Lots of people have advice on how to get into graduate school, such as Susan Ferrari here
on the sciences, Thomas Benton here
on the humanities, and the various commentors on this Tacitus thread
. I thought, however, I would contribute something on how to get by once you're there. Graduate school is a world different from both the "real world" and the undergraduate years, and requires adjustments no matter where you're coming from, and I've had a lot of conversations in recent weeks reinforcing how disorienting it can become.
Most people go through periods of wondering if they're smart enough to be in graduate school. My friend Jordan discovered that most people at her grad school wondered if they had been admitted by mistake
. I've found the same thing here at UW. The reality is this: Getting into graduate school in most fields is highly competitive. If you got in, you belong there. In fact, there are probably far more deserving candidates who get rejected than who actually find a spot in top graduate programs. So once you're there, accept the fact you belong, settle in, and prepare to work, but that is what will govern your life for the next several years.
People have a lot of stereotypes about graduate students, one of the most common being that they are simply too lazy to enter the workforce. That is so wrong it's almost funny. When people who take a few years off before graduate school talk about their adjustment problems, they are not talking about the fact they might get to sleep an hour later in the morning. If you're the typical American worker, you go into a job for 40 hours a week, then you leave and watch TV, spend time with friends/family, or do whatever else you want. In graduate school, you revert back to full work mode, where having an hour or so at the end of the day is considered a thing of rare beauty, and Sunday afternoon is the perfect time to head to the library and get started on that research project.
I want to add an important caveat here, though, and that is this: Everybody
takes time off now and then. Thus, despite the rhetoric about continual work, grad students should not experience "relaxation guilt" when they decide to simply sit down and watch TV for awhile. Everyone will find their own level of this. My friend Kristin sought to impose a no-work-after-7 p.m. rule, though I'm not sure it's there now that she's a TA. Most people tend to be a lot more random, working feverishly in huge bursts and then crashing for an entire day. Whatever works for you, let it work, as long as you handle your classes. I want to say I was always busy my first year, but I seem to remember leaving town a lot and sitting around reading for pleasure in the evenings. Once I became a TA, however, things got tight in a hurry, and my second year I was generally seen grading papers one of either Friday or Saturday night, as I also had 11 hours of class 4 of which were Arabic. One thing I've figured out, though, is that in this career, there will always be something else you should be doing to finish a research project or design a course or whatever. At some point, you're going to have to say you want some life to yourself, and I did that about when I became a dissertator, and now I still do my share of work, but am also careful about relaxing away from major deadlines.
Still, the workload of graduate school is there. One of my UW friends recently said he'd like to make it into a 9-5 thing. I don't think it works like that - the only time I do that is over the summer, and during the semester whatever you do will be governed partly by the calendar. Hopefully this balances the fact that we're here because we really enjoy what we do, and having to sit around reading about it can be as much a pleasure as a burden.
And that's another piece of advice: When the going gets tough, remember why you're here. It's not to fill out fellowship applications or navigate bureaucracy, it's to become a great researcher or teacher or archivist or whatever. Sometimes it won't seem worth it, but remember that the grass is always greener on the other side. I pay attention to web sites like Invisible Adjunct
, but also consider the fact that if I don't land a tenure-track job somewhere, I'm probably not worse
off than most of the workforce, and in my case certainly my Arabic and Farsi will lead to something interesting. I sometimes get far more bothered by my specific choice of field, as I realize had I gone into English I would have been in a 6-year program and be within sight of the finish line, but then I wouldn't be sitting here planning a trip to Morocco as part of my education, and when I read I'd probably wind up analyzing it instead of enjoying it. There is no perfect job, and despite the annoyances you made the choice to do what you're doing. Just remind yourself of the reasons why, because they're almost always still valid.
One thing you should definitely prioritize is getting to know people in your new school. This has actually been my biggest problem here. My first year here my neighborhood was really unsociable, and almost everyone I met in my department was in their late 20's with families and stuff, creating an age gap that could not be effectively bridged for social purposes. Coming straight for undergrad, I found myself more comfortable around the undergraduates I met in quiz bowl; this basically became my UW peer group, and while I still count most of them among my close friends today, for different reasons (me initially trying to induce a sort of "adult" social life, them defining themselves by dorm living) it never turned into full-blown hangout-type stuff while they were here. Things are better now, but this is still the area of my own experience I am most unhappy with.
This is getting long, so I'll cut it off now. I've never had advisor problems, so I can't talk about those. I will tack on one more point: Here at UW, funding is a huge hassle, and has been the single greatest emotional drain on me since I started...it's very aggravating to every semester or year face the realistic chance you will suddenly not have a job in just a few months, and a couple of times this has affected minor life decisions. If you have a multi-year package, consider yourself lucky. And if you don't, be prepared to look relentlessly for cash months in advance, because the sooner you get that settled, the easier it is to concentrate on your studies.
Hope someone finds this useful!