Grad School 101: What to expect during year one

By Emily Elia: Here are some common things you may experience during your first year of graduate school.

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Even though you are prepared to be challenged, the first year of graduate school will likely feel more difficult than you imagined. This is completely normal. Everyone will face unique challenges, but most graduate students share similar experiences during their first year. Here’s what you can probably expect during your first year of a graduate program.

The format of learning may be different for you.

Though it sounds cliche, graduate school truly does require a different kind of thinking than what most undergraduate classes required. You will be pushed to think through problems and puzzles in new ways, and you will be pushed to come up with your own research questions to tackle. Your classes will likely be heavier on reading, writing, and open discussion but lighter on the traditional lecture style that so many students experienced in undergraduate classes. This change can feel unnerving because it is more challenging to think this way. Most students who pursue graduate-level degrees are likely high-performing students, and suddenly they are thrust into an environment where they feel like they cannot even think properly anymore. This is a difficult but necessary part of the learning curve; you will get through it!

Imposter syndrome is real - and wrong!

This feeling often leads first year students to have strong sensations of imposter syndrome, believing that they do not truly belong in their programs. Imposter syndrome can be isolating, but it is actually quite common in graduate students. Remember that your cohort members are probably feeling the same way you are, and older graduate students in your program are familiar with these challenges as well. Your first year of graduate school will feel difficult, but try to remind yourself that it is difficult for everyone.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Your first year of graduate school will be filled with instances where you feel as if you have no idea what you are doing — and that’s okay! An important lesson to learn early on in your program is that it is okay to ask for help. This seems simple, but many people fear being the person that asks the “dumb” question. If you are confused by something in your seminars or are unsure of how to complete a task that your advisor needs you to finish, it is much better to ask for clarification than to trek on blindly and make mistakes as a result of your confusion. Older graduate students and your cohort members are great resources, not only for help on those seemingly “dumb” questions you may have but also for overall support. Get comfortable asking your peers for their input and their help when you get stuck on a problem. Get comfortable letting your advisor know when you are confused about something. A graduate program is a collaborative experience, and you will not be successful (nor happy!) if you keep your head down because you’re too embarrassed to ask necessary questions and seek out help.

Learn to plan your time carefully.

Another big change that comes with being in graduate school is that your studies and your research will probably take up more time than they ever have. Even though you may have been somebody who spent ample time studying during your undergraduate degree, the work in graduate school is often more intensive and more time-consuming. For many graduate students, they are now juggling both classes and research, which was not a factor for many college students. You are now expected to dedicate a lot more time to your degree than ever before, and this expectation comes with the challenge of time management. Just as the transition from high school to college was a lesson in structuring your time, the transition from college or from the professional sector to graduate school requires you to be able to organize your schedule independently and discipline yourself to stick to it.

For many graduate students, the hours spent in an actual classroom are shorter than ever; the bulk of their time is open without the structure of multiple classes a day or set work hours. However, the workload for those classes is much greater. When combined with the workload necessary to conduct research, many graduate students find that their schedules are completely full yet the structure of those schedules is entirely up to them. Some people thrive with this freedom while others take a bit of time to adjust.

Push yourself to develop good time management skills early on in your program. Set your own hours of work throughout the week, and commit yourself to respecting those hours. This commitment means that you need to be your own task driver, but it also means that you need to give yourself adequate breaks throughout the week. Preventing burn out is important! You cannot succeed in a graduate program if you only work for a couple hours each day, but it is also not sustainable nor healthy to be working for fifteen hours Monday through Sunday. As you progress through your program, you will learn what time management habits work best for you, but it is helpful to start out by being mindful of your time management skills from the get-go.

Know that you’ve got this!

A final expectation about your first year of graduate school is that, come the end of year one, you will finally realize that you climbed a huge learning curve and already know so much more than you did at the start! All the changes that come with starting graduate school can make your first year feel very chaotic. You likely will spend much of your first year feeling like you’re trying to learn the ropes as you go, and this mindset can make it impossible to feel like you are accomplishing much at all. Completing your graduate degree can feel daunting and endless, but you should not let that feeling overshadow the accomplishments of making it through your first year. Come May when you wrap up the academic year, you will notice that you are so much better equipped to succeed than you were in August.

Further Reading:

Grad School 101: Six strategies to staying motivated during the COVID-19 pandemic

Grad School 101: New challenges in the time of COVID

Grad School 101: Discover your research interests

About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in political science. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2018 and currently studies comparative politics with a focus on Latin America.