Backwards Design for Maximizing your Time in Graduate School


by Shannon N. Davis, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Sociology

edited by Austin A. Deray. Leadership and Advising, Graduate Student Life

It seems kind of silly but a question that many people ask new graduate students is, “When are you going to finish?” You begin your graduate program with a goal in mind and possibly even a deadline by which that you anticipate completing your degree. But how about we think about this differently. Think only about having your degree as the endpoint. Don’t you want your time that you spend pursuing your degree to yield not only the degree but also launch you into a successful next chapter in your professional life after securing your degree?

If your degree is not only the end of your graduate studies but the beginning of your next chapter, what do you need to do during your graduate education to ensure that you’re going to be successful? How will you even know what being successful means? What are the things that you know you need to accomplish while you’re seeking your degree that will make you be a stand-out in the job search process? As Victoria Suarez wrote on this blog in October, you have something to contribute whenever you are seeking employment. Your job during your graduate program is to figure out what your unique contributions are going to be (or what you want them to be) and craft your time in graduate school to enable you to cultivate that uniqueness.

Large desk, conference style, with several people sitting around it.

Pedagogy scholars who focus on crafting a course based upon the desired outcomes use the language of backwards design. You know what you want the outcomes to be. What do you do during the course to give students the maximum opportunity to be able to demonstrate those outcomes? Think about your own graduate degree from this backwards design approach. What do you want to be able to say you have done or accomplished that makes you unique and special once you have your degree in hand? Once you know the answer to that question, your job in graduate school is to engage in backwards design. Figure out what you need to do to set yourself up to be that successful unique person at graduation and put that into motion.

This approach may mean that you need to focus only on your coursework. Your degree program may be a streamlined program where you complete your studies quickly in order to be able to earn your degree. If that is the case, what is going to make you stand out relative to your peers when you graduate? Is it what you do in your coursework? Is it what you do outside of your coursework that complements your degree?

You may be in a degree program that affords you substantial flexibility in coursework as well as your final product, whether it be a thesis, capstone project, or a dissertation. What kind of graduate do you want to be? What do you want to be able to say you can do and have experience doing when you graduate? When are you going to accumulate those skills? If your coursework affords you only an introduction to those skills, where are you going to gain that experience? This is relevant for those who are in research-based disciplines as well as practicum-based disciplines. Coursework is designed for you to have the knowledge required in your field. You need to design your graduate experience so that you can secure a job after earning your degree. If you need to have practical experience and everyone in your program has that experience, how will you stand out? If your field requires a research-based thesis or dissertation, when are you going to accumulate research experience outside of the classroom? When would you practice your research skills, both data collection and data analysis? If securing a job requires social networking, when will you plan on engaging in that practice? Even in the time of COVID it is incumbent upon students and their faculty advisors to be thinking about all of the ways that students can be networked into possible job fields. Again, see Victoria Suarez’s blog post for more information on the value of networking.[i] When will you plan to present at national or international conferences? When will you plan to attend those conferences even in the virtual space?

Does your degree field lead you to an academic position where teaching is a primary component of the job? Have you taken any pedagogy courses? Do you have practical teaching experience? Grading for a faculty member is absolutely useful. There is no question that having experience evaluating student work will be beneficial should you end up in a primarily teaching job. Having the responsibility as instructor of record is like a practicum for those focused on securing an academic position. Seek out opportunities to teach. And seek out conversations with faculty who are known for their pedagogical prowess; learn from them how they are able to be the successful teachers that they are.

Ensure that you have regular communication with faculty, including your faculty advisor and graduate program director, regarding what you see as your end goal. What do you want to do with your degree? What do you need to have in your toolkit when you graduate in order to be successful with your degree? How are you going to structure your time in graduate school to ensure that you have all of these experiences that will set you up for success? All doctoral programs require students to have a program of study. However, all graduate students, regardless of degree field, should use something like a program of study to plan not only for coursework but non-coursework requirements and field expectations as well as part of planning their degree using this backward design approach.[ii] If you have not already done so, have a conversation with your director of graduate studies and/or your advisor to map out working backwards from your degree plans to now and how you’re going to work forward to meet your desired outcome.

I wish you all the best, for each of you deserve it.

[i] Editor’s note: I’d like to share two upcoming opportunities specifically for graduate students to learn more about networking:

  1. Graduate Student Career Workshop: Building Your Network from the Ground Up on Feb. 25: for details and registration, check out Mason360.
  2. 2021 Mason Graduate and Professional Student Virtual Networking Event on March 2: for details and registration, visit Mason360.

[ii] Editor’s note: Many graduate students use a document called an Individual Development Plan (IDP) to map out their career and professional development goals and to plan for the experiences that will build skills and qualifications in pursuit of those goals. For all things IDP, visit the Graduate Student Life Professional Development page.