If you thought getting into graduate school was difficult, you ain’t seen nothin' yet!
The grueling application and selection process was just the curtain opener for the many tests of patience and character that you are about to face as you go through the various stages of your career as a graduate student. The challenges faced in graduate school are both intellectual and emotional. Your capabilities and character will be severely tested on the way to your PhD degree.
When you finally reach the end of your journey, the tribulations you have surmounted on the way will have turned you into a confident, articulate, self-assured, self-actualized human being. You will then be able to hold your own in any situation and will command the center of attention in any academic environment.
Obviously, you’re intelligent and have done well in academics through high school and college. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have gained entry into the hallowed halls of higher education. But now that you’re here, you cannot automatically expect to be counted as one of the top 10% of your class because every other graduate student you meet in those corridors is also obviously intelligent and has done extremely well in academics so far.
Your teachers will be people who have both brains and experience. They also have a huge head start on you in their respective areas of expertise. The classes they teach will be in tune with their particular passions.
The bar is now higher than it has ever been before and the mental acrobatics required of you will be challenging to say the least!
Get your mind in gear, believe in yourself and don’t be shy. Ask questions in class. If you don’t understand something, seek examples and explanations to get those theories and concepts crystal clear. Don’t be afraid to expose your ignorance. The only way to learn is to first recognize that you don’t know it!
Graduate school will take a long time and for most of this time, you’ll be fighting against yourself. Once you’ve achieved candidacy, the research and writing will consume you. The sleepless nights of study during your coursework and the stress of the comprehensive exams will seem like child’s play when you’re faced with the problem of keeping yourself motivated even when the research is not going well. Keeping your self-appointed deadlines is more difficult than turning in a term paper on a date designated by someone else.
Depression, desperation and despair are more common than you think in graduate students. In the winter of my fourth year, I sometimes found it difficult to wake up and get out of bed. The only thing that kept me going were the classes I had to teach in order to pay for my daily bed and the roof over my head. That and the tiny little ornery part of me that refused to give up.
You will be incredibly lonely. You won’t have a social life. Grad school takes a big toll in terms of your life and relationships. Expect those challenges and face them head on. Keep your eye on the reward and keep reminding yourself of the reasons you got into the program. Also, schedule some social time for yourself every week and do things that have nothing to do with campus life.
Tests of Character
Graduate school tests not only your knowledge and aptitude for your subject but also your determination and perseverance. You’ll get through only if you have a passion for learning and love what you’re doing. You’ll get through if you can keep your focus and concentration. You’ll get through if you have the undeniable urge to emerge victorious.
The Last Word
Here’s my take on challenges: If you’re scared of them, you lose. If you have a healthy respect for them but still have the strength to meet them on their terms, you’ll probably overcome them. If you actually learn to look forward to them, you can’t lose!
This post is part of the series: Graduate School Guide
Articles in this guide include information on how to apply to a graduate program, a timeline of the application process, a timeline of the steps you will need to take before finishing grad school, the challenges you will face in grad school and the personal qualities you will require to succeed.