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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.