What I wish I knew
There are things no one will tell you about your first year of graduate school, and the Internet is full of postgraduate “advice” from former and current grad students warning people to stay out of graduate school. Some advice: If someone tells you what they wish they would have done or known before entering a graduate program, listen. There are a lot of problems you’re going to have to face in this adjustment period. Having watched others and gone through the process myself, I’m here to offer you my own two sense and help make the transition smoother.
Here's what no one will tell you about the next 2+ years of your life:
Grad school isn’t like undergrad. The atmosphere from undergrad to graduate school is a complete change of pace. As an undergraduate, you were most likely discovering yourself (such as your interests or political views). By the time you hit graduate school, most of the self-discovery has been found and all that’s left is the work. Graduate classes tend to be longer, smaller, and include much more self-paced work outside of the classroom. Remember, as a grad student, your academic future now depends on the success of your research.
SO MUCH READING. Everything is reading and as the work load increases, students suddenly find that they are expected to master 2-3 times the material that they were used to as undergraduates. You may no longer have exams to study for, but you have pages and pages of reading every week. This can be intimidating, but don’t panic. Keep a large collection of highlighters and post-its handy and during this adjustment period you will be surprised at the extreme time management skills you will hone in order to get it all done on time.
Your classes will discuss those readings. Always read and take notes on your readings. You will be discussing these readings as a class (which counts towards participation).
There are no right answers. As you work towards your dissertation you’re exploring subjects that don’t necessary have a right or definitive way to address or answer them. The things you address as a grad student deal more with solving problems not yet resolved.
Grades are different in graduate school. It is time to think “differently” about grades. Grades were all important as an undergraduate, but as a grad student they become less significant. Don’t take this observations as to say that academic performance is not vital, however, be aware that time spent on coursework is time spent away from research.
You’ll need to be a self-starter. Unlike undergrads, advisors will not seek you out if a problem arises. Instead, you’ll need to track your own courses and find the people you need to speak with when issues arise. When it comes to research, you may work with a faculty member as an advisor, but when it comes to writing or conducting research, no one can push you in any one direction. You’ll need to be self-motivated.
Adapt or die. There is a large transition and adjustment period involved when relocating to a new city; leaving family and friends, and starting a new program all bring about significant personal change and adjustment. Allow yourself time to find your rhythm in graduate activities such as teaching and supervising students, as well as building new relationships and navigating within a new city and program.
Networking is key. Having a degree, even a higher education one, won’t guarantee you a job. Your relationships with faculty members and fellow students are important. It is very important to attend conferences and seminars and communicate with people in similar fields. If you’re attending a conference or seminar, put yourself out there and hand out business cards; you never know from whom or where your next job will come. (You can read more about a conference experience by reading my post Your First Conference)
You are going to suffer from impostor syndrome. An ailment known by many, if not most graduate students where you feel like a fake, characterized by feelings of inadequacy and the notion that one does not belong in graduate school. Try not to let this momentarily relapse in confidence halt you from pursuing your degree, you are not alone.
Your friends will get raises. Your friends and family in the “real world” will carry on with their lives. They’ll have an income and have parties to celebrate raises, and you’ll be jealous of them. After all, you spent your Sunday night cramming in research for that literature review deadline due the next morning (though that’s partly because you meet with your group at the bar, not the library).
Moving back in with your parents. When you spent several years on your own away at college, moving back in with your parents after graduation because you can’t afford off campus housing can be tough, and seem like a step back. You got used to doing what you want, when you want, but that might not fly at your parents’ house- even if you are an adult.
This may all seem very overwhelming, but remember- everyone has different experiences. It is important to realize that there are many different ways to succeed in graduate school and you will find what works for you. Do not be afraid to make mistakes. Despite all its stresses, graduate school is a very rewarding experience and by finding your own way, you will likely enjoy it more and learn a lot more.