Autumn 2013. Freshly out of undergrad and ready for the challenges ahead, I began the long road towards my Ph.D. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, and as I look ahead to the last few semesters of my Master’s Degree and Thesis, I realize that I’ve grown in so many ways thus far during my grad school experience. Though I am far from done, here are ten things I’ve learned since starting out.
1. You know who your friends are.
Having a diverse friend group in undergrad is easy. With various campus events, mixers, and parties, you’re guaranteed to meet a variety of people from different programs. Grad school is a completely different animal, particularly if you find yourself in a very small discipline. My department has less than 20 people completing their Master’s or Ph.D, as an example. You begin to rely on these people as an academic family – all while your undergrad friends are faced with your never-ending stream of deadlines and research. Your true friends stick on for the long run, and you feel really grateful for them.
2. Ten-page papers seem restrictive.
As a grad student, you almost feel restricted when your professor makes you write a shorter paper if you have a lot to say on the subject. Being precise is key, and sometimes your ideas will put you a few pages over the limit. The editing process becomes more excruciating than the writing process. Unless, of course, you have no interest in the subject matter and can’t find any resources. Then that ten-page paper is going to be as much of a beast as it was in undergrad.
3. You reinterpret your world.
This is true no matter if you’re doing a Master’s in astrophysics or a Ph.D in English. You begin to reinterpret and reanalyze all aspects of your world. The sheer amount of analysis you complete in your discipline changes the way you see and interpret things. This is also a reason why so many people find grad school to be the ideal place to mature.
4. You are more prone to receive criticism from others.
“Why are you in grad school?” “Haha, you’re a perpetual student.” “Getting a Ph.D seems pretty pointless to me.” “You should’ve gone to law school.” “What do you want to do with that when you’re done?” “That seems boring.” “Like we need another professor out there.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these exact phrases said to me – among other things. For some reason, many people feel that they suddenly have the right to criticize you for your career choices. Others may give you “tips” or “life advice” for finding “a good job” instead of “wasting your time.” My response is more or less: haters gonna hate. Just brush your shoulders off and move on.
5. You find your own voice.
Grad school has empowered me in many ways. In undergrad, I felt more like a passive listener, mindlessly regurgitating information on scantrons. In grad school, particularly in the humanities, class seminars allow me to express my own ideas and learn from the perspective of peers. Class tangents are especially invigorating.
6. Dating suddenly becomes more awkward.
Especially when you have to explain how you’re a 20-something that teaches university undergrads while simultaneously writing a thesis. In my experience, I’ve been placed on some kind of pedestal when I meet new people and become intellectually untouchable. It’s quite aggravating. Going to grad school will place you at a distance with others, particularly on the dating scene.
7. You sit way too much, and you discover new ways to read in strange places.
Reading on an elliptical? Check. Reading while standing up? Double check. Reading while walking? I’ve attempted it with very bad results – namely walking directly into a concrete wall. (True story). You try to discover ways to be active while doing your research. It looks bizarre. It will always be bizarre. You will question your life choices. You’ll still do it anyway. Saying that, I forgot to mention that stationary bikes are a great place to read and take notes. You’re welcome in advance.
8. You have to plan things weeks in advance.
If you’re close to me, you know this to be true – I never seem to be able to do anything on weekends. Ever. Is it because I’ve suddenly started disliking you? Nope. It’s because my weekends are usually set aside for me 1) sleeping, 2) reading things I was supposed to read but didn’t have time to read during the week, 3) reading things I have to read for the upcoming week, 4) checking my students’ homework, 5) creating PowerPoints for my students, 6) studying in general, 7) watching Netflix and pretending that I don’t actually have a million things to do. Planning suddenly becomes very important. I specifically have Google Calendars and notifications set up so that I remember to schedule in people I care about. Finding free time is one huge downside to grad school, but it has made me very efficient.
9. You embrace solitude.
In undergrad, I felt awful if I didn’t have plans for the weekend. Now I realize that I do my best work when I’m able to sit with a coffee and think alone. You value moments alone just as much as you value others – and this is a beautiful thing. It means you’re comfortable with yourself. This doesn’t mean that I always like to be alone, but at the same time it does mean that you do appreciate a few hours of quiet.
10. You become unstoppable.
Grad school has given me a boost in confidence to say “yes I can do that.” No task seems insurmountable. You want to travel the world, read as much as you can, meet as many people as you can, learn as much as you can. You want to make your own personal splash in the ocean of life. Even as a small droplet, you know the change you can create. Your goals might seem lofty to others, but you know that when you aim high, you have a better chance of getting there. There’s no harm in trying. There’s a million paths to reach your goal, and only one person that can stop you – yourself.
– Claire-Marie Brisson