Last week, I had a conversation with a student who was interested in applying to Heller’s PhD program. “I’d really like to finish the program in four years; what’s the best way for me to do this?” Uh….

I’ll tell you what I told him: that’s a hard thing to do. Undertaking a PhD is a big step! Your dissertation is essentially the length of a (pretty lengthy) book, and it’s hard to get that done in the year. But, as I told him, if you’re determined to complete it in four years, there are a few things things that you can do right now that will set you up for success. When I sat down to write this blog post, I realized that the advice I gave him actually scales to any student about to undertake a graduate level degree. Doing these three things right now, before you enroll in graduate school, will ensure that you have the best experience possible and get the most you can from your program.

Number one: Get your finances in line.

This isn’t the time to say, “Oh, I’ll figure it out once I’m in the program” or “I’m sure I’ll be able to get loans that will cover my program”. To be successful in your program, you’ll want to have as little stress outside of grad school as humanly possible, and financial stress is an important part of that. You don’t want to be in the middle of taking your midterms, worried about whether or not you’ll be able to make rent next month. Make a budget for grad school: on one side, write down any money you’ll have coming in (a stipend, your savings, a scholarship, your salary) and on the other side, write down any money you’ll have going out (the cost of your program, your rent, your living expenses). Ideally, the first number should be larger or the same as the second. If that’s not possible, the difference will represent the amount you’ll have to take out in loans.

Number two: Identify your support systems. 

Getting a graduate degree is tough. There are late nights, stressful finals weeks, and not a lot of time or money to take vacations. Before you begin a graduate program, I would suggest that you identify things or people in your life that you can lean on when things get tough. It’s been said that everyone should have three hobbies: one that helps your body, one that helps your mind/emotions, and one that helps your finances. I would try to find a hobby for each of those, but also find a person in your life for each of those categories as well.  For body, it might be a personal trainer, a friend that you schedule a weekly walk with, a friend who’s into yoga classes, a partner that will make sure you eat; mind or emotions could be a close friend that gives great advice, a therapist, a supportive parent figure who’s always ready to take your calls; wallet could be a mentor in your field who will give you honest career advice, a partner who is willing to shoulder more of the financial burdens while you’re in school, or a professor who is always in need of a research assistant.

Number three: Expect the unexpected.

Ever heard the phrase, “The best laid plans of mice and men”? The second part of the phrase is, “Often go awry.” This holds especially true if the mice and men are in graduate school. If you can do so without causing undue stress, take a moment to consider some “worst case scenarios” and how you would deal with them while you were in graduate school. If you’re using the school’s health insurance, familiarize yourself with your new coverage. Ask about what the medical or personal leaves at your new school look like. Ask about what happens if you fail a class, or what support there is on campus for students who are struggling. If you have a partner, talk to them about what would happen if they lost their job, or were offered an amazing job in a different area. These can be hard conversations, and scary to think about, but I promise, the more you’re able to have things “lined up” in the event of a problem, the more prepared you will be to solve that problem.