Things No One Told Me About Grad School

When I started University 5 years ago, I made a post similar to this one about what University taught me. It was on my old blog so I will not be sharing it, but I felt it was about time I did one for Grad School. I’ve had a few people ask me about my experiences as they plan out their own academic futures. I’ve never been anything less than honest, so here we go. Everyone’s experiences are going to be different, so take this with a grain of salt.

  1.  It’s lonely. 
    Obviously this will change depending on where you go and if you know people ahead of time, but I did not and it really hit me how lonely Grad school could be. During my Undergrad I had large classes and the other students were usually my age. Even if I never saw classmates outside of class, I could talk to them during class (or before and after). I was also able to meet other students through clubs and activities. In Grad school that changes. Class sizes are much smaller, and from my own experience, no one is my age. No one wants to hang out when they have families to go home to, or full time jobs to get ready for. It took me a while to actually meet people and make friends, and even still it can be a very lonely and isolating experience.
  2. It’s way more independent than you expect and you’re probably not ready for it. 
    I’m an incredibly independent person and have been for as long as I can remember, but I still wasn’t prepared for this experience. I honestly think it goes hand-in-hand with my last point. Grad school is lonely and somewhat isolating. You’re doing your own research, and there aren’t guidelines or structure in the same way that there are during your Undergrad. I often feel like I’ve been left on my own to try and figure something out, and no one has answers for me because they just aren’t there.
  3. If you need help, you’re really going to have to ask/search for it.
    I’m known for cornering my professors when they’re getting their morning coffee, or emailing them late at night. It’s because there are some things that just don’t have easily available answers. When is this form due? When is the Board of Ethics getting together to review submissions? What does one expect in the official thesis proposal? Has anyone been in contact with this professor who we keep referencing as being on my supervisory committee, but haven’t actually heard from? These are all questions I’ve had in the last few months, and questions that have only been answered by my stubbornness to not let go. I couldn’t find these answers through google searches or on the University’s website. In your Undergrad, everything is laid out for you – and if it’s not there’s a list of people you can email. Here it’s every student for themselves – get creative.
  4. You will spend more time asking people for money to do something than actually doing the thing that you need money for.
    Have I started my research? No. Have I spent hours upon hours filling out applications for different sources of funding and scholarships so I can fund my research? Absolutely. Have I written the paper for the conference I’m going to in June? Nope. So what have I done with my time? Applied for funding to get to this conference because it will be a great experience. You can’t do anything without funding, and you can’t get funding until you spend all your free time applying for it. And even then it’s not a guarantee.
  5. There are no breaks in Grad School.
    This is one that I am still trying to wrap my head around, and honestly I’m not taking it so well. We recently had our Reading Week – a mid-semester break that many people use as a way to go somewhere warm. I – unlike many grad students – actually had most of this week off. I wasn’t expecting a completely free week, but I thought I would have some downtime to read a book I’ve been meaning to read since October. I’m not sure what happened but it somehow became my busiest week of the semester. I still could not tell you what I did that week, but it was hell. Every day I would wake up to a million things to do, and each day I would only make it through a few things. No matter what I did I couldn’t catch up. I don’t have terrible time management (I’m not perfect either, but I’m first to admit that), but I honestly have no idea how I got (what felt like) so little done. At the end of the week, a friend told me that in Grad school you’re never truly caught up – there’s always a long list of things that should be getting done.

Grad school isn’t for everyone. I really want to stress that – as pessimistic as it may sound. It’s hard, taxing, isolating, and lonely. You will face impostor syndrome on a daily basis regardless of where you came from. I’m literally counting down the days to graduation just so I can get a break someday.

It’s okay to not go to Grad school. Honestly, you’ll probably be happier.

It is incredibly hard. I’ve had to learn a lot and I’ve spent many days wondering if it’s worth it. But, I love academia and I love the research I’m doing. Truly the greatest thing I’ve learned is that you can do anything as long as you have the passion. If you have passion, it’s all worth it in the end.

-Red Hot


I’ll Worry Enough for the Both of Us

I don’t think it’s any surprise to anyone that I worry a lot.

I’m a class A worry-wart. My brain exists in a constant state of what-ifs and worst case scenarios. There are days when leaving my house is a legitimate struggle. I lay awake at night planning out the different ways I would die or survive a plane crash. I worry when I meet new people. I worry when I go somewhere there might not be cell reception. I worry about getting sick, and wondering at what point I would have to seek medical help. I worry about living on an island where I have no family, and how long would it take before my parents found out if I went missing or died?

My brain is an exhausting and scary place honestly.

Yet throughout all of this – the constant worrying and stress about life, moving, everyday experiences, and academia – no one has ever worried about me.

By this I just mean that whenever I share my anxieties with someone, their response is usually a nonchalant “Oh, I’m not worried about you!”

After hearing from many other grad students that they were in their 3rd, 4th, 5th and even 6th years of a two-year Master program, I expressed my fear of not completing my thesis within this time frame to my supervisors. They looked at each other for a moment, then laughed. “We’re not worried about you!” “You’re not an islander – you have places to be. You’ll finish on time.”

After moving across the country in August (and then again after coming back in January) I called my mom crying. I didn’t think I could do this. What is this you ask? Just all of life in general: being far from home, on my own, living with a stranger, being in school, looking for a job, not having a next visit date planned. My mom took a deep breath and said “Emerald. I’m really not worried about you. You’ll be fine.”

My therapist appointments are usually me self-diagnosing myself and telling my therapist of what issues I’ve encountered since the last session and where they are stemming from. In my most recent appointment, I directed the topic to my fears and anxieties about meeting new people. I’m always afraid of getting emotionally (or physically) hurt and so I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping people away, but I’ve realized I don’t want to live like that right now. We talked about techniques for meeting people and starting conversations with strangers – all ways to look at building connections and just taking things one step at a time. The conversation ended with a “I’m speaking to you so candidly about this because I’m not worried about you. I know you’ll be fine.”

To all of you, I say thank you. Thank you for your unwavering confidence in me. But also: why? What am I doing that makes everyone think I’ve got my shit together? Who decided that I don’t need to be worried about, but we collectively need to worry about Person X?

My mom says I need to work on my self-confidence. I think I’m a very confident person. I’m just used to doing all the worrying myself. If someone else would shoulder some of the worry, I’m pretty sure I would be unstoppable.

-Red Hot


Missing you

Does not make me a failure.

It makes me human.


Missing you

Does not make me a failure.

It makes me a person with many homes.


Missing you

Does not make me a failure.

It makes me someone trying hard to have new experiences.


Missing you

Does not make me a failure.

It makes me aware of our geographical difference.


Missing you

Does not make me a failure.

It makes me blessed to have a family worth missing.

Addressing the anxious spiral all my facebook friends witnessed

I went home for a month over Christmas.

In that time I got too comfortable being home and not being in classes; too comfortable being close to the friends I’ve known and cared for for years; too comfortable with having a car and public transportation that can take me pretty much anywhere in the city, neighbouring cities, and the Southern part of the province. I got too comfortable with my parents taking care of me; too comfortable with all the animals that fill my house (and make it next to impossible for me to breathe).

I got too comfortable with the easy and comfortable. With what I have known my whole life.

When I first moved across the country it was because I wanted to challenge myself, take risks, and because I was raised on the motto “go big or go home.” I took a huge leap and it was hard, but (I think) it (eventually) got easier.

Then I went home, and came back and shit hit the fan.

I was not adjusting very well to being back. Today is actually the first day in a week that I haven’t sobbed while eating breakfast.

I was uncomfortable in my apartment, and constantly felt anxious. This is not great when you’re a home body and seek comfort from home. I was (and still am) incredibly homesick.

I had spent all of December bashing this very small city. I was coming down hard on things that could improve (seriously I just want to be able to actually go more than a few blocks on public transportation), and pointing out all the differences. I’m from a fairly big and developing city a few hours outside of Toronto. I travel to Toronto and cities in the States frequently. I am used to a gogogo and convenient lifestyle. The island that I live on now forces me to slow down. And when I slow down, my brain kicks into overdrive and I hate it. That’s not the point of this post though. I want to tell you about my favourite part of this place – something I only truly realized after leaving and coming back.

The main reason I love the city I’m living in now (and I really do love it about 85% of the time) is because of how safe I feel.

Back home, I hate walking anywhere. I hate walking in my city, in the Universities’ city, and I loathe walking around in Toronto. I refuse to walk by myself in any of these places. I hated walking to my night classes on campus. I hated walking with earbuds in because I didn’t trust my surroundings. I learned to constantly check my surroundings when young women were being pulled of the side of the street a few years ago. I learned to live with the anxiety of walking around these places. I learned to walk with my hands clutching my keys. I learned to get off the bus and call someone for a ride when this really creepy dude who would never leave me alone got on. I took kickboxing classes for a year partly because I wanted to be able to defend myself.

Here, I walk around with complete ease. I have to walk pretty much everywhere and I always go alone. I’m still cautious (can’t take the paranoid city girl out of me), but I’ve learned to smile at strangers or listen to music. I can walk to all my night classes without wanting to scream at the slightest noise. I walk downtown and don’t glare at people who pass me. I walk to the grocery store and cut through an alley to get to the next plaza over. I come back to my apartment and don’t dread the fact that I’m now living without a 100lb. guard dog or alarm system. I don’t worry nearly as much about dying every time I leave my house (a fear I’ve had for well over a decade). Honestly, it’s nice to have one less thing to be anxious about.

I feel unbelievably safe here, and for that I am so grateful to call this place home.

-Red Hot

Live with it

The worst part about living with anxiety is that you’re living with anxiety.

It doesn’t go away.

No matter how many exercises I do, or how well I progressed in therapy; no matter how many friends tell me not to worry about things, anxiety doesn’t go away.

I can learn to manage. I can learn to accept all of my anxieties, but it’s still there.

My anxiety is a part of me that I am slowly learning to live with. I’m even getting better at it. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t times where it flares up.

I’m writing this while on an airplane – only my third flight, and my first flight I’ve done on my own. I’m proud of myself because I lived through another anxiety attack.

I struggled and wanted to cry and my tips and tricks could only do so much, but I lived through it.

As I calmly sit through some turbulence, I’ve realized my anxiety isn’t with flying. I actually kinda like flying – it reminds me of rollercoasters, and surprisingly, my claustrophobia has yet to act up on a plane. My real anxiety comes with waiting to board.

I could not tell you why. I don’t understand it myself, but waiting to board the plane sends me into a paralyzed fear.

I worried for days about my taxi coming, checking in, going through security, and the possibility of a lengthy delay. I brought books, snacks and music. I was prepared as I could be. I made it through. Everything was easy, quick and painless (thank you smaller airports!) I was nervous, of course, but it was easy to ignore.

Then I sat down in the lounge, opened my book and promptly felt like vomiting.

I had a panic attack.

Silently and by myself.

My face felt numb and itchy. My whole body was hot. When I experience panic attacks I immediately need to seek out fresh air. Not really an ideal situation for an airport.

My point is, anxiety is hard. It doesn’t go away just because I’m prepared. It doesn’t go away just because I know logically there is nothing to worry about.

Anxiety is always there. It sucks. It’s hard. It’s made me very sick, it’s made me cry. I get shaky and every instinct in my body tells me to run.

But we manage.

We live with it. Because we have to.

-Red Hot

Grad School is Hella Hard

It’s hard y’all.

It’s busy, stressful, overwhelming, chaotic.

There are readings and then more readings: required readings, supplementary readings, readings for your own research, and readings you should be doing just in order to stay relevant. There are so many emails!! Emails about classes, about scholarships, about supervisory committees, about upcoming conferences, about workshops, about get togethers because if we’re all on the edge of a breakdown at least we’re here together. There are opportunities: for scholarships, outside research, work, projects to contribute to, conferences to present at.

On any given day I am at my desk responding to emails, doing the readings, asking professors for tips about class discussions because I don’t know how to talk over the baby boomer who likes the sound of her own voice, and trying to remember that I’m here for an experience – not just to add another degree to my name. More than anything, I need to remember that right now, these two years are to push me as far from my comfort zone as possible. I need to travel. I need to relearn how to make friends again. I need to learn how to make friends my own age when I am the youngest in my class by a decade, and I have a job that allows me to work independently and from home. I need to learn how to have fun. I need to learn how to let myself go exploring on weekends, plays during the week, dinners and clubbing when I just want to watch Netflix in bed for the 9th night in a row. I need to learn how to be on my own. I need to learn to cook for myself, keep myself occupied, and how to be sick on my own when there’s no one to hold my hair back as I sob-vomit into the toilet. I need to learn what it means to be putting my wishes and needs ahead of those of my friends and family. I need to learn how to do things I want to do, and not because I think others want me to do them. I talk about being independent a lot, but the truth is I don’t think I’ve ever fully been myself. Even now, I’m resorting back to safe study habits and what I should do because I’m too overwhelmed to experiment with my new individuality.

This is all my long-winded, kinda disoriented way of saying it’s hard. It’s a lot of work. There is so much being thrown my way.

But I love it.

The readings are (mostly) interesting and when they aren’t I just don’t do them (sorry profs!) The emails are from my professor who is determined to learn about me as a person and wants to make sure I feel welcomed. They’re emails that invite me over for dinner because he knows I’m far from my family. They’re emails that tell me of an upcoming scholarship just because he thinks I can be competitive for it. The opportunities are ways I’m meeting new people, and getting involved in ways that still let me stay away from Undergrads on most occasions. The extra hours at my computer are because I’ve been approached by 5 professors who want to be part of my supervisory committee and I’m trying to figure out what questions I can ask that will allow me to find the best fit. The sticky notes all over my room remind me of due dates, sure, but also of things like “book that Halifax trip”, “look into cruises leaving from the island”, and “get business cards made.”

Everything is changing so fucking fast. Everything is being thrown my way all at once and I’m struggling to catch it all. But at the end of the day, I’m proud of what got me here. I’m proud of where I seem to be going. And even though I struggle on a weekly basis with feeling like an impostor, I know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

-Red Hot

Messy Life Continues

I seemed to have gone on a hiatus without actually telling anyone. Sorry.

At the end of August, my family and I headed to an island for a vacation. After that, I moved in to an apartment building on said island.

I’m here to work on my Master’s degree and it’s my first time living away from home.

I should be excited right? I am.


Other times, something will go wrong and I just want to pack everything up and head home.

The first few days were so rough. I hadn’t started school yet, and I knew absolutely no one out here. I had multiple panic attacks when moving it because the place felt dirty and a little bit like a prison cell.

I’m very close with my family and watching them leave was so hard. I opened my door and shouted down the hall to them as they were leaving. I waved out the window. I called my mom about an hour later crying because that was the last hug from her I was going to get in months.

It’s been hard.

And then school started, and because of my professors schedules we had one class every night for two weeks before getting a month long break while our other classes start. I was thrown into the whirlwind of adjusting to a graduate program, and one that started at 100% nonetheless.

I had moments where I really missed my family and my friends (remember, I still don’t really know many people out here), but it was getting better because I was so busy. I realized just how responsible I am when cooking and cleaning for myself didn’t seem like a big change. I also realized that I am terrible at grocery shopping, and that the laundry machines are so different from what I’m used to.

It’s getting better and everyone has told me that time will help.

I know that. I do. But I also still kinda want to go home.

I feel a bit like I’m just pretending to be an adult. It was fun for a while, but I miss my bed and my dog (so much!), my friends and my family. I miss being comfortable. I miss having real conversations with people who know me deeper than the front I put up when I have to socialize with an island of strangers. I miss talking to my friends face to face instead of through texts. I miss sitting beside my sister on the couch watching Law and Order reruns. I miss my brother coming into my room to complain about his manager or to tell me a story about his friends. I miss my cat walking across my laptop when I’m writing. I miss my dog following me everywhere and hearing his claws clack against the hardwood floor.

I miss so much.

I know that I have this amazing experience ahead of me. I know that I’m very lucky. I know I’m going to study something I am so passionate about. I know that I had to move out eventually. I know that the good days are starting to outweigh the bad. I know I’ll treasure the time I do spend at home more than I did when I lived there everyday. I know I’ll make more friends eventually. I know that this place will stop feeling like a strange bubble once I’ve been here long enough to make it familiar.

I know it will get better – or at least easier.

I’m getting tired of pretending though. I want to be home.

-Red Hot