5 Things You Learn in Your First Month of Graduate School

This graduate student shares her experiences to help you get ready for lessons you’ll come upon in graduate school.

Nanda Dyssou

October 17, 2016

5 Things You Learn in Your First Month of Graduate School

1. You are your own boss

When people say that grad school is what you make of it, what they really mean is that you are on your own. There will be many deadlines, assignments, and other duties, but most likely no one is going to check in with you periodically, hold your hand along the way, much less help to keep you on schedule.

Your professors and peers are all busy with their own research, publishing, and studies. To put it bluntly, no one else cares about your advancement.

Try to see the bright side of that: you have full autonomy over your academic life.

2. Setting your priorities right is crucial

While we all know that grad school can easily become a 60-hour-a-week job, very few of us are able to dedicate 100 percent of our time and energy to our studies. Most of us have at least one other, larger commitment: a spouse, children, and a job. That makes the life of a grad student a delicate balancing act.

You need to decide what roles in your life are the most important and what your non-negotiables are. Are you a mother and wife first, a working professional second, and a grad student third? Are you a researcher first, student second, TA third?

Set your priorities and decide what percentage of your time and energy you are willing to allocate to each role. If you work full-time, study part-time, and TA part-time, you may be left with only an hour a week to spend on your scholarly publishing. The sooner you make peace with that the better.

Knowing what is realistic to achieve in the time allocated to each role will help you avoid beating yourself up over not getting more done.

3. You should use your commute time well

Unlike during the undergraduate years, many of us choose to live off-campus as graduate students. As a consequence, we face long commutes, often in rush hour. It is crucial to make use of the time spent on the road.

If you are taking public transport you can finish drafting a journal article, give your presentation one more read-through, or grade student papers.

If you are driving, you can listen to an audiobook or have your phone or computer read one of your papers to you through the text-to-speech feature. Catching up on the news while commuting is also a great way to start and end your day because it gives you something current to talk about with your peers and professors.

4. Teamwork is crucial to graduate school success

While your undergraduate years were spent exploring various subjects and being graded on them by professors, your graduate studies are focused on a narrow field and you spend most of your time working alone or completing group projects with your peers.

The transition is one from pleasing your professors to proving your value to yourself and to your peer group.

5. You might not make friends with everyone and that’s fine

Just like any other social environment, your program has a variety of personalities. Some you instantly connect with and others are simply not your cup of tea. There will be people who will not talk to you and people who talk about you behind your back.

Occasionally, you might find out about group parties the next day, or may feel left out when you are sitting alone and see a large group of your peers having lunch together.

Don’t take it personally. Maybe not inviting you was a mistake, maybe they have a small house, or they needed to talk about something in private.

For whatever reason you didn’t make the cut, and that’s okay. Try to let go of your hurt and keep things professional with everyone.

Bonus Tip: Comparing yourself to others is pointless and exhausting

You are probably not the smartest person in your program. You are also not the dumbest one. You are somewhere in the middle, perhaps average. There is nothing wrong with being average among a group of advanced degree students; by definition, everyone in your program is already gifted, and probably so in an area different from your strong suit.

Therefore, competing with your peers does not make sense. The sooner you accept that you are only in competition with yourself, the sooner you can start growing and outdoing your past self.

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