What can I expect during my first year of a Ph.D. program?

I wanted to write directly to those students who are about to start graduate school in the fall and to those who are in their first year of graduate work. The transition to graduate school involves so many changes at once, that it can become overwhelming at times. We usually move to a new part of the country; we have to make new friends; we have to realize what study habits are inadequate and what to do about it; we have to identify academic background areas that we need to reinforce; and we have to find a rhythm.

I decided not to preach about this. Instead, I asked 4 first-year graduate students who were absolutely successful undergraduates and are now in their second semester of Ph.D. programs. I asked them 5 questions and their answers are enormously revealing. Some answers have been edited for length.

Was there a period of adjustment/transition when you started grad school? If so, how long did it last?  What needed adjustment?

Student 1: “There definitely was. It probably lasted a little over 2 months. Specifically for me, I needed to adjust to living in an entirely new (big) city by myself, taking courses where I may not have had all the background (and having to catch up; this was and is still something I struggle with), and, actually, re-finding my motivation to be in grad school.”

Student 2: “There was most certainly a period of adjustment I went through when I started…and at times I still wonder if I am going through that adjustment? In the beginning I was very excited to just do work all the time since I knew that was what grad school was going to be like, but it didn’t turn out to be rainbows and sun shines like I expected. My first semester I never went home before dark and although I had an hour between each of my classes I didn’t make any use of that. As of my second semester I vowed to make use of the hours between classes and attempt to be able to go home at 5 o’clock by working incredibly hard throughout the day. That lasted a little while, but then tests came around and it wasn’t as plausible. But I found myself adjusting and even if I go home around 5:30 I make dinner and start to work again until 10:30.

Student 3: There was an adjustment period, and to be honest it was quite brutal.  A lot changes when you graduate college and move to a new city, even if you aren’t going to graduate school.  I didn’t know anybody in [the new city], and felt very alone. Add to that the insane workload associated with beginning graduate school. So that was quite difficult at first. As an undergrad I would do what was necessary, however last minute.  As a graduate student, every day was another adventure and there was no reason to stop once I finished an assignment.  I poured myself into work and soon felt very comfortable and so happy with my studies.  I began to realize I was doing all this for fun. This was (for me), the first step for gaining stability. Second was the realization that you can’t do everything. [At first] I worked all the time; it was time to start realizing that I needed to be a person too.  So I would take a day off here and there, go to concerts, and having the realization that it didn’t end in disaster and stress was huge for me. I made this mistake my first term.  [I was in] the office until midnight every day, including weekends.  For me it was kind of an escape, but it became overwhelming.  To free myself, I play music and go dancing. Finally, you WILL want to quit.  A lot of times.  For each day you find yourself overjoyed with the beauty of it all, you will have one where you KNOW that you aren’t cut out for it.  This is good, I think. Each time you want to quit you convince yourself not to.  This is valuable.  The more you convince yourself not to quit, the more concrete reasons you have to keep struggling through.”

Student 4: “My first semester was definitely the one of the hardest experiences I ever had to endure. It was not about the content of the classes or the rigor but rather balancing homework assignments with TA responsibilities as well as non-academic stressors. Grad school is definitely a step up from any undergraduate class I have ever taken in which it demands more discipline and deep conceptual understanding of the subject. I took me a semester to realize that I was not supposed to know everything right away, that understanding takes continual practice and to always reach out for help. I needed to adjust my approach to taking courses where my goal was not only to pass the class with an excelling grade but also take in what is being taught and try to apply it to a project. Also my priorities in general had to change, I now had TA responsibilities mixed with challenging homework as well as building research project. It was not until the second semester where I started to utilize resources and ask basic questions that I had a better sense of how to manage grad school.”

Were there some aspects of your first year that were surprising or unexpected? What are they?

Student 1: “I was lacking in some background and needed some time to adjust to the schedule and find a sort of ‘weekly routine.’ Other than that, most of what I experienced is along the lines of what I expected for my first year.”

Student 2: I can say that graduate school has taught me how students in Intermediate Algebra and College Algebra feel while they are in class. Some concepts you just don’t understand, specifically for me in our Modern Algebra class I feel like I am just spiraling downward into a never-ending pool of confusion. It’s difficult to pay attention in class and stay interested when you feel that far behind and it even causes you to have animosity towards your professor. I never expected to realize how students feel in a math class when math is not their forte.”

Student 3: “First off, the amount of work, it’s more than I thought possible.  I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it all.  But you’d be surprised at what you can do.  Second, it doesn’t feel like work anymore.  As an undergrad, even math homework feels like homework.  [In grad school] every day in class, we’re given concepts, and then we’re told to go play with these concepts for a while until they stick.  Then we are given new ones.  But this is all we do during the first year.  No research or pressure or stress.  Just play time in math world.  It’s incredible.”

Student 4: “I thought graduate school was going to be more classes with more work. However, grad school is much more than additional courses, it’s the ability to incorporate what you learned as an undergraduate and expand it to focus on a project or research where taking additional advance courses help you build. Being a graduate student has that underlying pressure of understanding everything that is in your ‘field’ and come up with an idea that can highly impact or advance the field. There is a lot more reading than I expected. I soon learned that self-motivation becomes the main component that could make you succeed as a graduate student. As a first year I was also intimidated by the other students who had established seniority, however, asking them for advice was not only helpful but [gives you a perspective] that you are not the only one that ever felt overwhelmed.”

 Have you changed the way you study? How?

Student 1: “I study a good amount more on my own than in my undergrad, where I did work in groups all the time. I still work with other students here often, but I spend more time than before trying to learn the material by myself. I think this is because in my undergrad, I sometimes cared more about “getting the grade,” whereas in grad school I care more about understanding the material to help me in research.”

Student 2: “I CERTAINLY changed the way I studied! Even as I took tests throughout the year the way I approached every test was different. My first lesson: yes the other people in your cohort are smart and they CAN indeed help you better understand concepts. In undergrad I never relied on other students to better help my understanding, but now I seek help from others all the time!! We have days where we study together and go over problems we had troubles with and I always come out of those sessions knowing more than before I went in.”

Student 3: “Boy, have I.  I used to be an all-nighter guy.  Blowing off work until the last minute and then pulling together something awesome in an epic stressful night.  I don’t do that any more.  I’m in the office by 9 each day.  Class 9:30-10:20.  Then during the day I work through some commutative algebra or algebraic geometry reading and problems that I’m doing on my own.  Then class 1:30-2:20, and then from 3:00 on I read and work on my coursework.  And leave the office at 10 [pm] or so. Also, you work on more than just coursework. Currently I’m also doing all the problems [in a] commutative algebra book, and reading through Algebraic Geometry notes.  No due dates, just curiosity.  No need to cut out early.  That being said, if one day it’s really nice out, I can totally cut out early and take a day off, just because I feel like it. This is the best thing about being a graduate student.  You are NOT a slave to the clock.”

Student 4: “It’s hard to start studying and place yourself in a ‘study mode’ especially when you have many things in mind that have to be done before the end of the day. At first it seems there are always more things to do than what time allows and that you will never finish. To a certain extent that becomes true, you are always going to have something to do and the best way to deal with it is to prioritize; you have to make a list every day of what has to be done that day and what can wait. Grad school is going to test the amount of time you should spend in school rather than at home or with friends. The transition may be hard but it’s no impossible. Another suggestion that helped me is to start hanging out with the older students, notice their way of studying, mimic their methods and attain the same discipline.”

Once you started grad school, did you feel prepared to be in there?

Student 1: “Honestly, at the beginning, not so much. Now, however, I am doing fine in my academics and am talking to a few professors, but I am still a bit worried about my comprehensive exam coming up next year.”

Student 2: “I did feel prepared when I started, but now that we are going more in depth with certain concepts our professors are assuming quite a bit of our previous knowledge. For example, I didn’t have a strong linear algebra course in undergrad…it was primarily computational and not proof-based. Now, my professors assume many things that I should have learned as an undergraduate in linear algebra but was not taught (or perhaps don’t remember? it was my sophomore year). That can be quite frustrating, but I deal with it and make an effort to fill the gaps.”

Student 3: “Yes. Totally. It’s like I’ve been waiting for this all my life. I was prepared academically (though I wish I knew more math, but that’s going to be true for the rest of my life). I was prepared emotionally (my parent’s both have PhD’s so I knew what I had in store for me).”

Student 4: “When I started grad school I felt the complete opposite of prepared in the sense that I felt like I was not ready for the transition and that I did not have the knowledge other students had. The worst thing I did was to compare myself to the rest of the group. I felt like I did not belong and that this discipline was far beyond of what I could one day understand. Regardless, by talking to the other students and to faculty, I found that the path to understanding takes time and dedication.”

Are you enjoying it?

Student 1: “For the most part, yes. Some of the required coursework is not to my interest, but other parts of courses, as well as some of the discussions with my potential mentor are enjoyable. Living in a big city with lots of things to do outside of school helps too! “

Student 2: “I am somewhat enjoying it…I still see the light at the end of the tunnel. Some days I just want to cry from being frustrated and overwhelmed. I debate leaving with a masters so that I can go home to my family (this is also my first time living away from home). It was difficult for me to develop relationships with other students quickly since I was not in the “big office” of the first year graduate students, that office has 10 students and there are 3 students in my office. But luckily my boyfriend from home is with me as a graduate student in physics so having him there helped me to get through that phase. Now I feel as though I am becoming closer to the other students (or at least some of them). But if I wasn’t getting along with the people in my year I don’t think I would have continued in this program, having people you like to talk to is vital!!”

Student 3: “So much enjoyment.  Sure, it sucks sometimes.  [But] even when it sucks, it’s awesome.  I don’t know how to explain it, but I’m quite happy to be honest.”

Student 4: “I enjoy the busyness of grad school and the things I learn every day. I know that I still have a far road ahead of me but I feel that I can endure more stress now than before.”

I thought to end this post with a quote from Student 3: “All in all.  Adjustment is hard.  It’s uncomfortable at first.  But graduate school can be so rewarding.  I’m not saying I’ve made the transition perfectly or completely.  There are so many roadblocks ahead.  But have faith, and don’t forget to have fun.”

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