Graduate school is an adventure. And by adventure, I mean nightmare. The first semester of grad school is by far the most mentally, emotionally, and intellectually challenging time of your life thus far — everything is new and confusing and intimidating and HARD. That’s probably what led you to this article at 2 o’clock in the morning when you should be resting up for whatever fresh hell tomorrow will bring. The good news is, everyone who survived their first semester of grad school probably had all of the same thoughts that you’re having right now. Here are a few:
1. I am the dumbest person in this room.
Seriously, how did they even let me into this program?
The first week of your first semester of grad school is the most intimidated you’ll ever be. You were super jazzed and proud to get into this program, and you strut into your first week of classes ready to flex your brain muscles for all the world to see. Then reality hits. Everyone around you is brilliant and well-read and able to casually incorporate words like “teleological” and “dialectic” into everyday conversation. The douchey guy with horn-rimmed glasses in the grad lounge keeps trying to engage you in a conversation about Foucault’s post-structural analysis of gender and sexuality. You’re internally overcome with panic. You nod and respond, “I know right. Totally.”
2. I don’t even like academia.
Accompanying your deep insecurity will be a sour-grapes attitude toward the Ivy Tower and everything it stands for. Because you feel woefully inadequate as an acedemic, you will develop a steady inner monologue about the corruption of academia, the arbitrariness of measures of intellectual success, and the value of advanced degrees. This will immediately dissolve with the first praise you receive from a professor, at which point your inner monologue will be drowned out by the theme song from “Chariots of Fire”.
3. That’s my reading assignment for one week?
Your job in grad school is to become really really really well-versed in one really really really narrow and specific topic. The good news is you’ll be an expert on your topic by the time you’re done. The bad news is the amount of literature already written in your area is enough to fill an olympic-size swimming pool. You’ll spend at least 40 hours a week just trying to wade through this literature during grad school, and that doesn’t include reading for pleasure (a concept that, if brought up around a grad student, will be met with raucous laughter and bitter tears).
4. Where did all my money go?
Grad school is effing expensive. Even if you somehow managed to snag a teaching or research assistantship, you’re making barely more than minimum wage in exchange for selling your soul and all of your free time to professors who have more important things to do than grade papers or respond to student emails. These are now your job. Good luck balancing this grunt work with your own research.
If you didn’t manage to procure financial aid for grad school, your only hope of economic survival is a trust fund or a degree that will help you snag a high-paying job immediately after graduation. If your work involves Foucaultian post-structural analysis (I’m lookin’ at you, grad lounge douche), you probably don’t fall into this category.
5. OMG free food!
Did I mention that grad school is expensive?
Rather than checking your bank account (cue weeping) to see if you have enough funds to go grocery shopping this week, you spend your time seeking out free luncheons, colloquium talks with complementary snacks, and meet-and-greets for organizations that you don’t even belong to in hopes of scoring a free meal. Your kitchen cabinet is a desert wasteland of ramen, Easy Mac, and peanut butter. You actually contemplated making a mustard and Frito sandwich for dinner last night until your friend texted you about a wine and cheese reception happening for the opening of a new building on campus. SCORE.
6. I miss college.
The transition from undergrad to grad school cannot be overstated. Yes, you’re still avoiding the real world in the hidey-hole of academia. No, you still never have more than $30 in your checking account. Yeah, Lucky Charms is still considered one of the major food groups in your diet. BUT! You suddenly have way more responsibility, way less free time, and way less social support around you. Graduate students are a varied bunch, and there’s a good chance that your grad cohort will include people at very different stages of life than you. Some are married, some have kids, some have like eleven other advanced degrees, and suddenly you have to reevaluate your expectations of social interactions to accomodate this massive new dose of adulthood. You will also spend a lot of time alone in grad school, holed up in the library or a coffee shop or your house staring at a computer screen for ten hours a day. You will respond to this mixture of isolation and adulthood by stalking your old college pics on Facebook and listening to the anthems of senior year while sobbing into your old college sweatshirt.
7. Please don’t ask me what I do.
I am a philosophy graduate student. Everytime I meet a new person outside of academia I silently pray that they won’t ask me what I do for a living. When they inevitably do ask me, and I respond “I study philosophy,” they usually look at me with a mix of confusion, judgment, and pity. Many people simply don’t know what philosophy is, and confuse it with psychology or some other p-beginning word (“Oh, so you’re going to become a therapist?”). Those who do know what philosophy is either ask me what I’m going to do after I graduate or, worse, try to engage me in what they think is a philosophical discussion (“Moral judgments are really just, like, culturally relative, amirite?”). I almost always regret my decision to tell them the truth about what I do.
If you work in an obscure or uncommon field, you may want to come up with an imaginary back-up career for situations like this. And don’t ever, ever read a book with the word “philosophy” in the title in public. It’s basically an invitation for amateur philosophers everywhere to engage you in conversation.
8. Why didn’t I pick a more practical field?
The great thing about grad school is that you can get a degree in pretty much any field you want, provided you have sufficient funding. Whether your passion is candlemaking, the history of Japanese comic books, or Cannabis horticulture, chances are there’s a program out there for you. This extraordinary specificity seems AWESOME at first — seriously, you’re telling me I can spend 40 hours a week studying puppetry?! However, reality will soon hit and you will realize that there are only about a handful of people in the world that will be impressed by your Ph.D. in Bowling Sciences, and none of them are hiring. You will promptly begin browsing Monster.com with keywords “entry level” and “401k”.
9. What have I done?!
The decision to go to grad school is a big one. You will invest a lot of time, energy, and money into your degree, and will most likely relocate to a new city for your program. It is natural to feel anxious about the decision once you dive in headfirst to your new grad life. Don’t worry — you’ll adjust and the anxiety will pass (unless you’re studying one of the fields mentioned above, in which case the regret and panic will steadily increase as graduation approaches).
10. Netflix tho.
Sometimes we just can’t, grad school. Can’t. Won’t. Shan’t. In those moments, Netflix and all other forms of internet fuckery will become your BFFL. Don’t think of it as procrastination, think of it as self care. After all, there is no shame in watching 14 episodes of The Office in a row today if it helps you clear your head for better writing tomorrow. Right?