What I learnt my first year in grad school

So my first year of grad school has come and gone! In many ways it was completely different than I had ever expected ( literally no one could have predicted anything about 2020) and while I do feel I got off to a rough start, I feel I managed to turn it around and end on a high note! I am super excited for the next two years but first wanted to recap what I learned ( from my many trials and errors) for those heading to grad school this fall!

  1. Your advisor is now your everything personmake the most of this relationship!
    1. Your advisor is your boss but maybe also your teacher, and an advisor and hopefully someone you have a good personal relationship with too… this was weird for me at first.. in undergrad there was pretty clear student-professor relationships even if I was friendly with the professor I still called them by their title and last name and I either regarded them as a direct boss ( summer research positions) or someone to ask academic advice. In grad school your advisor is a little bit of all of the above, you will likely call them by their first name ( but it is nice to ask first) and both report to them but also seek advice from them. I would recommend establishing a cadence of communication early on with your advisor and always making the absolute most of any time with them- make an agenda, come prepared with research materials or questions but also make sure you ask about their life and start to build a relationship.
  2. It’s like a job, but also like school, and that balance is weird and takes time to figure out
    1. Grad school is different than undergrad because, in the case of research based programs, you are being paid to go to school and school is literally your job. Or to be more specific, research is your job and classes are things that you have to do whilst also doing research. It can be hard to find a balance between spending time on classes, learning and branching out whilst dedicating time to become focused and understand your research in-depth. I would recommend starting to add up the research hours you need to do (often 20 hours) and estimated time you will spend on classes and homework. Then set “work” hours that fulfill those basic obligations. For me this was getting to campus for 8:30 every day and staying until at least 5:30. I would time slot my research hours in between classes and then use any left over time for homework (If you can, try to schedule classes and meetings so you do have uninterrupted time for research, it is harder to get high quality work done in hour chunks).Leftover homework got done when I returned home at night after a break for dinner.
    2. But just because you have set work hours doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take breaks during the day! This was so hard for me to get used to. Coming from industry where work hours were literal work hours the newfound freedom to do to the gym in the middle of the day, meet a friend for lunch or run errands was weird!! And I did not take enough advantage of this. If you need a break, got your work done early or just have other things on your mind remember you now have the freedom to drive your own schedule and as long as you stay on top of your work you should take advantage of this! By the end of the semester I loved working out in the middle of the day and being able to make last minute adjustments to my schedule.
    3. Lastly, recognize that even though it feels you are working all week at a job you still will need to spend at night and on the weekends doing homework, try to structure and prioritize so you still get time off but just understand you are in school and will be working quite late some nights whilst also getting things. But having a weird school schedule also means some weeks you might have lots of free time and need to take advantage of this. Get used to having a different schedule than non-grad school friends and just prioritize taking breaks where they are needed and become available.
  3. You will have imposter syndrome, it will suck. You must move on and accept you earned this
    1. I struggled a lot the first semester at grad school with imposter syndrome. I felt I completely didn’t belong was so worried I chose the wrong school and program and just felt so out of my depth. Part of this was due to real things like the fact that most of my classmates were engineers with a background in transportation and I was an economics student completely switching fields. All of my classmates were in one lab and I was in another. I was learning things like coding for the first time ever whereas most others had some experience. I knew going into this that switching into a new field wouldn’t be easy but I didn’t make it easy for myself because I was ALWAYS comparing myself to others which you really can’t do in grad school. I am a super type A person who all throughout undergrad benchmarked herself against others ( I got the highest mark in this class, I am ranked XX in this program) I am not saying that is a good thing, you really shouldn’t do it, but at least in undergrad there are consistent metrics. In grad school everyone is coming in with their different background and everyone was chosen for a specific reason. If they wanted another transit engineer in the program they wouldn’t have picked me so WHY did I drive myself crazy for months going over all the ways I was different from my classmates?? You need to learn to stay in your lane, respect your own intelligence, research interests and strengths whilst also expanding your horizons and working on new skills. I am going to say it is not easy to let go of comparisons but once I started to allow myself to feel comfortable and like I deserved my spot here I did better in class, had a better time socially and stopped being so god damn anxious all the time.
    2. As much as you feel you are the only person feeling out of sorts I guarantee that all your classmates will feel this at one point or another no matter how well they appear to be doing in the program. Be open and chat with your colleagues. Switch your mindset from “omg they are going to figure out I am a fake” to “well I got here somehow so I may as well kick ass while I am here”. Below is a photo of a quote I kept on my phone screensaver all semester until I started to feel comfortable in my new space.
  4. Maintain a life outside school- grad school is what you do not what you are
    1. Oftentimes people think that when they are in grad school that is their entire life. And between research, classes, seminars, and on campus extra-curriculars it can feel that way. But at the end of the day it is just something you are doing for right now and you should make sure to keep up with other things in your life that make you happy. Particularly since on campus life in grad school is much less of a focus then in undergrad, consider volunteering outside of your school with a local organization, join a general recreational sports league, start a blog! Also make sure to explore your local area, particularly if you moved away for grad school. Go to the beach, visit a museum, take the metro to a new neighborhood or even just take your Sunday reading to a new coffee shop. Remind yourself that your world is larger than just what you accomplish within grad school.
  5. Your social life will be very different from undergrad
    1. Of course I think this differs school to school,program to program but overall I do think all grad schools have a distinct social life from their undergrad parts. This is again due to the fact that grad school is more of a job and oftentimes you will spend more time with your research peers than classmates and often just interact with a much smaller group of peers than in undergrad. Labmates and classmates have a wide range of ages as some people come straight from undergrad and others have worked for years. Some people are coming to grad school very established in their lives, with partners and families, while others are still in a very single and social mindset. I do believe that grad school is still a wonderfully positive social experience but would also say that these relationships take a bit more work than undergrad- make sure to cultivate relationships with classmates and lab mates- set lunch dates, board game nights, inclusive daytime activities, as well as the basic “let’s get drinks”. As an international student who knew no one in Boston before moving I had to prioritize setting up social time with my new classmates as it didn’t happen as organically as I had expected but now a year later I am so grateful I did because we are a tight knit class. I found that purpose to a social interaction, like playing tennis, biking to lunch etc… , was a great ways to break the ice because you can bond over love of the activity and use this as a segue to open up further conversation even when you feel very socially anxious (like me!!).
    2. Also consider joining a group on campus to meet more people as program are often smaller and it can be nice to branch out. My program was very male dominate and I was missing female friends so I sought out and joined a graduate women’s organization where I now have a wonderful group of new friends. Some of my other classmates joined graduate intramural teams, inter-faith groups, student advocacy groups or even informal bands.
Iphone quote: "you made it here now make the most of it"
The quote that got me through my first semester
Girl in grad school, MIT
So keen my new school!
Textbook beside computer, studying
My reading set up for economic public policy
Rows of books, bookshop
Exploring Boston with some new friends

If you have been to grad school what was your biggest lesson? Or the thing you wished you knew before starting? If you are just starting out, what are you most excited for?


4 thoughts on “What I learnt my first year in grad school

  1. Hi Lauren, thanks for sharing your reflections on starting your PhD!! They’re super helpful and great insight for someone (like me) who is going to be starting PhD study.

    I’m looking forward to working in a professional science environment surrounded by people who love to talk science! (Will be working at a research institute in London, U.K.)

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