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3 Pieces of Advice for the New Graduate Student

Catherine L. Williams
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Published on April 23, 2015

Getting into graduate school is in and of itself a great achievement.  After months of slaving over your personal statement, sending out transcripts, and waiting anxiously to hear back from your school of choice, you finally get that glorious acceptance letter you’ve been anticipating!

From the moment you open that letter, the worry drains from your mind to be replaced by thoughts of all the opportunities that have officially opened up to you.  Published articles, conferences, prestigious colleagues, oh my!

At least, that was my experience.  After doing my happy dance and squealing like a little girl for approximately fifteen minutes, the acceptance letter I received to UCLA’s graduate program in Political Science left me in a state of excited disbelief and I’ll admit I was overwhelmed by the fact that I was now truly able to become a PhD student.  I immediately started asking anyone I knew who had been to graduate school about their experiences, the setbacks they and their colleagues may have experienced, and most importantly, any advice they would give to a new graduate student.

After receiving advice from quite a few people – from those with Masters in Public Health to those with Doctorates in Physics – I’ve found three pieces of advice for the new graduate student that everyone seems to agree on.  So with new graduate students like me in mind, I present to you the best advice I’ve received so far!

Keep an Open Mind

When I was accepted into the Political Science graduate program at UCLA, I was sorted into a particular subfield of the program, Comparative Politics, as that was the closest match to my current interests.  Once I began speaking about the placement with some of my future professors, all were very quick to tell me that the placement was a formality in order to help give us some direction and a foundation with which to start the program.  What they really encouraged in myself and my peers, however, was exploration and a true willingness to learn.

So many people come into their program of choice already set on the specific area they want to study, and the specific questions they want answered, which is a great foundation to have going in!  However, the point of graduate school is not only to hone your own specific interests but to broaden your horizons as well.  Especially depending on the length of your program (mine is roughly five to six years), you will have numerous opportunities to expose yourself to new subjects and new experience which may lead you to focus on something else entirely – but only if you so choose.

You can narrow your sights on one particular subfield, buckle down, and convince yourself that tunnel vision is your best strategy for getting through the program.  But from everyone I’ve spoken with, if you want to really take in everything your program has to offer you, you have to take the chance to explore your field as the vibrant, diverse collection of intellectual thought that it is.

Treat Your Program Like a Job

Being a graduate student comes with its own particular set of trials; being intellectually rigorous, the expectations placed on a graduate student’s shoulders can be both mentally and emotionally draining.  One noted effect common enough to be designated with its own title is the ‘Imposter Syndrome,’ or the inability to internalize one’s own successes. There is also a general increase in the prevalence of common mental health illnesses, like depression, in academia.

Because of the strain that such an intense learning environment necessarily comes with, many of the professors and graduated Masters’ students I’ve spoken with have told me that one of the best ways to combat such mental fatigue is to treat your graduate program as more than just a continuation of your undergraduate school.  The best way to get through your program is to treat it like a job.

Think about it this way, if you treat your studies as a job that you have been invited to pursue because of your previous qualifications, then you are less likely to second guess your worthiness of being in the program. You are more likely to be able to pull through an intellectual funk than someone who considers themselves to simply be a fledging student standing in the shadows of giants.

Get a Hobby

This bit of advice kind of trails from the previous one – to treat your program as a job.  As with any line of work, there should be time made to pull away from work and focus on other areas of one’s life.  Many of the current PhD students I ran into while visiting UCLA emphasized these words of wisdom: get a hobby.

Find something that you are serious about, something that you enjoy that energizes you and motivates you.  For me, that hobby will most likely be singing once I start my program, or some other musical endeavor.  It relaxes me and makes me feel as though I am still working on something worthwhile.

Most importantly, I know from my experience as an undergraduate that singing in a choir takes my focus away from the more pressing work that I have to do; when I am ready to return to my academic work I am more rejuvenated and less stressed than if I didn’t have that outlet.

Either that or I might take up Kung Fu.

Catherine L. Williams

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