What No One Told Me about Graduate School

What No One Told Me about Graduate School

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.

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Your First Conference Part 1: What to Expect

Your First Conference Part 1:
What to Expect

Conferences are a great way for graduate students to learn about academia and expand their network. The conference environment is uniquely suited to providing a forum in which one can present original research and offer feedback, or debate among members of the same field. This is a great opportunity for graduate students to present their own research and gain some valuable feedback.

Below are some tips to help you prepare for your first conference presentation. Keep in mind, the best way to prepare is to check with the chair or respondents of the panel well in advance of the conference so that you can organize according to their suggestions.


How do I get accepted into the conference?

The conference website has all the information about the submission process for that specific event (as requirements may vary). Be sure to examine the registration form and the submission instructions so that you know what is expected of your proposal when you sit down to submit. Most importantly, you need a basic idea articulated clearly in an abstract with an appropriate title. Keep in mind the timeline between your submission and the conference date(s) to ensure that you can cover the points made in the abstract.

How should I decide which sections to submit my proposal?

Again, consult the conference website, there will usually be an invitation to submit that describes the year’s conference theme. Your abstract should reflect the conference theme. Although you likely have a general sense of which panel would best suit your paper based on your abstract topic, the sections listed will be more specific.

Should I volunteer to serve as a discussant or chair of a panel?

No. Neither of these roles are suitable for graduate students. Chairs must assert their authority to keep presentations to their allotted time, and discussants critique others’ work (neither of which a graduate student has nearly enough experience for). However, in rare cases, you may be contacted by a panel organizer to serve in one of these roles if you have particular expertise or to be a part of a discussion among other graduate students.


Can I get funding to attend the conference?

Consult your department about institutional funds available and relevant deadlines/eligibility requirements as early as possible each semester.  You can also look into academic societies (such as Phi Kappa Phi) or related groups at your school who will also help with transportation or lodging assistance.  However, some do require you becoming a member first.

Where should I stay during the conference?

An association can sometimes get the meeting space for free if enough attendees stay at the host hotel, so conferences usually encourage attendees to stay at the hotel where the conference is being held. However, if the conference has to pay for the meeting rooms, then the registration costs go up. For a graduate student on a limited budget, it makes financial sense to stay elsewhere. Keep in mind though, that planning ahead and finding some conference roommates can be a great way to bring costs down no matter where you stay.

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