What were the greatest challenges in shifting from undergrad to grad school?

Shifting from undergraduate classes to graduate classes represents a myriad of challenges, many of them unexpected. Although the classes may seem less demanding at first, as many programs only require three to four classes a semester, within the first weeks it is apparent that expectations have grown insurmountably. For us, the three most difficult challenges we faced were:

1. Greater workloads in terms of reading and writing

2. Learning how to both succeed and fail in a new environment

3. Navigating and cultivating new relationships with professors, colleagues, and students 

In this blog post, we will all explain which of these experiences we found the most challenging, and how we overcame them, so that perhaps you (our reader) can learn from our experiences and feel a little less alone in this process.

End of the semester collection of books used for writing papers.
  1. Greater Work Load

Frank Amico:

Coming from an undergraduate major that was not history (economics), the greatest challenge in shifting to graduate school was training myself to read quickly and efficiently to keep up with the high volume of weekly readings. The number of readings assigned every week for three seminars seemed quite daunting at first, especially when many of the ideas and concepts were new and unfamiliar. With trying to keep up with a heavy stream of primary and secondary sources, as well as trying to grasp different historiographical developments, another new concept, and seminal theoretical frameworks, the first semester was tough. Through practice, however, in different reading techniques and the increased understanding that comes with continued exposure to topics, reading became much more manageable. This was an important skill to hone early because the reading never slows down.

Dragana Zivkovic:

One of the greatest challenges that I personally faced when in grad school was learning how to manage my time when it came to readings. I am not a very fast reader, so I often found myself falling behind on each week’s readings and as a result, I didn’t participate in class discussions as often as I wanted to. I struggled with this a lot in my first semester because there were a lot more readings for each class per week than I had ever had as an undergrad. In my Analysis of Historical Knowledge class alone, we had roughly 6 articles around 60 pages each. Before grad school I had weekly readings, but they were spread out over the course of each meeting and the pages assigned were significantly less. Although I struggled a lot with this and I sometimes slipped up in my later semesters as well, I learned how to manage my time. I gave myself a schedule and days for what class I was reading for and how much time it would take me to read. For articles or books that were more theory heavy I would give myself extra time to get through them and understand them. Sometimes I would even start reading next week’s assignments directly after the class meeting. Although I’m better at it now, it’s still a challenge I will continue to face.

The ultimate success!

2. Success and Failure

Chelsi Arellano:

I would describe shifting from undergrad to grad school as an almost comical, old cartoon, whack to the face. In undergrad, I made good grades, with a few Cs dusted in for flavor, made the dean’s list once, and had professors that thought I did good work. Going to grad school is falling from the top of the pack to somewhere around the middle, suddenly surrounded by people as smart as you are and oftentimes sounding much more put together. That fall from your own hubris is hard, and some people from my cohort couldn’t take it. Others found the jump easy. For me, it took a lot of crying, meltdowns, and a bit of therapy.        

The transition was hard, not only because of the sudden expectation that you have a project that you’re working on and that you’re as smart as Steven (not my co-blogger Stephen), who runs a blog and a podcast and has already presented at a conference and is learning Icelandic, but also because the professors’ expectations suddenly jump as well. The first paper I wrote, I expected to be graded on the same scale as any other paper I had submitted in undergrad. Instead, it was handed back to me and I was told to rewrite it and try again. It wasn’t the first failure of a paper I turned in, and I doubt it will be the last by far. For me, the transition was learning how to fail, how to take a professor’s criticism and rewrite that paper. Maybe I still shed a few tears over some things, but the best thing to remember is in grad school, the professors don’t want you to fail.

Kiri Raber:

Imposter syndrome hit me hard when I switched to graduate school, and it is still something that I grapple with today. I felt as though I had skated by throughout my undergrad, and somehow tricked the Graduate committee into accepting me. When I began to receive harsh feedback on my papers, it felt as if my fear was confirmed. As my friends were dealing with transitions of their own, and seemingly handling it all flawlessly, I began to doubt myself and my ability to ever truly become a scholar. 

What I didn’t realize then, and am only just beginning to realize now, is that everyone is going through almost the same feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty. Talking to my friends and my professors helped me to understand that the program accepted me for a reason. They chose me because they saw potential in me, and because they did think that I was good enough. This also meant that I still had a lot of improvements to make, but criticism does not mean that you aren’t supposed to be there. Indeed, it means the opposite. It means there is room to grow, and that your professor has faith that you can grow. 

First year of our Secret Santa gift exchange featuring our grad friends.

3. Navigating New Relationships

Clayton Richards:

One of the biggest adjustments I had to make when entering grad school was learning how to navigate the new relationships I was forming with professors, colleagues, and students in the program. Professors in grad school, at least in my experience, were much more open and direct when discussing your work, telling what was bad vs. what worked. They saw you more as a young professional and would be honest with you, which at times could be both encouraging and discouraging. Working with the other people in the program was probably one of the easier adjustments to make in grad school. I learned that we were all working towards the same goal, and everyone became both a valuable source information for projects and great moral support to bounce ideas and concerns off of. The most daunting new relationship was between my new students in classes I was a TA for. Being often only a few years older than these students, or younger in some cases, it was difficult to find out exactly what my responsibilities were and how I should act. I wanted to make sure I was doing my job properly without coming off as too snobbish or too laxed. Luckily, I worked with great professors who gave me enough structure and freedom, which allowed me to find my way as a TA. Learning to trust and rely on the people around me helped me grow and learn as a student and scholar. 

Stephen DeCasien:

Graduate school was a completely new environment. My undergraduate college was located near my home in New Jersey and I had many close friends and family members in the area. The professors that I took at Stockton University were also locals. When I went to graduate school in Florida, I felt out of place and lost without those same familial ties. I made it my goal to reach out to my colleagues and professors to establish bonds and develop some sort of comradery. Building relationships at the beginning of graduate school was my key to success as the people who became my friends supported me, especially with my coursework and destressing. It was easier to make friends with fellow grad students who were in a similar situation. Making connections with professors is also beneficial. The professors were my academic backbone supporting me in all professional endeavors. Another aspect of graduate school is interacting with undergraduate students and research assistants as either a Teaching Assistant or Graduate Assistant Researcher. My relationship with these different types of students was more of a scholastic relationship. I felt successful when the undergrads I helped teach were enthusiastic and engaged with the class material. I was happy being able to collaborate with other research assistants who shared as much passion as I about our field.  

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