a mindset of figuring out what makes them successful in drawing in and maintaining your interest.
  3. Listen to This American Life and the Longform podcast. Read James B. Stewart’s Follow the Story. Follow reporters and editors of beats and areas you’re interested in on Twitter and Facebook.
  4. Ask your friends to edit or look over your assignments, cover letters, CVs, and job applications whenever possible.
  5. When in doubt, put in fresh batteries into your recorder, camera, or other equipment. Always bring extras. And take notes in case something fails.
  6. It will go faster than you think.

Thesis tips

  1. Start thinking about possible ideas before you get to campus.
  2. Think about how you’ll get access to the key characters, areas, scenes, background information and source documents.
  3. If you’re writing your thesis, pay attention to what’s being posted on Longreads and Study how those features keep your attention over thousands of words.
  4. Really take the time to think about how your story will still be relevant in six to eight months.
  5. Think about why people will want to read it and recommend it to others.
  6. Set aside specific hours and days of the week to call up sources, do research and write or you’ll be caught off guard every deadline.
  7. Keep calling and emailing your sources throughout both semesters. You never know when one of them will return your requests.
  8. Always ask your sources if there’s anything else they wanted to talk about and if there’s anyone else you should talk to.
  9. Have a clear way of organizing all your notebooks, documents, receipts, and other files.
  10. If you’re travelling abroad, try to figure out if the currency exchange can work in your favor when booking hotels, transportation, or other expenses. This can really make a difference in your budget.

Questions? Email me at karen dot hot at columbia dot edu. And best of luck!


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