Tips for New Grad Students

Photo Credit: Stephanie Blanda

Photo Credit: Stephanie Blanda

It’s that time of year again – the summer is coming to an end, classes are getting started, and new grad students are arriving on campus.  Graduate school can be an intimidating and challenging experience, especially in the first year.  I asked some of my fellow grad students at Penn State what advice they would give to new grad students or what they wish they had known when they started grad school.  Here is a list of advice that we came up with.


General grad school advice:

  • Work hard to study for qualifying exams sooner rather than later – the earlier they are completed the more options and fewer headaches you will have. – Jake P.
  • Pursue a hobby outside of math. – David Z.
  • There are free legal pads in the office. This is especially good if your office doesn’t have a chalk board. And the grad lounge can be a noisy place to try and work (although lots of fun!). – Jacob T.

Academics advice:

  • Get comfortable with failure. Unfortunately, mathematics is a very unforgiving subject. You can spend days, months, or even years on a problem, only to find out that it’s not possible or that your method was invalid or that you made some false assumptions or a whole host of other things that can go wrong. This happens to everyone, and it sucks, but you can’t let it get in your way of success! – David Z.
  • Don’t be afraid to change your advisor.  You need to find someone who you feel comfortable working with and it’s okay if you don’t get it right on the first try.  It’s important to find someone who is doing research that you find interesting, but it’s equally important to find someone with whom you can have a healthy, productive, professional working relationship. – Stephanie B.

Personal advice:

  • Pay attention to your mental health. Anxiety and depression are very common experiences for graduate students. It makes a lot of sense that most of us should experience this: the work is challenging, we often feel inadequate, and our goals can seem lofty (especially when we consider the competition). My advice is to develop the habits that combat these common issues. Get enough sleep, exercise, eat healthy, stay in contact with family and life-long friends, and take a moment every day to think about what you are grateful for. Most importantly, don’t hesitate to talk things out with a counselor or therapist. Every university has a counseling center exactly for this reason. – Sara J.
  • When it comes to academics, focus on you. Don’t dwell on what you know versus what other graduate students know or how far behind or ahead you are of other people. You were admitted into your program for a reason, in spite of any shortcomings you may have. Focus on building on what you know and filling in the gaps in your knowledge. – David Z.
  • I think that it is important to know that “impostor syndrome” is highly reported among graduate students. That is, many people experience periods where they believe they do not belong in grad school because they are not truly qualified.  It is important to realize that many people feel this way and that overcoming self-confidence issues is part of the process of maturing as a scientist/mathematician! – Matt M.

Good luck to everyone entering or returning to grad school this fall!

About Stephanie Blanda

Stephanie is a math Ph.D. student, with a minor in Computational Science, at Penn State University. She obtained a B.S. from Lebanon Valley College, where she double majored in Mathematics and Computer Science. Currently, Stephanie is studying the interface of two viscous fluids under a shear flow, specifically with applications to wind generated ocean waves.
This entry was posted in Advice, Math. Bookmark the permalink.