How I Survived the First Semester of Grad School

How I Survived the First Semester of Grad School


So, you are getting ready for grad school, congratulations! Your hard work in undergrad, passing standardized tests, and sending applications have paid off. Now, it is time to start thinking about how you will get through your first semester. You will meet many new people and encounter new situations, so it is a good idea to prepare.

The three things you need to plan for the most going into your first semester of grad school are student life, coursework, and research.

Surviving Student Life

Grad life is remarkably different from undergrad life. First, you probably have funding-related work responsibilities on top of classes. Depending on your degree program, you might be teaching undergrads, assisting professors, working in a research lab, or working in another office on campus.

If you are coming straight from undergrad, you will experience unprecedented freedom. You must become proficient at balancing work and social life. You will need to set boundaries and overcome temptations. You must learn to say no to authority diplomatically.

Many graduate programs host events early in the semester for incoming students. Attending them can be a great way to get to know everyone in your program, including your seniors. Students a few years ahead can be excellent resources to help you navigate your academic and professional career.

Reserve time for relaxation and reflection. Our attention span is limited. For me, a short break of 15 minutes every 2 hours is essential. Taking time off during weekends will also go a long way in keeping you sane and warding off burnout. Not keeping a balanced life can lead to depression and other mental health challenges. Furthermore, your work will suffer when you cannot give it your best effort.

Surviving Classes

You entered grad school specifically to study a topic of your passion, so no more taking irrelevant classes. If your program is focused on research, then your classes should supplement your research work.

Regardless of your domain, you will do tons of reading. Literature students might be expected to read a full-length novel each week. STEM students might be expected to churn through one to two textbook chapters between each new lecture. Multiply that by three courses and you will quickly find yourself plagued by chronic knowledge indigestion.

It is therefore essential to have a system of organization from day one. Since most information is digitized, leverage technology to stay ahead. Dedicate a fixed location to store your notes, coursework, and assignments. Back up your work, preferably automatically on the cloud! Some professors like to hand out hard copies of syllabi and assignments. If you do not have time to digitize them, store them in organized physical folders. Keep everything—you never know what information will come in handy at the end of the semester or four years from now when you are working on your dissertation.

Finally, some courses have heavy writing assignments. Learn to make use of your university’s writing center. This is an excellent place to obtain valuable feedback and cultivate strong writing skills. Make sure to book your appointments ahead of time!

Surviving Research Life in Grad School

Depending on your degree program, you may be expected to complete a thesis surrounding a research topic. Together with your academic advisor, come up with a list of references to provide context for your research as soon as possible. Do this in an organized fashion, preferably digitally, as you may soon find your library rapidly growing to a size impossible to index and track manually.

Use a reference manager. A reference manager is the best way to keep track of all your sources and citations by collecting, storing and organizing bibliographic information. Think of it as your own personal library of sources related to your courses and research interests.

Petal is a cloud-native reference manager that stores your references and syncs them across your devices. The app extracts and validates metadata automatically, supports full-text search, and allows you to capture and save any web page directly into your project folder. You can also share your references with others when you are collaborating with colleagues on a group project.

The Purdue OWL (online writing lab) is another resource when it comes to formatting your papers and works cited pages. It contains easily digestible information for every citation style.

You may quickly realize that graduate research is an isolating experience. But always keep in mind that while the technical part of academic research is often conducted in solitude, your future career prospects rely heavily on your professional network and ability to discern and navigate complex interpersonal relationships. There is no right answer to this, but one thing remains true: the more time and effort you spend on something, the better at it you become. So try not to keep your head in the weeds all the time. Instead, find opportunities to bond with your colleagues and advisors. A simple gesture of goodwill goes a long way to brightening someone’s day. As Maya Angelou once said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Try Petal for Free and Get a Head Start on Grad School

Grad school is all about working smart. Using a reference manager like Petal will streamline your workflow, saving much time and avoiding the extra tediousness with your already-heavy workload. With good habits and proper tools, not only will you be able to keep up with coursework, but also have time to socialize and build relationships. After all, less time spent on finding references and creating citations means more time available to focus on actual research and have fun.

Discover the power of Petal. Sign up for your free account today, and good luck surviving your first semester of grad school!