When I found out I got accepted to one of my top choices for a Master’s degree in Data Science, I was absolutely elated to be a student with a 50% merit-based tuition scholarship at the University of Rochester. I’d be moving back to America after 15 years, ready to start this new chapter and learn as much as I can as a graduate student. Before I left, I wrote an action plan that would ensure I made the best of my time at the university. Of course, little did we all know that by March of 2020, the world would shut down with the declaration of a global pandemic — the COVID-19.
I didn’t get the experience I was promised. But despite the ongoing crisis, I was fortunate enough for the biggest displacement in my life to be the transition from an on-campus life to a work-from-home life. It was difficult at first; I found myself overwhelmed with emotions, unable to concentrate at home and struggling to find a true work-life balance. I wasn’t able to stick to my action plan and everything seemed to be spiraling out of control.
“Life Is All about How You Handle Plan B” — Suzy Toronto
In this post, I describe some guidelines I followed, which I truly believe led to me making the most of my Master’s degree experience.
My Plan B — how I made the most of my graduate school experience….during a global pandemic
- Time Management : Whether you’re working from home or not, time management is a crucial skill to have to work as efficiently as possible. I would make daily and weekly to-do lists to help me stay on top of my tasks, mark my Google calendar for classes, studying, exercising and house chores. During busy times, I would plan my days out down to the hour. I would plan when to shower, eat lunch, call my mom and even designate time to get up and stretch, breathe, calm down and tell myself “you can do this”. This also helped me maintain somewhat of a work-life balance, or so I liked to convince myself.
- Networking : Stay in touch! Be it with your professors, LinkedIn professionals, classmates, lab-mates or any other friend on campus, try your best not to crawl under a rock. It’s hard to get out. Not only is this important for finding opportunities and job hunting (for internships or full-time opportunities), networking is important to learn and grow. Talking to people leads to many stimulating conversations, you may even leave the conversation having found a life-long mentor or mentee. Being able to network virtually is also a great skill. I was lucky enough to be funded by my department to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration which was virtual in 2020. My virtual networking skills led to numerous interviews at the conference and ultimately helped land my first gig at Cigna.
- Be an Opportunist : I kept my eyes open for any and every opportunity I could find. In my first semester, I did some free-lance work for a Rochester based startup that needed my help with some data cleaning. All I had to do was let my program advisor know to keep me in the loop with any opportunities that came her way. In my second semester, while reading the bulletin board in the Data Science Master’s Lab, I found out professors in the Political Science department were looking for a Research Assistant. I applied, interviewed, and got the job as my experience and skillset were a match. Later that spring, I applied to be a Teaching Assistant to my favorite Statistics course. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the position. By the end of summer, however, I was approached by a different Professor who knew I wanted to be a TA and he offered me a position without me even applying. I spent my final semester being an at-home TA and it was a very rewarding experience to be helping students as they sat at home trying to navigate through their coursework.
- Learn from your Alumni Network : It’s always super helpful to learn from people who have been through similar experiences. Specifically, I would enquire my seniors about courses, professors, research opportunities, interesting projects they’ve worked on, their experience job hunting, and plenty more. Apart from school related things, your alumni network and present cohort would simply consist of wonderful people that would be a great addition to your life in general.
- Take care of YOURSELF : This means different things for different people. Your mental state is crucial for higher levels of performance. Try and do your best to live a happy and fulfilling life while you’re a graduate student. For me, it means getting away from my screens when I can, focusing on my mental health, exercising, video calling my dog and keeping in touch with my family and close friends (getting your Master’s degree isn’t a solo effort — it really does take a village and the support is what got me through!).
My experience won’t be the exact same as yours. No two individuals are perfectly alike. In a broad sense, I hope these pointers are helpful for those who are entering graduate (or undergraduate) school soon. Now is the best time to keep your eyes and ears open, absorb as much information as you can and make the most of your time as a student. With more and more people getting vaccinated, lots of Universities are moving towards normalcy and things are looking hopeful.
Make the most of what you have, the world is your oyster. Onwards and upwards!