Advice From the Future: What I Wish I Knew as a First-Year

By Joshua Samba: I went through it so you wouldn’t have to; here are my 5 top tips for surviving grad school!

Rice University

As I finish up my 3rd year of grad school, I find myself thinking of how my journey started. When I started grad school, I was so nervous. Moving to a new state for the first time, and doing it when the COVID lockdowns were starting, was a scary experience. I felt more alone than ever and had no clue what to expect. Luckily for me, my cohort of grad students was just as nervous and wanted to hang out all the time to talk about it! 

When I think back to those times, I think about all the things I’d do differently if I knew then what I know now, like which classes I would’ve taken, which events I would’ve attended, and so on. I may not be able to go back in time and change how things went for me, but I can give you some wisdom I’ve gained over the years so you won’t have to learn it all yourself! So here are 5 things I wish someone told me during my first year of grad school:


Everyone’s struggling

More often than not, it’s never just happening to you. No matter how badly that experiment went, or how awful you did on that exam, you’re not alone. Even though we all know grad school is hard, it’s easy to forget that it’s hard for everyone. If you ask around, you may be surprised to find out that everyone is having their own struggles and issues that they’re working through. Try to remember not to be too hard on yourself. Eventually you’ll get into the swing of things, but in the meantime, take a moment to congratulate yourself on getting to this point in the first place. You got accepted because you’re smart, talented, and creative; never forget that!


Ask more questions

Being in grad school doesn’t mean you have to know everything about everything. There are so many people eager and waiting to help you; all you have to do is ask. Interested in a particular lab technique? Ask for help! Need a tutor for a difficult course? Ask for help! Want to start your own business after you graduate, but have no clue where to start? You guessed it: Ask for help!! No matter what it is, there’s someone that knows the answer. You just have to find the courage to ask around. 


Take fun classes

This one may seem less obvious, but if you’re taking classes anyway, you might as well take some fun ones! Just because you're in grad school, doesn't mean you only have to take classes that focus on your research. Consider finding time to audit classes on topics you’re interested in, like a sculpture course or a course about using artificial intelligence. And when you’re deciding what electives to take, take electives about things you're curious about. You may find a way to incorporate that curiosity into your research, or you may just have a great time learning something new!


Enjoy life outside of school

Try your best not to be stuck in the office or the lab all day. Grad school isn’t just classes and research, it’s also years of your life you won’t get back! You want to make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to learn more about yourself. Try new activities, make new friends, and enjoy a new location; in other words, say “Yes” to new opportunities. These moments can change your life in amazing ways.


Work isn’t everything

The most important thing I wish someone told me when I was a first-year is, “Life goes on after you graduate.” It’s a good thing to have a solid work ethic and to work hard to achieve your goals, but don’t sacrifice too much in the pursuit of having a productive grad school experience. Once you graduate, you want to make sure you can look back on those years fondly, not regretfully. Make sure you are doing things that set you up for success after graduation. If your goal is to enter industry, build a strong network of potential employers and collaborators. If you plan to travel the world, learn some new languages. If you want to enter the professoriate, learn about the inner workings of academia. Don’t just pass classes, defend your thesis, and walk across the stage; create the strongest foundation for your future that you can.

Everyone’s grad school experience is different, and you may still run into some obstacles on your journey. But I hope that this advice makes the road ahead of you a bit easier to travel. But if you remember nothing else from this blog, please remember this: You’re here because you DESERVE to be here, and no one can take that away from you

Best of luck!