- GRAD SCHOOL CAN BE REALLY LONELY
From grade Primary, to Grad School, educational institutions will always feel like a wild jungle. From predators, prey, learning, growing, failing, and trying to keep up with a constant changing environment, the majority of our understandings of how to navigate our social worlds developed within a classroom. And if you are anything like me, you may have felt like you were *constantly* surrounded by other students, and actually trying to avoid group work in later years or realizing that you’ve known some of your classmates longer than your own siblings. For many of us, graduating high school and going off to university seemed like not only a rite of passage to adulthood, but also an open door to get as far away from any annoying people in your life (let’s be honest).
And then… you enter University. You are an adult. You are invincible. You are free. You are failing classes for the first time. But at least you have 30 awesome new friends who are also failing classes (“Mom, literally everyone else is struggling with the class too!”). Your first couple years are often the most experimental, as you are now on your own navigating your new-found adulthood. Realistically, besides the profound learning experience you (hopefully) have in your undergrad, everything else is quite literally a messy, fun, adventurous, and difficult to remember, social experiment, at best (and sometimes so is the profound learning experiences). But, one thing is for sure, in your undergrad you are constantly getting human interaction; whether you want it or not.
Grad school is definitely in a very different ball park when it comes to your social life- and rightfully so. The expectations are higher, the work is harder, and you’re overall held at a much higher academic standard. These were all things I knew when starting my journey through graduate studies. But at a point in my life where literally *everything* was changing, I was not emotionally prepared for how lonely grad school could be.
Unlike many undergraduate university courses, your master’s classes are small. Very small. In fact, some of my graduate classes only had one other student in them. While you do often get close to your cohorts, it is important to keep in mind that you are ALL doing totally different work. It’s not as easy to get your peer’s opinions on a difficult assignment, or an academic challenge you are facing, when each student is working on different topics/areas of research. Additionally, many grad programs that are thesis/research based are set up in a way that allows you to have a year of class work, with a following year of independent writing and research. During this independent year, you are now not only gaining social interaction from classes, but you’re having to *make* the time to be social- which, as I’ll cover later, is not easy.
- YOU MAY FEEL NO CONNECTION TO YOUR NEW UNIVERSITY (And that’s okay)
For most, there will always be a special place in your heart for your alma mater. For me, my alma mater, Mount Allison University, was home. Literally, and figuratively. My mother was an employee at the university, and so from the time I was 8 and onward Mount Allison was part of my everyday life, and community. So, as you can imagine, graduating from Mount Allison University and moving to a larger city in a different province for my graduate studies was an intimidating process. I had had such a profound connection with Mount Allison, the students, and my professors, that right away it felt ‘wrong’ being a part of a different University.
In grad school, you hold a different place in the student body. For example, in your undergrad you often get bombarded with emails of university events and services. You participate in student elections, extra-curricular programs and sports, and have a say in all of the events that are coordinated at your school. When you are a master’s student, you become uninvolved in the ‘undergraduate’ aspects of university; such as events, extra-curriculars, and even sports (as most university athletics have age restrictions). You get substantially less emails from administration (which is nice- you feel me?), but that also means that you have essentially NO idea what is going on within your university community.
Because I had such a connection with my undergraduate university, I was very frustrated that I wasn’t able to feel like I was a ‘part’ of the student body at my new University; especially since I had moved to an entirely new city. It took me a long time to realize that not feeling that connection was okay. While I miss my old professors, classes, friends, and campus, Mount Allison was not able to provide me with a master’s Degree- but it provided me with everything else. Now it’s time to get the master’s degree, and find security in the friends and family I’m surrounded by, and make my own ‘home’ here in Halifax.
3. TIME MANAGEMENT IS HARD (LIKE REALLY HARD)
Grad School. Classes. Thesis. Research Assistant. Teachers Assistant. Part-time job. Food. Sleep. To put it simply: “enough said”.
Time management is something that will always being a learning process for some, but creating a sustainable schedule is one of the most important things you can do to make your grad school experience a little easier.
4.THE IMPOSTER SYNDROME IS REAL
Many high achievers share a similar secret: deep down, we feel like complete frauds, with our accomplishments simply being the result of some damn good luck. This phenomenon becomes hyper performed in Grad School, as you already are entering with higher expectations than usual placed upon you. This psychological phenomenon known as “imposter syndrome” reflects a belief that you are an inadequate and incompetent failure, despite evidence that indicates that you are skilled and actually quite successful.
Imposter syndrome is incredibly harmful, difficult to control, and can take various forms depending on a person’s background, personality, and circumstances.
Valerie Young (2018), an expert on the subject, has categorized Imposter Syndrome into 5 subgroups:
- The Perfectionist: Perfectionism and imposter syndrome often go hand-in-hand as perfectionists set excessively high goals for themselves, and experience major self-doubt and worry when they fail to reach their goal.
- The Superwoman/Man/Person: Often, the people who experience this phenomenon are convinced they are phonies among “real-deal” colleagues and peers. They often push themselves to work harder and harder to measure up, which works as a FALSE cover-up for their insecurities, and end up overloading on work. Like perfectionism, this can severely harm not only your mental health, but also your relationships with others.
- The Natural Genius: Individuals who struggle with this often judge their success based on their abilities, as opposed to their efforts. In other words, if they have to work hard at something, they assume they must be bad at it. Their internal bar is set impossibly high, like perfectionists.
- The Rugged Individualist: Suffers who feel as though asking for help reveals their phoniness are what Young calls “rugged individualists”. Obviously, it is okay to be independent, but not to the extent that you refuse assistance so that you can “prove” your worth.
- The Expert: People who fall into this competence type may feel like they somehow ‘tricked’ their employer into hiring them, or ‘tricked’ a university into accepting them. No matter how much of an ‘expert’ you’ve become in your respected field, you are CONSTANTLY seeking ways to improve your skills to prove your worth.
I encourage you to self-reflect on this list and acknowledge the ways in which you may be causing serious mental harm to yourself, so that you can develop healthier coping mechanisms to your everyday stresses and expectations.
Disclaimer: I am most definitely “The Superwoman” & “The Expert”. I would love to hear from any others who may also suffer from imposter syndrome, and where you think you fall based on Young’s list.
5. CLASSES ARE RARELY INTERESTING
When I applied to graduate studies, I was childishly excited for all the ‘amazing’ university classes I would be able to take. I was excited to be challenged, and to explore new concepts and theoretical frameworks.
Unfortunately, the way the majority of my program was set up, did not provide me with the exciting and challenging learning that I thought I would receive. The majority of classes were research methods classes, and theory classes; and while those are definitely important AND interesting- much of the information was repetitive from my undergrad material. The other classes we’re often mandatory thesis writing courses to guide us through our Grad School journey. Do not get me wrong: my professors and peers were kind, and absolutely brilliant, but we were unable to explore all of the criminological avenues we wanted to explore given the time restraints and nature of the program.
6. GRAD SCHOOL = BETTER IF SINGLE
I wish I could tell you that dating gets easier in grad school, than it is in your undergrad- but that has not been my experience.
While I’m sure the ‘partner pool’ involves a higher level of maturity and commitment than we’ve experienced in college; it only works if you have time to do it! Between trying to balance school, jobs, family & friends, and having a social life, finding the time to date can be incredibly difficult. Not only can it be difficult to meet people depending on how your program is structured, it also is difficult to rationalize going on a date with someone you hardly know on your one night off. If only love was easy; am I right?
Word of advice: If you are in grad school while in a committed relationship, make sure your partner respects your education as much as you do!
7. YOU’LL LEARN MORE ABOUT YOURSELF THAN YOU THOUGHT POSSIBLE
As discussed within the other 6 points, graduate school really is a life-altering experience. It is a journey that will change the way you see the world, and the way you see yourself. It should open your mind, and your heart, and help you in using your knowledge for the greater good.
While Grad School does have its cons, it has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not only have I grown a stronger writer and academic, but I’ve grown to become a stronger person emotionally as well. I have been able to gain so much knowledge from my experiences, grow as an expert in my own field, while learning how to be independent (but hey- we all still need a little help). While I wish I could have been nicer to myself throughout the first few years- I will always encourage lovers of learning to do grad school if that’s where their hearts and minds pull them.