What You Need to Know about Graduate School – A Letter from Me to You

by Emerita Mendoza Rengifo (ComSciCon-GTA 2020)

Dear Future Graduate Student,

You are traveling on the rollercoaster of life, and part of your journey is completing your graduate degree in a timely manner. I have been on this journey, and I have learned how to reach my fullest potential by applying these simple tips to my daily routine. While everyone's journeys are different, I hope that I can share what has worked for me to make your transitions easier.

Familiarize yourself with the services that your university has to offer. Visit and explore the campus to see what it has to offer. There is a variety of different services that you may need at some point in your journey.

Take advantage of professional development opportunities. This will help you to become competitive in your workplace, cultivate your values, and learn your strengths. Participate in professional events, leadership training, professional certifications, technical skills, team work, interpersonal skills, etc. By doing this, you not only develop new skills but also network with other professionals with similar interests. Most universities offer such activities at no cost to graduate students.

Be aware of academic culture shock and impostor syndrome. Academic culture shock is the impact of a lab system, supervision, teaching and learning style of different programs in new graduate students. There is a natural process that you go through before you get comfortable with your academic community and it requires time to understand and adjust to this academic culture. By maintaining constant communication with supervisors and participating within your scientific community you will learn the language of your own research and become more confident in your new community. On the other hand, be aware that impostor syndrome is real and is very common in graduate school. Feelings of fraud are normal in graduate school because you are constantly surrounded by people, such as your supervisor(s), who have been working for several years in the field and have the knowledge and experience that you do not. Recognize that you being here is an enormous achievement. You have come this far; celebrate it and be kind to yourself. Most importantly, you are here to learn and grow.

Grad school is only a small part of your life. In order for you to reach your fullest potential you have to take care of your mind, emotions, body, and spirit. Your graduate program is not your life, it is only a part of it, and your physical and emotional well-being are fundamental to your academic success. Learn about yourself, know your strengths and use them to your benefit. Understand your comfort zone, but challenge yourself to be more. Check your mental, physical and emotional well-being and realize that it is okay to take a break.

Build positive relationships. Relationships with faculty, co-workers, roommates, neighbors, friends, and others are crucial to surviving your graduate program. If you have a supervisor, prioritize your relationship with them. If possible, read and sign the students-supervisor agreement that is available at your university. If your university does not have one available, download it from another university and bring it to your supervisors’ attention. Also, be conscious that universities are diverse academic institutions with individuals from all around the world, each with a specific background and their own understanding of social norms. It is okay to be different and to seek comfort in people that share similar ideology, and values. From time to time, make an effort to learn from others about who they are, their culture, their values, and their views. Additionally, cultivate relationships by giving back to the community through volunteering and philanthropy. Be humble and be open to a world of opportunities.

What is success to you? Knowing the answer to this question is key to your success. Once you answer this question, ask yourself what resources you need in order to achieve success. Be open to this question, explore your thoughts, be aware of your thinking, reflect, and use a growth mindset to formulate what you need to do to succeed in graduate school.

Plan ahead. Manage your time wisely. Create a timeline for your program to ensure you complete your program requirements. Create Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time–bound (S.M.A.R.T) goals and measure your progress. There is time to take a course, time to do research, time to do experiments, time to read, time to be active, time to love, time to hang out, and time to be alone. Go at your own pace.

Trust yourself. You are responsible for your academic success. Take advantage of every moment, and look at each experience as an opportunity to grow. Remember, you are the one in control. You are where you need to be. Focus on enjoying this stage of your life and make the most out of your journey. Remember, you will never be able to relive the time you spend in graduate school, so make it memorable, exciting, and challenging.

You’re not alone. During your journey, you may feel overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, burned out, or depressed by the many tasks and responsibilities you have. You may find it hard to communicate your needs and this can lead to isolation. The educational system looks for different ways to integrate students into the university community. However, not all students have the same needs and some may feel a lack of sense of community or belonging. Know that this is a temporary feeling, one that others also feel, so you are not alone.

I am just like you. I have been through the ups and downs, and the highs and lows of graduate school. Sometimes, I felt like an imposter, other times I felt alone. I lost faith in my abilities, and overlooked my mental health. But despite all of this, I never gave up.

You should be proud of what you have achieved so far, and with a whole lot of determination and effort, you can look forward to what you can achieve. Be strong, be persistent, and be determined.

 

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

– C.S. Lewis

 

Sincerely yours,

A Current Graduate Student

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Emerita Mendoza Rengifo standing in front of a tall bookcase wall, wearing a red shirt and drak brown hair down.I am Emerita Mendoza Rengifo, I am a fourth year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan. I served the student community in the role of elected president of the Graduate Students’ Association from May 2019-April 2020 and I am a tireless advocate for women in STEM fields.