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Secondly if you're a returning student, what advice would you give to the newbies? I'll start:
1. Take a campus tour prior to the beginning of the semester, preferably over the summer. This will help you become familiar with the campus.
2. If there are dept or general orientations, go! This will give you an opportunity to meet people, whether in or out of your major.
3. Do advance reservations for your books. You'll spend less time in the bookstore.
4. Check out the flyers for upcoming student activities.
5. Check out the clubs or student organizations and join any that interest you.
2. Buy your books online and bypass the outrageous bookstore prices.
3. Find a faculty mentor/advisor early, especially if your intended area of research is popular in your subject and not many members of the faculty specialize in it. Beat the rush!
4. Try not to get overwhelmed with the workload. Make time to get your reading done and take notes; take lots of notes. Those notes are priceless when it comes time for your comps.
5. Set time aside, even if it's only one day a week, to get away from school work. Otherwise you will burn out quickly and not make it through the semester.
"Skim! You must learn to skim!"
(oh, must be said in thick Russian accent, and accompanied with emphatic hand gestures).
Best advice, enjoy the first few weeks, because this is the last time you won't feel crippled by either: your workload, guilt, or the lies that you wish you hadn't told your supervisor.
As Wasistweimer says: definitely pick your research area *early* and dive in.
If you can, keep a research journal of thoughts, plans and completed/future research. This is the best insurance against the panic of "Oh, my Gawd, I have accomplished nothing in a year!" (This is not as unlikely as it sounds).
Commit yourself early to give WIP papers in any kind of venue you can. This will focus your research and ensure that you are working. Trust me, the promises you make to yourself in the beginning are lies, lies, lies.
Be careful about what you name your computer drafts. Having three drafts of the same chapter and no clue as to which one is Mr. Right is not a laughing matter.
Usual stuff about keeping track of your references. Yes, I know (rolling eyes), but you will kick yourself later.
Make sure you have more strings to your bow than just graduate school. You might feel too busy to keep outside interests up, but you need something else to maintain your sanity when the going gets rough.
If you start talking now about what you want to do with your dissertation and they say no, and then no to the next topic, and then no . . . just keep going back.
If your professors are newly graduated and you decide to read THEIR dissertations, DO NOT tell them that you have done so -- you will get all sorts of really weird reactions.
Breathe! Then breath some more.