Grad School: Expectations vs. Reality

By Emily Elia: Tips on how your grad school expectations may change once you're in the thick of things!

A colorful series of post its with question marks on them

You made it through the application process and admissions, and you now know that you will be starting graduate school in the near future. Congratulations! You likely have a lot of expectations about your new graduate program and grad student life in general. When I started graduate school, I had many expectations myself. Now, as a third year student, I see how so many of my predictions missed the mark! Read on to learn about some of the realities of graduate school that quickly replaced my many offbeat expectations. 

Expectation: My time management techniques from undergrad will work in graduate school.
Reality: Coursework demands much more time and focus in graduate school.

When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree, classes were obviously my biggest time commitment, but I was also involved in many extracurricular activities. I held leadership roles in student organizations, and I was a student athlete. Classes were my top priority, but they were only one piece of my undergrad experience. In the grand scheme of things, coursework certainly did not take up all of my “working” time in undergrad. I expected the time commitment to academics to be much greater in graduate school, especially in a PhD program, but the difference was stark. I had to focus on becoming a more efficient worker in a new way. 

I have always felt confident in my time management skills, but I did not expect time management to feel so different in graduate school. In undergrad, I focused on planning my time across very different areas of my life: classes, sports practices, student club meetings, and social events. In graduate school, I also have multiple responsibilities, but they all culminate around my field of study: coursework, my personal research, my work as a research assistant or teaching assistant for faculty, and social and/or service events within my department. It is easy for these different responsibilities to blend together since, ultimately, they all revolve around my development as a scholar. For me, that made time management more difficult because my schedule was no longer divided into very separate blocks. To put it simply, in undergrad I did not feel like I was in “school mode” 24/7 even though I was always busy. In graduate school, it is easy to feel like my coursework and research are consuming my life. 

Just as the jump from high school to college caused a big shift in time management abilities, the jump from college to graduate school did the same. With some trial and error, though, I now feel more secure in my ability to navigate all that I need to do in grad school. This new mindset leads to the next lesson: treat grad school like a job.

Expectation: A PhD program is “just more school.”
Reality: Treat grad school like a job.

Graduate programs, especially PhD programs, are not “just more school.” Many people do not know that PhD students get paid and have responsibilities that go beyond their own studies, such as teaching and aiding faculty research. My experience has been that people who have not gone to grad school often think that my role is simply that of a student and that this time is just an extension of college. Those of us in grad school know that that could not be further from the truth! 

Treating grad school like a job means that I try to create a structured schedule around my work time as if I held a more typical “9 to 5” job. I try not to work past a certain time in the evening, and I schedule the highest effort tasks for Monday through Friday. I often have too much work during the semester to sacrifice the weekend entirely, but I do try to make weekends more laid back than weekdays. I try to take one weekend day off entirely every week. On the other weekend day, I keep my tasks lighter to still give myself a bit of a break, and I will often only work half the day as opposed to the whole day. I also take a proper lunch break Monday through Friday where I step away from my computer and take a break from work.  

Viewing grad school as a job is also a good reminder that while classes are important, you are also in your program in order to develop yourself as a professional researcher. Thus, it is important to make time for your own professional development. During my first year, classes definitely felt all-consuming, but that feeling has lessened as I have progressed through the program. Classes are opportunities to develop my own research through related term papers, hone in on my research interests, and develop practical research skills like efficient reading, clear writing, and coding. 

Expectation: I am the only one who feels incapable. 
Reality: Almost everyone has at least a little bit of imposter syndrome.

I remember having a pretty big crying session one night in my room during the first week of graduate school—no, really—because everything felt very overwhelming, very difficult, and yet very easy for everybody else. I felt confused by nearly everything that was thrown at us during the first week of classes, and my cohort members seemed unfazed. The well-known feelings of imposter syndrome creeped in quickly: I don’t belong here, a mistake was made, and I’m not going to survive this.

Fast forward three years and I now know that almost everybody in my cohort actually felt this way, too! Though I felt like I was the only one struggling, that was not true. Everybody also felt incapable. In some ways, that incapability was accurate: we did not know what we were doing because this was all brand new! But not knowing how to do something new in the moment is not the same as being incapable. With time and work, you learn how to do the things you once did not understand. So expect to feel incapable during the start of your graduate career, but remember that this feeling is temporary. Everybody is in the process of learning as they go. 

A lot of academics will warn you about the normalcy of imposter syndrome, but it can still feel so isolating. Even when you are aware that these feelings are inaccurate, silencing them can be impossible. It is important to remind yourself that what you are feeling is common. It is also not unique to graduate students! Faculty can experience imposter syndrome, too. I cannot say that imposter syndrome entirely fades with time, but you do learn how to healthily recognize it and ignore it.

Expectation: What I learned in undergrad will be the bedrock of my grad school experience.
Reality: The knowledge you bring with you can be both obsolete and important.

When I started grad school, I expected that I would have to recall the many political science classes I took in undergraduate often. I thought that all that knowledge would have to be easily accessible. But I quickly learned that grad school is less about what you already know and more about what you do not know. 

The knowledge you bring with you to grad school is important because the things that you do know will help guide you through the things you do not know. However, a big piece of graduate school is learning how to think in new ways! You may find yourself seriously challenging your prior knowledge. Your grad program wants to train you to be a particular kind of scholar, so your first few semesters will likely involve a lot of intellectual re-molding. You will often be pushed to unlearn old intellectual habits and make room for new ways of thinking. 

Expectation: Learning about the research process seems straightforward. 
Reality: Figuring out how to do research is a big aspect of the initial learning curve.

I never expected research to be easy, but I entered grad school thinking I knew what the process of scientific research looked like. Unsurprisingly, I was wrong! Sure, the scientific method I had learned about many times since elementary school remains a guiding framework for conducting research, but I had no idea how challenging it was to actually move through the process. 

Some people enter graduate school with extensive research experience already, but I was not one of those people. I had some minor research experience and knew I wanted to conduct research myself, but that was the extent of my research knowledge. During my first semester of grad school, learning how to actually conduct good research was a major challenge. 

If you are entering graduate school with limited or no research experience, expect to struggle with the “nuts and bolts” research. It’s okay to not know how to conduct your own research yet; you will learn! But try not to let yourself get discouraged. You may feel like your wheels are spinning in the mud for a while, but eventually you will make progress. As a third year student now, the research process itself is still incredibly challenging. I expect it to always be challenging! But I do feel that I have so many more tools in my toolbox now, and these tools help make the process more doable—with practice! 

Time really does make a difference!

As a third year PhD student, I still have a lot of expectations that often get shot down by reality. Grad school is very hard, research is very hard, and oftentimes I still feel as uncertain as I did during my first week of graduate school. But I also know that I have learned a lot in these past few years, and many challenging aspects of grad school do get easier with time! 

As you prepare for the beginning of your grad school experience, expect that your first year will be filled with unexpected challenges. No matter how much you prepare for grad school, you will likely still feel overwhelmed at the start. Know that with time, effort, and support from the grad community around you, you will become a better scholar and researcher! You will continue to face new challenges, but you will be better equipped to work through them.


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About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a third-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.