Tuesday, September 2, 2014

On Starting Grad School

A few months after I was admitted into the MA program at my current university, I drove three hours north to visit the campus. I remember walking into the graduate student lounge in my soon-to-be department in a semi-state of awe. I didn't notice the dreadful couches or the filthy dishes in the sink; I barely perceived the stacks of paper and books on the table. Instead, I gazed at the group of students clustered in the middle around a wooden table. Soon, I'd be one of them, I recall thinking. What are they like? What area are they studying? Had they been much better prepared than I was (or felt)?

My feeling of uncertainty didn't change much after I actually began my studies. The first few weeks and months of graduate school are chock full of it, particularly for newbie MAs. I recall with vivid clarity the panic that set in after I'd received all my syllabi, bought my stacks of books, and wrote the dates of my first presentations in my agenda. Would I really be able to do this?, I wondered, frequently and often. How would I make it through?

It's been several years since I was a newbie MA, but every year in September I'm reminded again of what it feels like when I introduce myself to the new Graduate Students in my department. With them in mind (and putting aside for the moment the question of whether or not to go to grad school in the first place!), I'd like to offer a bit of advice on how to approach the first few months as a new graduate student:

1. Know that You're Not the Only One. Everyone feels a bit like an imposter starting graduate school, and uncertainty and self-doubt is common. It's there even if you think that everyone else seems confident and on top of things! The fact is that the learning curve of grad school is a steep one, and every student coming from an undergraduate degree has to climb it, not just you.

2. Be Generous with your Friendship. Know that some of the people you meet for the first time at various orientation events might come across unfavourably on first impression, but are actually great, brilliant, kind people. It's well-worth the effort to go to all the orientation and social mixer events and meet everyone you can. You'll probably interact with people who will become great friends and collaborators for months or even years to come.

3. Participate in New Student Mentorship Program. My department offers "grad buddies" to new incoming students who can answer all sorts of questions about the university, department, and even the city. But even if you don't have a program like this one, you can ask to be put in touch with students further along in the program, or you can simply introduce yourself. These seasoned veterans can direct you around the campus, show you the library, and give you advice about how to manage your crushing reading schedule. They're invaluable resources and can be great friends and mentors, too.

4. Read Blogs like Hook and Eye! Blogs like this one can be invaluable resources. Melissa has written about things she wished she'd known when she started her PhD, and Boyda has discussed productivity in the PhD and practicing self-care. Aimée has blogged about how to write great conference proposals, and I've talked about starting writing groups, and what it's like to teach for the first time. Over the next few months, we'll be tackling how to choose an advisor, issues related to graduate-student labour, self-care, and other questions of concern to both the newbie and seasoned graduate student.

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