Starting Grad School on the Right Foot

We are only weeks away from the start of a new academic year, and for some it will be the start of a new phase and entrance into a brand new world. I was one of those ‘freshies’ just a year ago, so that exciting (and somewhat intimidating) time is still fresh in my mind. For me, it was a time of great change in my life. I had just moved back to Canada after living abroad for six years, and immediately jumped into the sea of cultural re-assimilation, barely treading water. And what was that in the distance? Brace yourself Megan. It was a tidal wave of new responsibilities, jargon and theories that is graduate school. I experienced a mix of emotions that changed from one moment to the next. One minute I was excited at the prospect of learning more about my field and becoming a better educator, and the next moment, as I walked home from campus, I was overcome by the typical reverse culture shock thoughts like: What am I doing here? Do I really belong here?  These conflicting thoughts were what monopolized my first month (okay, maybe entire fall term) of grad school. Whatever it was that I was going through was what kept me from really making the most of my time. I saw people around me who seemed to feel comfortable and adjusted in their new role as grad student. I wondered, What was their secret? I took mental notes and when asked about my thoughts on becoming a grad student I would be able to say: “In hindsight, I would have approached it all a bit differently. If I could speak to my former self I would say…”

(And I would begin my list of dos and don’ts for those beginning graduate school:)

  1. Do no hesitate in speaking to your advisor. Yes, they are busy academics, but the more you speak to an expert in the field the more you will be able to organize your ideas related to your own interests. Contact them early and you be the one to touch base often. Don’t wait to hear from them. They are busy and have many other students to advise. I know some students who are in contact at least once a week and some who meet once a month. It’s up to you but make sure you take charge of your studies.
  2. Get out and meet people! It can feel natural to retreat to the comfort of our own homes during a time of change, but I earnestly recommend getting out and getting social. SGPS orientation week (www.queensu.ca/sgs/orientation.html) is a perfect time to make those connections. I regrettably did not partake in those events and felt the negative effects of a bleak contacts list for the rest of the school year. I also should have joined recreational leagues so I could mix healthy living with a healthy social life. Check back at my previous blog “Get Active This Summer” (http://www.queensu.ca/connect/grad/2012/07/09/get-active-this-summer) for ideas on getting out, active, and social with other grad students. Not only is it great to make new friends and interact with likeminded people, but it is also great to meet fellow grad students who might offer new insights on your own research. Perhaps there’s an area that you haven’t explored yet.
  3. Keep your ear to the ground. One effective way of being “in the loop” is to read the School of Graduate Studies weekly newsletter (http://www.queensu.ca/sgs/news/gradnewsletter.html) each time that it appears in your inbox. We get so many emails in our Queen’s accounts but this is one email that you must always read. I’m sure you can make time for just one precious and essential email once a week. It includes a great deal of information that interests all grad students. From profiles on grad students (like you!) to events news to useful workshops and seminars available throughout the term. I had the pleasure of attending one of these seminars this past year. Finally something I did right! Writing a literature review can be tricky for some but after that two-hour Expanding Horizons seminar I felt renewed confidence in my writing abilities and just a little more of a sense that I might actually belong in this world of academia. I kicked myself and asked, why hadn’t I been doing this from the very beginning? So check in with the grad studies office website (http://www.queensu.ca/sgs/index.html) regularly and take advantage of all that is offered to us grad students.

Now, I’m going to stop there because I want to leave it to the rest of you grad students out there. What advice would you give to your former self? This information could have quite the affect on our incoming new students. Share your wealth of experience and knowledge. Go on!

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