Supporting student success at the graduate level

In recognition of “Careers in Student Affairs” month, Jacqueline Beaulieu shares her perspective as a new doctoral student looking to make the most of her educational experience and the opportunities for future career development in student affairs. 

This past weekend, I took advantage of the warm weather and enjoyed a lovely walk at the Toronto Beaches. I am new to the city, having recently moved from Kelowna, British Columbia to begin full-time Ph.D studies at OISE in the Higher Education program. If I had one tip for new graduate students, it would be to steal quiet moments like this whenever possible. And if I could offer another tip to those of you who are supporting new graduate students: encourage them to find and take that time in a way that works well for them.

From my experience, the first month of graduate study represents an exciting time. It’s about taking the academic plunge and immersing yourself in topics that you enjoy. If you’re new to the school, city and/or country, there’s the excitement of getting to know your surroundings. There are plenty of people to meet and multiple ways to get involved. It can be a bit of a whirlwind: lots to read, write and think about. As a result, sometimes your mind just feels really ‘loud’. Giving yourself time to be still, reflect and strategize can really tip the scales in favour of your learning and success.

I am regularly asked about my reasons for pursuing a doctoral degree in Higher Education. Here are a few of my answers:

  • I was asked to engage my research skillset more often in the workplace
  • I experienced a huge spike in my own curiosity levels
  • I am excited to meet and be mentored by people who share passions for research, student affairs and international education
  • I love teaching and would like to gain experience in this area
  • Above all, a doctoral degree is for you and the people with whom you will share the learning and experience (present and future); it’s not about you

I have learned so much in the past month. Here are a few more of my tips for new graduate students:

  1. Know why you are here and the rules that you are willing to play by

Take some time to reflect on this and write it all down. It can be extremely helpful to have access to your own clarity of thought during moments of intensity. I have found my own list to be very helpful and am adding to it as I go.

  1. It’s ok to initially focus on academics

From my perspective, graduate school has a tendency to turn Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on its side. Academically, it can be quite demanding from the moment you step out of the starting gates. Of course, feeling comfortable in one’s surroundings and fostering friendships are equally important and you’ll want to start this process right away. That being said, it is important to be patient with yourself and realistic about the process. It will take time and effort to achieve a degree of comfort and confidence with your academics. I made this my primary goal for the first six weeks and it feels great to have reached a point where I can comfortably spend additional time on other aspects of the transition.

  1. Play ‘offense’ over ‘defense’

As a graduate student, it is easy to feel pressured to perform to the highest of standards. Similar to a defensive player in hockey or soccer, you can find yourself worrying about messing things up for yourself and/or your team. From my perspective, approaching graduate studies with a ‘defensive player’ attitude only enables you to get in the way of your own success and possibly that of others. Refuse to be tricked into ‘defense-mode’ by your assignments, thesis or dissertation. Instead, choose to play offense! Dream big. Run towards your goals. Just go for it! Know that you won’t have all of the skills that you need right away, but that’s why you’re here and all part of the fun. Take risks and allow yourself to be vulnerable to mistakes and struggle. Stay positive. It’s all about maximizing the opportunities for learning, however you can.

  1. Treat graduate school like a team sport

Although you will spend a lot of time on your own reading and writing, it is wise to approach graduate studies like a team sport. Allow people to join your team and do the same for others. You will need them and they will need you. Build a community that includes faculty, fellow students, departmental staff, the librarians, the person who runs the local coffee shop and of course, your family and friends.

I am pleased to report that I am enjoying my time at OISE. I am learning a lot from my classes. The diversity of life experience in a place like this is incredible. I have also joined the Supporting Student Success research team, which represents a great opportunity to apply what I am learning to research topics that are of importance to me. As a new Ph.D student, my research teammates have offered and provided a lot of help and for this, I am thankful.


Interested in pursuing graduate studies at OISE? Join us at the upcoming Fall Info Session! Tuesday, October 21, 2014 at 5:15 pm in the OISE Library. For more information, click here.


One thought on “Supporting student success at the graduate level

  1. How refreshing! You have discovered one of the keys to graduate study in our field. Immerse yourself completely. And find moments for reflection and enjoyment. May you have a great experience at OISE!

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