Dear New Graduate Students

Welcome! I hope you’re settling in OK. Whether you’re sharing an office with a whole gaggle of fellow grad students, or you’re living in the lap of luxury, AKA a quiet place to call your own, get settled down. Put up some pictures. Get your chair angled just right. Find the best coffee place and if they give you a discount for bringing in your own mug, make ample use of it. You’re in it for the long haul and you’ll need the caffeine (and cash).

Man, that’s the exciting part of starting graduate school ““ discovering a new space and making it your own. The new office supplies are pretty bitchin’, too. As are the classes and the idea of being surrounded by a bunch of intellectuals in pursuit of knowledge. Take a moment and just feel good about the fact that you’re here ““ you’ve come a long way, baby, and you’re about to start an academic journey that will lead to the illumination of just a little bit more of the workings of our universe. Feels good, right?

OK, and now as you exhale, I can sense the anxiety setting in. I’ve been there; the exuberance of starting a new life stage is overwhelmed by a heavy, salty wave of fear. That’s normal. You will be OK, even though it might not feel like that sometimes. Let me just say that you belong here, that you are good enough, that you were chosen because you have shown yourself time and time again to be a smart, adaptable, thoughtful person, that you haven’t beaten the system and snuck in ““ you are here and you can do this.

But it won’t be like eating a piece of cake (unless the cake starts criticizing your dissertation topic and then tells you that you’re smart and then talks about the decline in tenure-track positions over the past decade , in which case, yeah, it is kind of like eating a piece of cake). Unlike baseball, there is crying in graduate school. It’s not OK that grad school has this effect on people, but it’s normal: you are not alone when you feel shitty, and there is nothing wrong with you (for the record: do not hesitate to seek stress management seminars or counseling, or talk to your doctor about these negative feelings ““ I am a big supporter of accessing mental health services as needed).

When I started grad school, I was far too dismissive of people who told me it’d be rough. Yeah, I’d think, I’ve done rough before. And I have. And so have you.  That’s why I’m talking about it now ““ not to add to the weird grad school culture of stress one-upmanship (you know the thing, the “you’re not a real grad student ’til you’ve fallen asleep at your desk on campus at 3 AM” type of bullshit), but to let you know that it’ll be a hard slog, but you can do it.

And one last thing ““ as long as you’re trying and engaging with the process, there is no wrong way to do grad school. It’s OK if it takes a long time to finish. It’s OK if you choose to take time off. It’s OK if you change your mind about what you want to do. It’s OK if you decide that grad school isn’t for you. None of this is a sign of failure or lack of fortitude or what have you.

Your graduate school experience is dependent on you in a way unlike any other academic tier you’ve been through yet. That’s scary, but also exciting. You get to pursue the questions that light your (usually metaphorical, but sometimes literal) fire with a terrifying and exhilarating freedom. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Good luck!

4 replies on “Dear New Graduate Students”

Make good connections! Say yes to invitations, especially at first! Make study dates/arrange to hang out with people in an academic context (and a non-academic one)! Be sure to schedule time for your hobbies/activities–sign up for fun fitness classes or use the rec center if those are things you enjoy, or make use of your extra credits to take an art class or something low-stress. (Many graduate programs have all students “enrolled” at more credits than your classes actually fill, because you’re reading/researching/writing for the remainder, so you can often use those filler credits to take fun classes, and depending on your program/school they might not even affect your GPA! Ask about how your credits work!)

Also if you’re on the school health insurance and your school has a good TA union, find out if you get fancy benefits–some schools have massages, physical therapy, acupuncture, etc. included in TA insurance. Ask about it!

This couldn’t have come at a better time. I am just starting my MA across the country in a place where I only know my grandparents. Away from my long-term boyfriend who has a poor track in staying cancer free. I am terrified and nervous about being so alone for so long. I am also exhilarated by all the kind professors I have already met (my supervisor is a genuinely kind person) and a chance to take phD level courses with my academic hero. I am so fortunate, but I also continue to wonder if I am good enough and smart enough, there are so many people that always have the jargon down and brilliant ideas. I feel so pedestrian, even when I was in my BA, I know that this feeling is just going to be worse in grad school.

Thank you for the article. It comforts my nerves a bit! I am excited again!

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