grad school

The First Year Experience of a Grad Student

by Luke Lamb

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Graduate school is a lot like a twisting, turning roller coaster, full of twists and turns, highs and lows. It’s all about of the process.

Graduate (noun, graj-oo-it): A student who holds the bachelors or the first professional degree and is studying for an advanced degree.

This is the actual definition of graduate, as defined by Dictionary.com. I first just want to make sure everybody remembers what a graduate is because as I look back on my first year of grad school (June 4 marks 365 days since I moved), I realized that my 2017-self technically knew what a Dictonary.com graduate student was, but what I knew little about was the actual experience of being a graduate student.

I’ll tell you this upfront: being a grad student is tough. I’d think of it as an uphill battle. I experienced struggles that I had no little preparation for dealing with, but I survived. I think the most difficult part is trying to find balance in a new life that consists of courses, assistantship and/or fellowship duties, developing your research agenda, and anything else you decide to get your hands into.

For many of you reading this I’m sure you know all about the grad student struggle because you lived it yourself and now have your own students experiencing that very same struggle. But what about those undergraduate students who have been accepted into graduate programs and are preparing for the beginning of their own graduate school experience? Below are a few tips on how to make progress during that first year, as well as insight into my own graduate student mentality.

When you start your program, you need to be HUNGRY. Hungry for knowledge with an unquenchable thirst for new ideas. You must go at it full steam ahead as a fearless student who wants to change the world. I know not every graduate student is prepared to sacrifice and devote all of their time to their research and some flat out cannot. 24/7 research is not what I’m advocating here. What I am advocating is to unequivocally accept that whatever research avenue you go down is the most important topic in the world and assume everybody cares about it with their whole heart and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. This type of mentality will help you push through that stack of papers that’s as tall as Mt. Everest.

Speaking of stacks of papers, you better put your reading eyes in because it’s time to read. I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard the age-old rule about reading at least one paper a day. The internet is replete with strategies for managing this reading load. Some tips can be found here, here, and here, and consider checking out the hashtag “365papers” on Twitter for some good threads (and see these posts about #365papers here, here, and here).

While performing all this reading you must keep in mind that the real goal here is synthesis. Truth be told not every paper will be useful for this goal. Some papers you may read only to find out they didn’t contain the information you thought they would or you flat-out disagree with their conclusions. While some papers you read won’t ultimately be incorporated into your dissertation/thesis proposal but contain crucial background information- either in contextualizing the questions you’re interested in or ruling out research directions. This is even more important if you are transferring to a new system or field of study. For example, I study coastal wetlands in Everglades National Park and had a summer of research experience in Maine wetlands before I started but I had never read a single paper about the Everglades, a wetland system vastly different from the “vernal pools” I had grown to know and love.

While reading all these papers, you’re also going to want to get to know the folks around you. Not all the information you will need is written down in a book or a paper. You’ll have to learn to use the status of graduate student as a platform to talk to folks whom wouldn’t answer your email otherwise. This is important for figuring out things like who will make for good committee members, the dynamics of your own department, and general guidance within your program that won’t necessarily come from your major professor. But remember, professors have agendas of their own, having multiple ongoing research projects and that graduate students can be viewed as vessels full of new and original lines of thought. This leaves graduate students vulnerable to being hawked, which is essence having your ideas stolen.

Whether a Masters or a Ph. D. student, it is important to remember you are the chief architect of your future. Herein only contains a few tokens of advice for incoming students and it is important to remember that not all graduate student experiences are alike. The last few words of wisdom I’ll leave y’all with is don’t forget that this is a process, albeit a challenging process, with twists and turns. But remember: you only get one pass at it and so don’t forget to enjoy the ride.

**Got anymore tips for first-year grad students? Drop them in the comments!

Author Biography:  Luke Lamb is pursuing his Masters in Science in Biology at Florida International University in the Wetland Ecosystems Ecology Lab where he focuses on the response of coastal wetlands in Everglades National Park to sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion. He also currently serves as Managing Editor for Rapid Ecology. Catch him tweeting from @Luke_LambWotton.

Image credit: Flickr Commons

2 replies »

  1. This is a tricky question for me to answer but the short answer is no. I don’t have a lot of personal ties so I moved away from my home state to begin my graduate career and put forth most of my time towards my studies.

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