A few tips and resources. The following advice is gleaned from my own long experience as a student and represents much trial and error.
Develop relationships – with peers, faculty, etc…These relationships will help you succeed by providing a support network and social capital that is invaluable as you move through and beyond higher education. It is easy to think that succeeding in higher education requires competition with your peers and fierce independence (unfortunately, this ethos is deeply ingrained in our education system), however, building a strong network of peers and mentors is important to achieving your academic potential.
Recruit peers as study partners, editors, colleagues, and friends. They can serve as your support network when you are stressed or overwhelmed by your workload. Throughout my undergraduate and especially my graduate education, I relied on my peers to listen to my crazy research ideas and give me honest feedback, to cheer me on as I took intellectual risks, and to remind me that I could succeed when I experienced failure and crushing disappointment.
Cultivate faculty mentors. Check in with faculty during office hours at least 1-2 times per term. These meetings can be wide-ranging – it is great to use them to ask questions about course assignments or topics that particularly confuse, frustrate, and/or interest you. But, also feel comfortable asking for advice on career or post graduate planning – faculty often have a wealth of knowledge and experience (beyond their narrow fields of research) and may be able to direct you to programs or career paths that you would not otherwise encounter. A strong and positive relationship with faculty can make a big difference if you aim to continue your education beyond your current degree or if you are applying for post-graduate positions. And, always reach out to faculty when you are struggling – everyone faces challenging periods, even faculty, it is part of the human experience.
Focus on learning. As students we often think more about acquiring grades than about meaningful learning. Unfortunately, earning an A in a course does not necessarily correlate to mastering content or developing skills – and though A’s are awesome (I love them!) – without the knowledge that they are meant to represent, you complete courses no better equipped than when you began. A few scraps of advice (again, gleaned from my experience) to help you get the most out of your (considerable) time and money spent in higher education:
Make work a habit. Establish routines around reading, writing, research and stick to them – they can be deeply individual, perhaps you work best late at night, after you exercise, at crowded coffee shops, or in thirty-minute bursts. Figure out your rhythms and preferences and design routines around them.
Establish and work towards S.M.A.R.T. goals
Welcome critical and constructive feedback. We all want to hear that people like our work, but this type of feedback (what I call Facebook feedback) does nothing to help us develop our scholarship, especially our writing. Writing is a process that requires time and typically a lot of mistakes, sometimes even failure. By opening yourself up to critical feedback you can learn from your mistakes and improve your work.
Take intellectual risks. Although putting your ideas and work out in the world can feel uncomfortable, taking intellectual risks (even small ones like contributing to class discussions) is how you stretch the boundaries of your intellect and grow as a scholar.
Present your scholarship. Submit research and papers that you produce for classes to campus symposiums, professional conferences, and peer-reviewed journals.
Join professional organizations as a student member. These organizations provide student opportunities for professional development and networking through online resources, workshops, and professional conferences.
Seek balance. Sleeping, eating, exercise, friends, fun…all are essential to your success as a scholar. I know that when faced with a heavy course load, work, and life responsibilities, things like fun and sleep seem frivolous, but our brains need to be nourished and they need unstructured time to allow ideas to percolate in the background. To manage my stress as a full-time graduate student — with two children, a demanding job, and a punishing reading load — I mastered the art of reading textbooks while running on the treadmill. I know, running on a treadmill while reading a textbook is the opposite of unstructured, I also took Saturday afternoons off, read a non-school related book before bed, ran in the forest with my dogs, mountain biked with my family, and learned to throw hatchets (great outlet for stress!).