A Guide to Beginning Grad School

A Guide to Beginning Grad School

The culmination of a year’s worth of hard work and endless wishing, hoping, and praying has paid off. On Wednesday, I begin my first day of classes as a graduate student, and I will finally be able to embark on this journey that I’ve been so anxious to start. 

It seems pretty crazy to remember that all I could think about this past year was being where I am right now. While I was living in Argentina, moving to Tuscaloosa consumed my thoughts. I don’t think there has ever been a person traveling through Europe who was more excited to get to central Alabama, but that was me. 

I spent a year thinking about this day arriving so I could finally do what I’ve loved for so long, but I didn’t think about all the questions I would have as the day got closer and closer. Sure, I received plenty of emails from the university with dates telling me when orientation began and what books to buy for my courses, but let’s face it—there are a lot of questions that the graduate admissions staff can’t help you with it.

If you’re going to grad school, want to in the future, or have a concerned friend, please treat this post as a kind of advisory on some things you might want to know.

What is a GTA? What is an RA? What is LOL? (Just kidding.)

There are a lot of acronyms that come with grad school territory. Just within the English department, I feel like I’ve heard about 20 terms. From TESOL to CRES—what do all these strange new things mean? 

First of all, a GTA is a graduate teaching assistant. If you got into a grad program with an assistantship, there’s a good chance this is you. You will likely be an instructor for a program under the advisory of a big-time professor.  At Alabama, professors have these giant groups of 300 students for lecture classes. Their GTAs get split up to instruct one class a week for 50 or so of those lecture students. Basically you’ll lead discussion with instruction from the guiding professor and get a sample of what teaching is really like.  

An RA, or research assistant, helps a professor with whatever they need for their research.  This is what I am, and although I haven’t gotten to do any RA work so far, it seems like a pretty low-key role and also a great way to get to know about the type of research going on in your field of study, AKA a little future thesis inspiration.

Is it too presumptuous to wear a blazer on the first day of orientation? Do I need to buy a blazer with elbow patches? Will other people be wearing blazers?

Yes, for some reason my mind has been stuck on the idea that grad students are typically glasses-wearing, blazer-donning people. I couldn’t get over this mental image. I won’t tell you how many times I looked at the J. Crew website wondering if I should get a jacket in navy, black, or brown. 

However, let me tell you, grad school is what you make it. There is no reason to psych yourself out about professional wear, because you will see literally all spectrums of dress. During orientation week I saw one woman in a blazer and some other people in jeans and sandals.  Although I do think it’s important to start off on the best note, and for some people that means dressing professionally, it is absolutely not necessary to get a blazer. At least for orientation. It’s also not presumptuous, and you’ll probably just look really good if you end up wearing one!

What do I sign up for? What don’t I sign up for? How do I carefully straddle the line between dazzling overachiever and annoying do-gooder kid?

When you enter a department in grad school there’s a very good chance that you’ll begin receiving emails for the entire department, whether or not they have anything to do with you.  For me this caused concern and confusion, because I went from having just accepted my scholarship package to reading emails sent to me about optional “group-led discussion sessions regarding pedagogy.” WHAT?!  I just got into this program! I’m not even totally aware of what my classes are about, let alone all these optional things.  

If you start getting emails about discussion groups, writing workshops, etc., there’s a good chance you just don’t know enough about the subject to be in it. If you just got into grad school, there’s a hell of a lot you have to learn about, so take a step back and think about that before you get in over your head. Also, you’re about to be busier than you ever thought was possible, so pace yourself. You can also always ask the person behind these emails if it would be appropriate for a first year grad student to join in.

Am I in over my head? One of my syllabi includes the casual usage of the word “therein” which I think I’ve only ever seen used in the Constitution before today.

Grad school is different than undergrad. I’ve been told that this specific transition is even more difficult than going from a Masters to a PhD program. Professors are suddenly talking to you more like a peer than a student, which oftentimes means they’re bringing out the lofty words reserved for fellow professors. It’s a big wakeup call to read your first syllabus because it’s probably going to both overwhelm you and give insight into the way professor really talk. Not like the same University-approved syllabus used year after year for Writing 101.  

However, chances are you’re not in over your head. You got into this program because the decision committee saw some bright, shining light within you that made you stand out. Try to take things day by day and not freak yourself out.

Will I make friends? Will people be nice? 

I’m one week into living in Tuscaloosa. Already I’ve found a lovely group of people to spend time with, am going on a date this evening, and have met two girls in particular that I think may be my friend soulmates. 

I’m not saying any of that because I’m a particularly exciting, social person. All of that happened by just being friendly and open to the idea of meeting new people, which is absolutely crucial when one moves to a new place. These are the people who will be in your classes for the next however-many years. They’re the people you’ll have meetings with, work beside, and complain to about lack of sleep. 

During orientation my greatest advice is to focus on making connections with your peers. I had orientation for three days, and each day I told myself to go in with a smile and try to talk to one new person. It worked really well, and by the end of the three days almost everyone in that room was hanging out outside of our required orientation meetings. People will be nice because they’re in the same boat as you, and nothing brings people together like being nervous about new social settings.

What is the best advice for entering grad school?

A smart, kind friend gave me some advice. I asked her how she could have better prepared for her Masters program, or what she would advise me to do with just the few weeks left until I walked into that classroom for the first time. Her words?  

“A teacher told me to find what was going to keep me sane. You’re gonna get stressed. It’s gonna be hard. Discover whatever activity it may be—exercise, knitting, whatever—that you can turn to when things get crazy.”  

Find something outside of your program to take interest in because, as my friend said, things are going to get hard and you’ll need a distraction. I personally love kick boxing and attempting new recipes in the kitchen because these take my mind off whatever craziness I’m personally experiencing. If you go into grad school with a positive attitude and have the mindset of approaching each day with energy, excitement, and curiosity, then you can get through anything. 

My concluding grad school advice is to follow these three steps:

  1. Enter a program that interests you
  2. Find your social setting in your new town
  3. Remember how many people have Masters degrees.

It’s gonna be hard, but we’re gonna make it. Good luck, y’all!

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[Photo by Juliette Kibodeaux.]


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