Entry 1 – I am a 1st Year Grad Student: Am I doing it right?

Time needed to read entry: 6 minutes

ME is a 1st Year Graduate Student who had worked in Industry for numerous years.
ME TOO is a 1st Year Postdoctoral Research Fellow who began graduate school directly after her undergraduate studies.

Top Recommendations for 1st Year in Graduate School

ME: What should I plan to do in the first year?
ME TOO: Create a social life outside of academia. Even that you may feel motivated and focused right now, I am skeptical those sentiments will last. When you’re feeling down about your work, having troubles with your advisor, and none of your colleagues have enough time to notice that you’re not feeling so good, that’s when you’ll value the time and energy spent creating a social network outside of your academic bubble.
ME: So that’s all you have to recommend for me? To escape the academic world?
ME TOO: Well, I believe that the external social support is extremely important and students do not necessarily value that idea as much as I believe might be necessary over the years. The rest tends to be what students would be doing. That is, lots of coursework, day-to-day necessities, exercise, and, if time permits, some outreach and professional networking, research and/or teaching (as a teaching assistant), and FELLOWSHIPS — APPLY!!!

ME: Why should I consume more of my already very limited time to apply for fellowships? My chances of winning are rather low anyway.
ME TOO: I felt that way as well before I had applied for fellowships, but all the same I applied for funding. I did not win the first time I tried, but the process helped me to think about how to sell myself and identify and value my skills. Through writing the fellowship applications, I gained more insight into the direction I wanted to take with my work and gained more confidence in my abilities. Then, the second time I applied, I was more prepared for the process and won a fellowship. Still, I found that much of the reward was in the process and not in the end goal of winning a fellowship.
ME: Do you really mean it when you say the reward came from the process rather than the prestige and money that comes with winning?
ME TOO: Yeah, I do. The major reward for me was in the process — it was more internal in that I gained self-confidence and perspective. My perspective on writing a fellowship application is that it will help you define what you want to achieve throughout your PhD and help guide you along your chosen path. Winning the fellowship is just the cherry on top.

ME TOO: Did you want to talk about the other areas: outreach, classes, research, and teaching?
ME: Why would we talk about it? You didn’t highlight them as key things to focus on?
ME TOOI guess I didn’t mention outreach, classes, research, and teaching initially, because they are a given – you will have to do them in the program.

Lifestyles of Me and Me Too as 1st year graduate students

[*Note that the hours reported by Me Too are estimates, since Me Too did not record her weekly activities and time spent on each in her 1st year]

Nature versus Nurture – Reflections of our 1st Year Experiences

The experience as a 1st year graduate student differs greatly depending on whether starting the program straight from undergrad versus taking time off. Going straight makes the first year of classwork easier and the accomplishments greater (better grades and fellowship recipient); however the motivation to put in long hours is harder to find after feeling burnt out from the undergraduate years, and there is a stronger need for a support system outside of school. Taking off time leads to greater satisfaction and value for the student life with an ability to put in the long hours towards studies without much demand for an external support system; however, long hours are required to adapt to thinking like a student again and to relearn/catch-up to peers. In summary, going straight from undergrad to graduate school may lead to greater external recognition, but taking time off may lead to a deeper internal appreciation about the student life experience.

Recommendations to 1st Year Students

1. Time Management: plan goals for your first year; then, revise these goals to match the hours you expect you can put in each week. You can use a time management tool such as the one we created below to make sure your goals are reasonable given the amount of time you have. Be careful since burn-out is possible this early in the stage, especially if coming straight from undergrad. We would recommend reviewing the timeline and goals with your advisor to make sure that he/she is on board with your plans.

2. Read additional references about the graduate school experience to get a well-rounded perspective for expectations that you should have for your advisor and program and that your advisor and program may have for you:

Science Professor Blog
5+5 Commandments of a Ph.D.
Average Professor Blog
Advice for Graduate students by Marie desJardins
Graduate School Survival Guide by Wanda Pratt
How to Succeed in Graduate School: A Guide for Students and Advisors
In Praise of the Research University
Graduate Student Resource Page
3 qualities of successful Ph.D. students: Perseverance, tenacity and cogency
Classroom Fortress: The Nine Kinds of Students


*We acknowledge and thank Chintan Dalal and Jason Yang for insightful discussions and feedback.


1 Response to Entry 1 – I am a 1st Year Grad Student: Am I doing it right?

  1. I am planning to attend PhD school and I was having all sorts of trouble decide how I would like to proceed, and your insights have helped a lot.

    Thanks for sharing. Loved the write-up.

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