Grad school: Thoughts, feelings, perceptions, advice from my first six months

I would say over-all grad school is as I expected, however I also spent 4 years asking loads of people about their own experiences and what to expect. I am writing this from Iqaluit, and am technically now into month 7 of my MSc so I feel as though I can accurately recount the last 6, and also set aside some important tips.

Tips for going into grad school:

  1. Know why you are there! Have a reason for being there other than the excuse of “there are no jobs” or “I didn’t know what else to do”. Because when things get tough that won’t be enough to keep you motivated, or sometimes even to keep you there. Why not create an enjoyable and fruitful experience rather than one of pain and misery? You will get A LOT more out of it!
  2. Have a clear focus and intention for your project. Yes things will change. Yes things will go wrong. But if you at least have clear intentions for what you would like to get out of it in a project sense, that can always drive you no matter the twists and turns the thesis takes.
  3. Find a good supervisor! This is so key! It also plays into knowing what you want and therefore what you are looking for in a supervisor. For me I wanted to develop good scientific writing skills and strengthen myself as a structural geologist. It is also important how your personalities mesh, since you are constantly working with this person. Support and mentorship are extremely important to have during your graduate career, as it can help propel you to where you want to get. Which segways into my next point…
  4. Know what you want to do with the benefits or skills you obtain from your graduate work. Yeah sure those letters beside your name are great and all, but how do they actually translate into your experience? How can you use those letters to benefit you in your career, or in your life?
  5. WORK LIFE BALANCE. I cannot stress this enough! To this day I still have no idea how I made it through my undergraduate degree, I could certainly never do that again! It is crucial for me to have a proper balance in my day to day life. Everyday I make sure I carve out time to do some yoga, or spin, or climb. Some days if I’ve got personal stuff going on, I take time off, that I plan to make up later. It is important to always listen to your body and your mind, because if you are just working all the time day in day out you will burn out and be miserable! A happy grad student is a productive grad student. Though I work 7 days a week, I also take a week or sometimes more off at a time, which is generally more like the contract-life schedule I am used to. Do what works for you, but make sure to set aside that time for yourself and to socialize with others too. Ultimately you have to be able to function again when you enter the workforce, employers like well-rounded people!
  6. Know yourself. Research-based graduate work has little to no structure. This you have to create yourself. No one is going to be keeping tabs on you, and so you have to take initiative to know what you need to get done, in what time frame. That goes for degree requirements, deadlines, as well as your research. Plan conferences to attend and set goals for yourself along the way so that you can get the most out of being there. If you are someone who needs structure, maybe you need to look into a supervisor that is more hands-on and asks things of you, or you suggest you need to provide weekly, biweekly or monthly updates to them or to your committee. These are ways to keep you in a more structured environment, if thats what you need.

In my first six months I have managed to cram a lot in, so don’t necessarily expect to do all that I have, or others that have done more than me, but do what is right for you on your own timeframe. I’d just like to highlight some things I have done and important points along the way that I now have as sticky notes strewn around my desk.

Important points for geological academic paper writing:

  1. Do not pluralize rock units or minerals.
  2. References are to be in chronological rather than alphabetical order when dealing with multiple from the same author.
  3. Use rock units as adjectives not nouns ex: metasediments –> metasedimentary rocks
  4. Always use the present tense!

I would also encourage anyone who is entering or even in grad school to take advantage of all the opportunities!! Go to conferences, give talks, do posters, facilitate discussions about your research. You may find so much valuable insight, constructive criticism, and ideas from others.

My biggest tips thus far once you are IN grad school are:

  1. Be on top of your shit. I know this sometimes seems overwhelming and incredibly difficult, but it’ll help future you a TON. This means taking the initiative to know what your degree requirements are and completing the easy stuff as quickly as you can, whether that be courses or hours you need for certain schools.
  2. Write!!! Staying accountable right from the get-go with the writing portion of the thesis is critical. Advice I got from an academic was a to write a little bit every day. Now realistically I don’t do that, but I have set aside most of my time in May to get caught up on some of the writing.
  3. Apply for every single grant and scholarship you can. Because when your proposal is all of a sudden due and you didn’t even know it, it helps when you’ve had to write over and over and over again about what the heck you’re studying in a short, concise version…because copy and paste is a beautiful function. The more you do it the more time it saves in the future. It also ends up being great for creating most of your background and introductory areas of the thesis.
  4. Know when to take some time away from the thesis, and try not to worry or think about it. Now I am currently about to go tree planting for a month, and I’ll be working on that darn thing pretty much everyday. However, for the last 12 days, other than a scholarship application I have done ZERO work on it. Why? Mostly because I was taking a 10day intensive first aid course that required all of my attention and brain power. Also because with that coming up I put in longer days to be done everything I wanted to be done before the course started so I could take some time away and focus. Yes we are good at multi tasking in grad school, but sometimes enough is enough. It is better to prioritize and then be really productive, than to sit at your desk all day 5 days a week and “pretend” you are working. Mental health days are pretty important too. Maybe something in life has got most of your attention. Let that happen. Its important to remember your thesis it not the sole thing going on in your life.

Alright. Well that’s all for now! Gearing up to go restock the bank account temporarily and get ready for another conference.


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