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8 Things I Wish I Knew When Starting Grad School

8 Things I Wish I Knew When Starting Grad School

This article was born one afternoon, after a conversation with an old and favorite classmate of mine — my wife. We discussed all the things about graduate school we would have warned ourselves about if we could go back in time.

I spent 7 years at Michigan State. Don’t get me wrong. Those years were the best and the most fruitful years of my life. They were also the hardest.

Grad school can be an extremely exciting period in your life. And with all the excitement surrounding your decision to go, your acceptance to that exclusive program, it’s easy to forget exactly what you’re getting into.

Here are some of the top things I wish I knew beforehand.


1. The first semester is often the hardest

Why? Because adjusting to graduate life is something new, riddled with unforeseen chaos or discomfort. I remember meeting one of the student’s in my program for the first time, “a colleague” as they say. Immediately, there was a standoff.

“Is it me, that’s socially awkward, Or is it him? Nope. It’s definitely him.”

That’s what my wife first thought of me. We clearly moved passed this, but engaging brainiacs doesn’t get much easier, I hate to say.

Then, you have to solve that never ending list of everyday mundanity. The laundry, the groceries, finding a doctor when that stomach ache from one-slice-of-pizza-too-many-one-night just won’t stop. And all of this while getting used to piles of work and papers with insanely tight deadlines.  It takes getting used to.

Just hang on and don’t panic.

2. Citation will become an important aspect of your life

I didn’t realize the mountain of citations I’d have to write, format, and format again. And citations are important. The stakes are higher than undergrad. You’re treated no less than criminal when you don’t give credit where credit is due.

Proper APA citation was and is required often times to receive good grades. You want your works published? You need to know it. Luckily, there are APA style guides online that are very handy, such as the Purdue OWL Writing Style Guide.

And you need good writing tools, too. I highly suggest you get Mellel and Bookends as your writing app/reference manager double duo. In Mellel, you can save APA styles and load them quickly with each new document — so you don’t have to spend time styling everything from scratch with every paper. And if you get Bookends, your references and bibliography in Mellel update as you write, so all you have to do is plug them in, and keep going. Trust me. This will save you tons of time and a lot of headache.


3. Prepare to do more than learn

Two words: Work study. In many situations, grad school students are given opportunities to work for the university or college. I lucked out. I was a teaching assistant to a professor whose work I drooled over. But honestly, you also should expect the worse. You could end up the TA for Professor Idiot, or be a research assistant, or a library clerk. The bright side: the stipend from school can pay for those mundanities and pizza slices I mentioned earlier. And, you might gain an ally or two in your academic field. However, you must be sure to accurately prepare your calendar to balance work, study, and life.


4.  Reading Rainbow isn’t just a TV show anymore

While in school, I read. A lot. My 20/20 vision faded to a degree above blindness because of many books read in a poorly lit apartment. It’s common for grad students to be assigned around 70-80 books every semester.

Unless you are a speed reader, it’s essentially impossible for you to get through them all. And anyone who says they do are fudging the truth. So don’t worry about it. You’ll have to skim large portions of many of them. So, just be prepared in advance, make time for reading, and don’t be overwhelmed.


5. You will also do an extensive amount of writing

In addition to having to read or skim scores of books per semester, plan to do a tremendous amount of writing. Easily, I wrote 120-160 pages per semester. That’s the equivalent of writing a shorter-length novel every few months. And I didn’t have Mellel back then to make it easier. So, if you are not someone who likes to write, tough it out. And don’t be afraid to get help. Many universities have writing centers. Or, you can get online writing instruction on your own schedule. Takelessons.com is great place to start.

If you loathe writing, then you may want to think twice about pursuing your degree.


6. Students are obsessed with their studies

I’ll admit that my undergrad is a blur of beer and philosophical debates about Nietzsche. Me. The biology major. To be honest, I was a geek in undergrad, but I wasn’t that serious. And I, like most undergrads, took many courses that were not directly related to my major or a profession of interest. Not so in grad school. If you enter, you probably have an idea about what you’d want to pursue immediately after graduating. So naturally, you’re more focused on and invested in what you are learning. Everyone is putting in time and money to develop the skills or reputation you need to succeed in a chosen career path. And with this, of course, comes health (and sometimes unhealthy) competition. So, prepare yourself for this intensity.


7. Success is far from guaranteed

It took me seven years to complete my doctorate. And I’m one of the lucky ones. Only about 57 percent of doctoral students complete their programs within ten years. Many drop out. This means that despite your dreams of receiving your advanced degree, you might face many obstacles along the way. And heaven forbid you don’t make it to the end.

This fact is something that you should think long and hard about before you enter. If you are having doubts, think about working first. I did NOT do this. I went directly after undergrad and paid a heavy price — both financially and with my time.

I learned my second year, during an internship, that I didn’t want to spend life in a research lab after all. So, it definitely might be worth your while to work for a year prior, to gain crucial insight.


8. Your graduate degree doesn’t mean a high paying job

If you make it all the way through grad school, then that is great. It’s a major accomplishment. However, it does not automatically mean a fantastic job will just be waiting for you when you leave school. Instead, you will most likely have to spend a good amount of time researching jobs, applying, going to interviews, and the such.

However, you may be significantly more qualified than many other candidates, and you may be eligible for higher paying jobs. But wait. You can expect the opposite: you’re OVER qualified for many jobs and are ineligible for candidacy. And don’t forget that your “colleagues” might be unemployed too, sifting through the same job pool as you. But still, your degree is incredibly significant and can be valuable to your career.

Final thoughts


I, like many other people, simply jumped into grad studies just because I wasn’t sure what to do with my life. I needed to make a decision with what to do next. Avoid this predicament. Think about whether or not you want to attend graduate school while you’re still in undergrad. Really consider what graduate school entails, and make sure that you are ready for the rigors of this challenge. Doing these things, and knowing what I just wrote,  can help you be a lot more prepared to enter graduate school.


Mellel can help you complete your academic work like no other. Format your citations easily, for example, and take advantage of the Mellel Bookends deal to manage your references and live bibliography. Learn how. 

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