You Failed Your First Semester. Now What?

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If you’ve failed your first semester of graduate school, the first step is to stop. Just pause and reflect. Find out exactly what happened. First you need to identify whether personal, professional or academic problems got in the way. Did you fall ill, lose a family member, go through a harsh breakup, or struggle with the sudden intensity of graduate school? Are you failing to keep pace with the rigorous material? Or did you arrive to your graduate program to find that you just were not as committed to it as you originally thought?

If you suspect it may be the latter, be sure. Don’t let intimidation or fear of failure drive you into thinking that you suddenly just aren’t interested in business or law school. But if you arrive to that point and find that, perhaps, you went the law or business route to make your family happy and you actually aspire to be a musician and want to try and see that dream through, well, then the program can’t stop you. You may then become one of the fifty percent of graduate students who don’t finish their program, for one reason or another.

Yes, fifty percent, that is a true number. Graduate school isn’t for everyone and more people enroll than are truly committed to a solid finish. While it’s tempting to, in some cases, have your life paid for for several years while you postpone working life–especially in this economy–that is short sighted and in no way enough fuel to last through a professional degree.

On the other hand, if you don’t fall into that last category, and life just got in the way of graduate school, do not despair. Most graduate programs are set up to allow for pauses along the way when absolutely necessary. Perhaps the failure was the result of not taking that rest when it was imperative. So now ask yourself how you can address and, if possible, eliminate the personal obstacle that caused you to fail your semester. If you just need time to take care of some odds and ends in your life so that you may resume graduate work with some freshness, then do that. It is better to have an extra semester tacked on but a worthwhile and fruitful time in your program. If it is a problem that might be long term and cause minor disruptions, see if you can go part-time, or talk to someone about how to deal with this personal issue while continuing to excel in your studies. If the problem becomes severe, and means you can no longer attend your program in person, find out how to continue your studies online.

If after evaluation you find that the problem is academic–you cannot keep up with the work or have a great deal of trouble understanding the material–ask your adviser his or her advice. Perhaps you would benefit from a tutor or more individualized studies. Everyone wants you to succeed. If you need help, just ask.

In the end, graduate school is not just about the degree and experience, but about life improvement. So keep focus and put both first, and academic success will follow.

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