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Some things to expect during your “firsts” in grad school – Part 1

Hi there!!

So far I’ve entertained you with a few posts about what to expect or consider before, during and after you apply to grad school. I’ve mentioned some of the good things, the bad things, the waiting, the answering, etc. You can check those posts here, here, here, and here.

Well, now that the process of applying and accepting or rejecting and interviewing is through you are getting ready to pack up and move to the city (or continent) that will serve as your scientific home for the next few years. Like I’ve said before, I did my PhD in the States, so I cannot speak about what to expect if you move to Europe, or Australia. My guess is that some things will be similar. So here I’ll discuss some of the things you may encounter at your new school when you start your PhD (by the way, congratulations on getting here, this is 1/4th of the battle).

What to expect in your first day of grad school:

  1. You are not a kid anymore, so I’d say it’s safe not to expect people to hold your hand and do everything for you. You will more than likely receive a packet of info on where to get ID card(s), key(s) and all sorts of odds and ends. Chances are you’ll spend your first day finding classrooms, meeting profs and setting up your ID and email … if the program has not done this yet. Typically you might have a class, be handed out a syllabus, meet and greet important people in your program.
  2. You’ll walk and move like crazy … meaning that you’ll probably be going to way too many places, and will have a crash course on how to move about your new institution. It might seem overwhelming, but soon you’ll be able to guide other new comers around.
  3. Get ready to work. Yup, that’s right. More than likely you’ve had the graduate program coordinator(s) contact you asking who would you like to do rotations with. And rotations will start ASAP. If not on your first day, probably in the next few ones.

What to expect during your first week of grad school:

  1. You are starting to get a bit of the hang of it now. It’s been a few days but it probably feels like you’re just coming back from war … seriously. You won’t believe how many little things you need to take care of to start getting an identity at the new place.
  2. You’re probably exhausted. And that’s fine. The weekend is coming, and you may be lucky enough not to have school or lab chores to do.
  3. But expect to attend tons of conferences, workshops or tutorials (mostly if you are in a) an interdisciplinary program, b) have a super eager to work PI, c) both a and b, d) you’re a nerd.
  4. You’ll probably go to a gazillion welcoming sessions, wine and dine thingies and maybe a get together with other grad students. Feel free to eat as much as you want or can (it will sadly come to an end all too soon). Engage in conversations, ask questions, leave shyness at the door. These are (or will be) your future peers, so better suck it up and interact.
  5. You’ll probably head over to the bookstore (physical or online) and buy books. Places like the NCBI site have ebooks available. These sites are great to start browsing and checking alternate methods of explaining things. Check out various sites (not just the recommended ones) … I found out books at other places besides the ones the program recommended at sometimes half the price. Upper level grad students are also a great source of books, so see if you can borrow books from them. There may be a website from the graduate program which contains various sources of info on where to get your reading and class materials, so ask and take full advantage of that.

What to expect during your first month:

  1. Besides what I’ve mentioned for the first day and month (which of course are not a super comprehensive list), here are a few additional things:
  • Opening and squaring out how much, when and where you’ll get paid. At my school you were paid a physical check at the end of every month for the 1st year of grad school. After you joined a department you then could fill out info for H&R to put you on their roll so you’d provide your bank info and your check would be deposited after midnight of the last or 1st day of the month. Things might have changed since, thus, feel free to ask (to the grad program personnel, or upper lever grads) what to do if they don’t have a standard way to do things.
  • Parking, email, ID and all sorts of things related to IDs should be sorted out by now.
  • You might be attending seminars on a weekly, biweekly or any other form. Seminars could be about progress reports on people from your lab, or related to your class(es).
  • I happened to dislike the institution I did my PhD both at the beginning and at the end, so expect to get a bit discouraged … especially if a lot of work starts piling up.
  • Know that feelings of happiness or disappointment are normal, we all go through it … it’s more normal, more common than you think. I think we all have these feelings at one point or another, so don’t feel like you’re alone.
  • I happened to have lots of unresolved issues at the beginning of my grad school experience .. ranging from rage (at life, family, war .. you name it, I had it) to feelings of loneliness, despair, depression, inadequacy …all of that packed into one crazy 23 year old. If it gets too tough, know that there’s a counseling center, or service at hand, so do not hesitate on starting on a regular schedule with a psychologist or career counselor. Know that there are many resources available to you to help you keep your head straight and clear and learn tools to deal with anxiety, and other feelings.

This is a very preliminary list, I plan on writing a second entry related to what to expect after your first year and the following years up until the end of your career.

Best wishes … and have a happy thanksgiving.

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