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10 Lessons I Learned From My First Semester in Grad School

Grad school has been one of the most challenging times of my life so far. Here are 10 lessons I learned in my first semester.

No one said grad school would be easy, but I never thought it could be this hard.

1. If you expect to be treated like an adult, act like one.

It’s relatively common knowledge that in graduate school, you are considered more of a peer than a student. It’s a nice idea – being respected as an adult, having your ideas heard, contributing to the university by teaching. But that also means you’re expected to act like a colleague.

Excuses shouldn’t fly in undergrad but they definitely can’t fly in grad school. You are expected to attend every class. There are a lot of unspoken rules regarding conduct and performance that aren’t written down, but you need to learn if you want to be respected by your peers and professors.

2. No, not everyone is out to get you.

I entered graduate school straight out of undergrad, having just turned 22. I am young for my grade and young in comparison to most of my new peers. Many of them are married, working on their PhDs, or in their late twenties, thirties, forties, fifties… It’s hard not to feel a little overwhelmed and very unprepared in comparison.

So, when a professor calls you out, it’s also hard to feel like you’re not being picked on. But, as second semester began, I realized the professor I thought disliked me had never felt that way at all. In fact, every grad student feels unprepared and overwhelmed, especially their first semester. No one is out to get you. Your professors are there to help you through the rigorous process.

3. It’s a lot harder than undergrad.

Yeah. I know. You’ve heard this one before. But it is so true. The expectations are different, the workload is different; you are largely on your own. You are in charge of they way you wish to travel through the program.

Much of the assignments are outside readings. There are no quizzes or tests, just research, presentations and big papers; often times, it’s all due at the end of the semester. If you don’t pace yourself early, you won’t have much to show for yourself at the end, no matter how much you actually learned.

You can’t expect reminders. Just deadlines.

4. It’s probably a very good thing if you’re single.

But really. I had a classmate who gave birth last semester. I have other classmates who are married with children to take care of. I can’t imagine being in a real, actual relationship – especially not during the first semester. So if you’re single and saying “wahhh, there’s no one to meet in grad school!” take a deep breath, step back, and realize it’s probably the best situation to be in with so much work to do.

5. Living alone makes motivation difficult.

I love living alone. In fact, I’ll be posting an article about it next month. But living alone also means you’re alone with your bed and your dog (who definitely doesn’t help motivate you) and man that bed just looks so comfy! I have to force myself to get out of bed and move to the living area and make myself stay there until I get my work done.

Grad school isn’t a time where you can let your self-motivation skills slip. You’ll need it when you have to read 400 pages in two days (true story).

6. You only thought you were independent before.

Undergrad is a time of learning who you are, learning to be on your own, blah, blah, blah. Nah, grad school is when that really happens.

Not only are you away from your parents but you’re also expected to be far less reliant on your professors. And even if you have friends, everyone in grad school seems to be reading something different, on a different track. No, you must be independent in your life and your studies in graduate school.

7. Grad school makes you crazy.

Nuff said.

8. There’s a reason they say don’t get a second job.

There’s a lot of things that graduate programs say “don’t” to, one of which is getting a second job off-campus. Well, sometimes you need the income and can’t get around it. Sometimes you need that second job. But man, do they mean it when they say it’s nearly impossible to juggle grad school, your job on campus, and another job on the side.

If you don’t have to get a second job, don’t.

9. But you can also survive if you get one anyway.

But if you do need that second job, I want to tell you that you can do it. You can survive. It’s a lot of work. I put more hours into my jobs and classes and TAships and assignments than the average person puts into a 9 to 5 job. Add it all up and it is about 70 hours a week. And I don’t get paid overtime.

But look – I’ve done it. I made it through the roughest semester of graduate school and I’m still going. If I can do it, you can.

10. It’ll be okay.

It really, really will. There will be shitty days, days where everything seems to go wrong, where you’re late to class, forget which classroom you’re supposed to be in, miss an assigned reading… and those days will suck. But there will be days, too, when you finish a project or a paper on your passion and you will realize this is exactly where you’re supposed to be.

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What was your grad school experience like?

About the Author

Maggie Marshall

Maggie is a senior English major at Abilene Christian University. She enjoys creative writing, reading everything she can get her hands on, and learning what it means to be a grown-up. After graduation, she plans to pursue a MFA in creative writing and perhaps a PhD after that, all while working on getting published and finding as many writing opportunities as possible. She would love to continue contributing to sites like GenTwenty and perhaps, after getting her doctorate, become a professor of creative writing at a university.