When you’re an undergraduate, summer break might mean lounging by the pool or working as a camp counselor. But when you’re a full-time graduate student, your summer is probably filled with more research and reaching out than rest and relaxation.
Take Najma Mohamud, who’s finishing her first year of a master’s program in public policy at George Mason University. Over the summer, she plans to take two classes while hopefully also working at a full-time job or internship.
“You have to think longer term,” says Mohamud, 23. “I’m trying to do the most with the time I’m given.”
Mohamud has goals of working in politics after finishing her degree, so she’s ideally looking for a summer position on Capitol Hill to help boost her résumé.
“Especially in an area like D.C. that’s so competitive, it’s not only having your master’s degree,” she says. “Your experience really makes all the difference. You really have to show initiative and that you’re a go-getter.”
For graduate students with ambitious career goals, summer isn’t a time for slacking off. A break from classes and teaching obligations provides time for internships, research projects and other résumé builders. Graduate students also can use the opportunity to work on job search strategies they might not have time for during the academic year, like building their network.
“No matter what a student’s goals are, my advice is the same — connect, connect, connect,” says Shannon E. Williams, director of Ph.D. student services for the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “There’s a pervasive misconception that education is an individual sport. But the world of work, even research work, has really changed, and it’s increasingly the domain of collaboration. Students can’t just buckle down and study and come out on the other side ready for a career.”
For graduate students interested in a professional career, those connections can be made through internships, conferences and networking events, as well as social media.
“Go to LinkedIn and find people from your undergraduate school in the space you want to be in,” says Eric Allen, founder and president of Admit Advantage, which offers application and career consulting for graduate students. “Then get on the phone with them or meet them for coffee. Build a network of people in the industry you want to get into.”
For students interested in research or academia, connecting with faculty throughout the year can lead to impactful summer opportunities.
“Show up for seminars, brown bag lunches and lectures outside of class,” Williams says. “The more that students show up and support faculty in these small ways, the more that the faculty is going to remember those students when the money comes through [for research projects].”
Students also should be forging connections with their university’s career center. “It’s something that’s definitely far underutilized,” Allen says.
In addition to getting help with their résumés and interviewing skills, students who develop a relationship with career services staff often get more personalized career advice, because the staff knows their goals and objectives.
“Once we understand what students’ individual circumstances and constraints are, we try to work with them to come up with opportunities for summer enrichment experiences,” says Gihan Fernando, executive director of the career center at American University. “If a student’s goal is to gain advancement in their current field of employment, that might be a very different scenario than someone who is gaining their master’s degree with a goal of joining a professional field but has little experience already in that field.”
In addition to providing field-specific knowledge, summer internships and work experiences can also help graduate students beef up general skills, like project management, and provide real-world insight on what they want — and don’t want — in their careers.
“It’s more broadly an opportunity to understand, say, what working in the nonprofit sector might be like,” says Dana Williams, interim dean of the graduate school at Howard University. “Meeting people who work outside of the space where students are studying and having those people share experiences with them is a helpful thing.”
Summer is also a good point for students to review the past year and think about their next steps. “I think it’s a great time to find a few extra moments for reflecting,” says Karen P. DePauw, vice president and dean for graduate education at Virginia Tech, which offers graduate programs at two locations in Northern Virginia. “Students can go deeper and have that time to reflect on what has happened in that year and about what they’re wanting to do in the future.”
She also recommends that students slow down from the busy pace of the school year. “You should not be surviving graduate school; you should be thriving in graduate school,” DePauw says. “You’ve got to take a break.”
But that can be easier said than done. “People make sacrifices in their personal lives in order to pursue this higher level of education,” says Chantal Smith, 45, who’s three years into a Ph.D. in economics at Howard University. “It’s difficult to take the time, because you want to finish your degree and get back to your regular life. But you do have to take that time to push the reset button, or you will quickly get overwhelmed.”
It’s good practice for creating a work-life balance once students begin their careers. And those careers won’t result from just taking classes alone, which is why making the most of the summer is so important.
“There’s still this misconception that if I just get this degree I’m going to be ready for a new job when I come out, and I wish it were that easy — but it’s not,” says George Mason’s Williams. “It’s really about the people who get out there and shake the hands and get known by people in the field.”