10 Things I Learned from my First Year in Grad School

A year ago I was accepted into grad school. I was changing career paths and I knew it’d be a tough, but benefiting and worthwhile, journey ahead.

I started the semester of fall 2016 at the University of Texas at Dallas, and I just finished the spring semester and thus my first academic year of grad school. I’m currently pursuing my master’s degree in marketing, and boy oh boy, did I learn a lot this semester. But that’s another story for another story.

The purpose of this article is to let people know the 10 things I learned in general about grad school. Courses, scheduling, meeting new people, taking care of yourself. If you’re considering applying to grad school, this article will give you an insight as to what you can expect. Of course, this may vary depending upon the university and degree.

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Less grades mean that each assignment, project, and exam is worth more.

Which sucks. But in my experiences, some professors offer extra credit assignments and/or curve grades based on how the class average is, so there is hope. Just keep in mind that you cannot approach grad school the same as you approached undergrad.

On average, you have two exams per course–a midterm and a final–and you absolutely cannot cram that shit last minute.

During my undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin, I only once tried to pull an all-nighter and it was for an 18-page paper, not an exam. It’s always a bad idea to cram studying the night before an exam. Do not even think about it when you’re in grad school. I do recommend taking notes throughout lecture to remind yourself which concepts to focus on. It’s always good to anticipate what would be on an exam. This is especially helpful for the final, after you already have an idea of what your professor’s questions will be like.

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Pretty much all of your courses will require group projects, and even assignments are often group-based too so pick your teammates carefully!

This is tough, however, when you first start out and don’t know anyone. Depending on the program you’re in and how many people you befriend in the first semester, chances are you may take some of the same courses with your friends. Plan ahead! I had two courses with my classmate Jasmine and she’s one of the most reliable people I know. Working with her on assignments and projects is always nice because we both trust each other to get stuff done and will help one another out. Group projects are tricky because… most of the time you’re going to end up with at least one or two teammates don’t contribute anything. Luckily, in all my grad school courses, the profs have required peer evaluations.

You’re not always required to see an advisor, but it’s highly recommended.

At this point, you’re probably an adult who has been working and learning more responsibility in post-undergrad life. You and only you are responsible for your coursework–which classes you need, which are considered electives, what grades you need to maintain a 3.0 GPA, etc.

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Make use of faculty and peer mentors.

Some schools will have these programs for first-year grad students.

Take care of yourself—physically, mentally, emotionally.

I cannot say this enough: please take care of yourself. Don’t stay up all night every night. Schedule your priorities to try to limit the stress if possible. If you haven’t been active much, I recommend going out for walks at the park or hit the school gym. Even just 30 minutes to one hour of physical activity will help. Also talk to someone—a friend, a trusted peer or faculty mentor, a professor—if you are struggling with balancing school and other things like work. It’s tough but the first step is to reach out. You are not alone, remember that. Someone will listen to you.

You will spend some Friday or Saturday nights doing schoolwork.

It may not be every weekend, but trust me, something will come up or you will have an exam on one of those nights. Be prepared.

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If you don’t understand something, ask.

This is easier said than done, especially if you’re like me and struggle with basic concepts of statistics and calculus. In grad school, there’s no room to be confused about what you learned in your undergraduate studies, so you need to make sure you have the basic concepts down so you can build on that knowledge. Ask your professor. Ask your TAs. Or hell, search YouTube videos. Khan Academy and Brandon Foltz really came through for me during my first year in my statistics class and my database marketing class.

Your classmates have valuable experience–learn from them.

In undergrad, everyone in your classes are in the same age range as you, 18-22. Sure you’ll meet a handful of people in their late twenties or early thirties but for the most part, your peers are in the same life stage as you. This is not the case in grad school. Instead, you’ll meet people of various ages and life stages. I had a classmate in my consumer behavior course who was 50-something-year-old and pursuing a second master’s degree. I had a classmate from China who was 29 and she had sold everything she had in her old apartment to move here and build a new life. It’s incredible to be exposed to so many different people at once. These people aren’t just classmates in your class; they have a lot of life experiences to talk about. Learn from them. Share your own experiences. Help each other. Sure, you may be competing for the same jobs later but these people are also here to help you.

You want to stand out so aim for something beyond just an internship.

Get industry-recognized certifications. Join professional organizations for your field. Compete in competitions sponsored by companies like Google. When you reach the grad school level, do not expect to just get one internship and be done. You have to constantly be on the lookout for something new, whether that is an internship, a paid job, or getting certified. Keep building your resume.

If you are looking to apply to grad school, I hope my article did not scare you! This is meant to be helpful and insightful. Don’t go into grad school blind. What I learned I want to pass down for others who may later be in the same boat as me. So best of luck!

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