And We're Back: A Semester in Review (With Some General Tips and Tricks for Surviving Grad School) | Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis
Steven Hayworth
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And We're Back: A Semester in Review (With Some General Tips and Tricks for Surviving Grad School)

Thanks for waiting for this long overdue blog post, everyone. I can confirm, just as our 2nd year students promised me, that the end-of-semester-rush as an MPH student at the Brown School is both a very real and a very unique phenomenon chock-full of crazy/hectic/chaotic experiences that are simultaneously rewarding/vital/hilarious. I mean, a couple of days after I turned in my last final, I looked back on all the content I had learned and work I had done in just one semester and I had to laugh because on paper it looked ridiculously daunting. From writing and presenting a 100+ page research project on pre-diabetes awareness on the WashU campus, to condensing a semester’s worth of statistical knowledge on the topic of chronic disease prevalence as a predictor for pediatric TB globally into a five minute IGNITE presentation, to helping my research center submit our 1000-page NIH grant renewal application, never in a million years would I have thought I was capable of doing and learning so much so quickly. But faculty, staff, and my Brown School peers kept me (relatively) sane and constantly encouraged me to keep going; however, the semester wasn’t without its bumps and bruises along the way. So with another semester under my belt, being half-a-year older and half-a-year wiser (as well as being a benevolent person who wants to make your life easier), here are 5 tips that I wish I had known before starting at the Brown School.

Tip 1: Read ALL of your syllabi and buy/rent ALL of your books BEFORE the semester starts.

Not doing this was my first and biggest mistake. For some of you more Type-A people this may seem like an absolute no-brainer, but the first week of MPH classes does not equal your typical syllabus week from undergrad. You will probably spend 30 minutes going over the syllabus and the next two and half hours diving into each course’s first readings and discussion.

I learned this the hard way by waiting until after all of my classes met to determine what books I would really need to buy. The answer to this question is simple: all of them, you will need all of your books. Our faculty members do a fantastic job of finding the most effective textbooks and study materials, while understanding that graduate students are probably broke 93% of the time. So, the books you need are the books they list. Just buy/rent them already. Otherwise, you won’t be doing yourself any favors for the rest of the semester because you will be feverishly trying to catch up each and every week.

Tip 2: Map out your entire semester with any major projects, tests, and professional deadlines.

This one piggybacks off of Tip 1 because this is best done before the semester begins. Take a couple of hours before classes start and update your monthly and weekly planners with every major academic and professional event of interest. Each week in graduate school is a little bit different, so having the visual of which weeks are going to be crazy busy and which ones are just normal busy is a great strategy to plan and manage your time. You may also find that this strategy will reduce the average number of tears shed in any given week too (I kid, I kid…kind of…stay hydrated, just in case).

That 300 word essay that seems harmless enough in one week could become seemingly insurmountable in a week with three exams, two presentations, a couple of statistics research papers thrown in just for fun, and an interview with your dream research center. Once you are here, know what you are getting into and plan accordingly.

Tip 3: Be okay with asking for help from faculty, staff, and your peers.

Maybe it was the Pre-Med grooming of my undergraduate institution or maybe it’s that I’ve always been a very competitive person, but this past semester I really did try to do everything by myself. I thought I had to know everything all of the time, especially about my own future and plans. I thought I couldn’t ask other students for help because I desperately wanted to be that guy who had his act together and knew it all, from epidemiologic theories to statistical analysis formatting to who’s who in the science world. I tried to know it all, and knowing it all takes a lot of time.

I’m not saying that there is a substitute for some good ol’ fashion hard work, but work smarter not harder. Smart people know when to ask for help because it is more efficient and effective than spending hours running into the same wall. Plus, the faculty, staff and students genuinely want to help you. No one in the Brown School graduates alone, so buddy up, make some friends, and ask for help if you need it. At the same time, don’t be afraid to offer help! As a former teacher, I know that if I can correctly explain a concept to someone who is a bit lost, I have found that it not only helps them, but helps me understand that concept in a new way. It’s kind of like studying! You know, the two birds-one stone adage.

Tip 4: Reach out to faculty early and figure out with whom you want to work.

Now this is one that I actually did and I am so grateful for it. Reach out (even as prospective students) to faculty who have similar research interests as you. We have amazing faculty that love talking about their research, work experience, and how the Brown School is the right place for you. Plus, if you can already have your research situation set up before the semester starts that will be just one less stressor in your life. Grad school is stressful enough, so don’t add more to your plate by worrying how you’re going to get research experience at one of the country’s top research institutions.

Tip 5: Update your resume/LinkedIn/professional brand BEFORE/DURING the semester

Even though I plan on staying in academe for a majority of my adult life, it is a good idea to regularly visit your resume to update things. It’s not only a good idea when letters of recommendation season rolls around, or for practicum fairs, or for the research position scramble, or…(need I say more?). You get the idea. Eventually (and for me: unfortunately) you will have to enter the “real-world” and the vital skills and experiences you acquire through the MPH program might become so numerous and so second nature that you forget to mention them all together.

Plus, you may find that things tend to “fall into place” when you’re prepared like that. Graduate school seems to be 80% heart, dedication, and hard work/20% spontaneous, frantic, last minute scramble opportunities for success. So, look at your professional brand every now and then, schedule some meetings with our outstanding career services team, and you’ll be good to go.

Bonus Tip!: Learn to love orchestral movie soundtracks.

Although what you are learning in class has direct implications for becoming an impactful, efficient, and effective public health professional, original movie soundtracks like Interstellar’s will immediately motivate you by giving the you feeling of saving the world, solving all major health crises, and looking good while doing it. (As a side note: I really, really recommend Interstellar as a film and background life soundtrack. You’ll thank me for it later, so you’re welcome.)

Well, I hope that some of these tips help as you prepare for your arrival at the Brown School, but if you find you want some more personalized tips and tricks, feel free to reach out to me, faculty or staff any time! We are always open to engaging with you and helping you through this exciting journey and transition! You’ve just got to ask.

All the best,