10 Honest Pieces Of Advice For Incoming Grad Students

Starting graduate school soon? Here are 10 graduate school tips for first year grad students.

When I started graduate school in August 2020 I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

However, as of December 17, 2020, I can officially say I survived my first semester of graduate school!

In commemoration of this personal achievement, I am bringing to you this post on advice for new graduate students.

During my first semester of graduate school I learned so much and I totally understand how nervous and anxious you must feel about starting your own grad school journey.

So I hope the advice I share with you today will help you gain perspective and make you excited to take on this next level of your education.

And if you are thinking about or in the process of applying to graduate school, check out this comprehensive guide to applying to graduate school.

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1. Imposter syndrome is real, but you can overcome it.

One of the biggest hurdles you will face when you start graduate school is imposter syndrome.

If you haven’t heard of imposter syndrome before, it is the feeling of being incompetent or not good enough when starting a new endeavor, like a job, internship, or in this case, grad school.

When you start your graduate program you may feel like you…

  • Don’t belong or deserve to be there
  • You’re not smart enough
  • You’re not talented enough
  • You’re not skilled enough
  • It was a mistake that admissions accepted you

Imposter syndrome is completely normal, but it can be demotivating to feel this way.

If you feel this way, at any point, you’re not alone.

In fact, 70% of people experience imposter syndrome at one time or another in their life (source).

I definitely felt the wrath of imposter syndrome when I failed my first quiz in my Statistical Methods course. And this was the first F I had ever received in school.

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And I literally thought by September, only a month into my grad school journey, that I needed to drop out of grad school because of that one grade. But luckily, my grades improved and I ended up with all A’s for the semester.

How do you overcome imposter syndrome?

  • Acknowledging that you are experiencing imposter syndrome
  • Being open to constructive criticism and asking for help from others
  • Talking to classmates, professors, your advisor, or a professional therapist about your feelings

I personally overcame imposter syndrome by actively working on improving my future grades in my Statistical Methods class and asking for help from the professor.

I think reviewing the quiz I didn’t do well on gave me the closure and drive I needed to make a B on the next quiz and A’s on the remainder of the assignments.

Simply put…don’t be afraid to face your failures. It can help you become a better student overall.

Also, know that you wouldn’t be in this program if you weren’t qualified enough. Admissions and your advisor saw something in you, so you 110% deserve to be there.

2. Graduate school gets lonely, so find a friend in your program.

Starting graduate school in 2020 probably contributed to this, but in all honestly, graduate school is very lonely.

In graduate school, you have fewer classes and smaller classes, which means less opportunities to meet people.

Plus, you’re only in each class (at least in my program) once a week for 2 hours and the rest of the time you are studying or working.

But with the havoc of 2020, no one could study together or have classes in person.

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My first semester, I literally had one in-person class and only 3 out of 15 students attended in-person. Everyone else attended online. So it was quite lonely.

What helped me get through it was having a friend, who was a graduate teaching assistant with me, in one of my classes (ironically that class was Statistical Methods, so we struggled together).

So my advice: find a friend (or two) and text/call/chat regularly. It doesn’t have to be on the daily, but just keep in touch throughout the semester and keep encouraging one another to keep pushing through.

3. Don’t expect grad school to be anything like undergrad.

I’ll be honest, I really thought graduate school was undergrad 2.0. But it isn’t.

It’s a lot harder and a lot of DIY learning.

In graduate school, you are now immersed fully into one subject and you’re literally being taught the ins-and-outs of this specific subject.

So you better love the program you’re in or it’s going to be a long 2+ years of grad school.

However, your professors are not there to hand hold you through all the course materials.

There’s a lot of self-teaching that goes on and if you aren’t use to that, it can be a struggle.

I know I felt pretty betrayed in my Statistical Methods class because I had to teach myself everything from scratch.

But know there are resources available to you if you are struggling like:

  • YouTube – you can find a ton of YouTube videos or channels dedicated to topics you are learning/struggling with. Just search for the topic or concept you’re having difficulty with and start browsing through the videos.
  • Khan Academy – they have a ton of free videos and content on a wide variety of topics from math, science, literature, history, economics, and more.
  • OpenStax Textbooks – free open source textbooks that can be used as supplemental material to your graduate-level textbooks.
  • On or off campus tutors – many college campuses have free tutoring services for all students in a variety of subjects. You can also pay for a private tutor if that fits your needs better.
  • Chegg Study – a monthly service by Chegg that offers step-by-step textbook solutions. Was literally a lifesaver for me this semester!

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4. Ration out your student loan and/or stipend like a regular paycheck.

I felt very fortunate that graduate school was the first time I needed to take out student loans.

But with that being said, it can be really tempting to use your financial aid refund or stipend (if you’re a teaching or research assistant) all at once.

To avoid temptation here’s what you can do:

  • Set up a separate checking or savings account for your financial aid refund to be deposited in
  • Figure out how much your refund will be and divide it by 10 (assuming your semester is 5 months long)
  • Set up bi-weekly reoccurring deposits into your main checking account for the amount you calculated in the previous step
  • When you receive one of your reoccurring deposits act like it’s a paycheck you’d get at a regular job

This strategy helped me manage my finances in graduate school and even allowed me to have some money left over to get me through until the spring semester.

5. You need to become an advocate for your education.

As an undergraduate student you may have felt undermined by your college professors.

However, as a grad student, you are now more or less equal to your professors.

So with that being said, you need to stand up for yourself and your education.

This means:

  • If you feel like you are not getting the education you paid for, you need to talk to your professor or the chair of the department to make it right.
  • If you have a question about an assignment you need to take action and ask for help.
  • If you get the opportunity to fill out course evaluations at the end of the semester, do them!
  • If you want to get research or teaching experience, go out and seek out the experience.

Your education is in your hands and you only get 2 or so years (in a master’s program) to get the most out of it.

So take control of your education, speak up when you need something, and seek out opportunities to further your education and professional experience.

6. Email will be your newest BFF.

With classes being held once a week, it can be difficult getting ahold of your professors on-campus.

So if you didn’t become email savvy in undergrad, now is the time to step up your email game and learn proper email etiquette for students.

Email will literally be your lifeline in graduate school and knowing how to write a professional email will make you a successful graduate student. Why?

  • A good email stands out to your professor and they will be more willing to respond to you over a student who emails them lyke dis.
  • Your email communication is a paper trail of your professionalism. And demonstrating professionalism is vital to scoring a well-written letter of recommendation post-grad.
  • You’ll get your question answered quickly (within the first or second email).
  • Your professor will associate your name, when they see it in their inbox, in a positive manner.

7. If you can, take a nap before your evening classes.

Unfortunately, in graduate school, your class schedule becomes less “flexible” than it was in undergrad.

Instead of having the choice of taking your classes at a variety of times throughout the day, your graduate level courses will most likely be in the evening (i.e., after 5 PM).

And this can be a real struggle at times especially if you spent the whole morning and afternoon studying or working.

If possible, which may be hard if you are working full-time, try taking a 30-minute power nap before class to keep yourself awake and alert during class. Alternatively, you can grab some coffee before class.

8. Make time for sleep, food, and self-care.

With the hustle and bustle of graduate school it can be hard to find time for yourself.

However, if you want to be successful in graduate school you absolutely need to make time for sleep, food, and self-care.

If you don’t you’re going to face burnout and you’ll be no good to your studies.

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Instead of thinking that you need to be working on grad school work 24/7, restrict yourself to a certain amount of time you will focus on school work.

For example, as a full-time graduate student, I always tried to only work on schoolwork from 9 AM to 5 PM.

Then after 5 PM, I was free to relax, watch Netflix, work on my blog, etc.

I also tried to always give myself Friday’s off and do less work on the weekends, but depending on that week’s workload it didn’t always work out like that.

However, regardless of what the week looked like, I always made time for:

  • 3 meals a day
  • Working out 2-3 times a week
  • At least 6 hours of sleep
  • Working on my blog once a day

By meeting my basic needs, I was able to work at my full potential.

And especially when I gave myself the day off of grad school work, I was able to come back to my studies the following day with new energy and focus.

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So go ahead, go on a walk, take a long hot shower, or let yourself lay on the couch for an hour and watch Netflix.

Learn to be ok with giving yourself a break from your studies. You deserve it after all!

9. Find a creative hobby.

Another challenge of graduate school is losing your creative side especially if your program focuses on scholarly writing like mine does.

Always writing in APA, MLA, Chicago Style, etc. can be a real drag and make you feel boxed in.

If you’re feeling this way currently or want to prevent yourself from feeling this way in the future, find a creative hobby you can take up and commit to while in grad school.

For me, it was blogging, but for you it can be anything that ignites your creative side like:

  • Painting or drawing
  • Sewing or crochet
  • Writing short stories or poetry
  • Singing
  • Dancing
  • Playing an instrument
  • Doing puzzles or crosswords
  • Putting on makeup
  • Painting your nails

Once you find your creative hobby, try to dedicate some time to it at least once a week.

For me, I tried to spend at least 45-minutes a day on my blog.

Working on my blog gave me a much needed break from grad school and allowed me to show off my personality through my writing.

10. If you can, find an assistantship rather than work full-time.

One of the best decisions, I believe, I made going into graduate school was applying for a graduate teaching assistantship and quitting my full-time job to graduate school.

Doing so has given me the opportunity to:

  • Work part-time in grad school as an elementary statistics tutor
  • Earn a small stipend each semester
  • Have my tuition waived each semester
  • Dedicate more time to my studies
  • Establish a professional relationship with my teaching assistant advisor

If you are given the opportunity to apply to be a graduate teaching or research assistant… go for it.

It’s literally one of the best opportunities you can obtain as a graduate student and it will help you stand out in the workforce after graduate school and on applications for Ph.D. programs.

However, graduate assistantships are not always practical. Especially if you already have a full-time job with benefits, kids, a mortgage to pay, etc.

For example…

My sister is also in graduate school and works full-time.

This semester she was able to succeed in her two courses and work a full-time job that’s highly relevant to her degree.

I personally, decided to go the teaching assistant route, and have no regrets! It’s an awesome opportunity, but only if it works with your life’s circumstances.

Concluding thoughts on advice for new graduate students

Your first semester of graduate school will undoubtedly be the hardest, but also the most rewarding.

Whatever challenges you face this semester, and future semesters, I know you will overcome them and you will come out as a better learner, critical thinker, and student.

I sincerely hope you take all of the advice I have shared with you today to heart and use it to your advantage as you embark on your own graduate school journey. Good luck!

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