Monday, 8 September 2014

12 Helpful Tips for New Grad Students

Dear First Year Grad Student,

First of all, CONGRATS and welcome to the next step of your life! I’m writing to help you with the transition from the mostly course-based undergraduate experience to a more independent graduate student experience. I should mention, my experience is with a thesis-based program and a course-based Masters is likely a different path but with similarities and hopefully you course-based students will still find a bit of this useful. 

The inspiration for this letter comes from a lab mate of mine who wanted to take extra courses to satisfy her “intellectual needs." It took all of my strength not to laugh as I managed to convince her to stick to her required courses and focus on getting trained in the lab for the Fall. She could always take extra courses in the Winter, right? Early into the Fall semester she realized that, despite having fewer courses, grad school was just as demanding (if not more) as her undergrad had been; this is normal. Many new grad students have to learn to juggle thesis work with degree requirements like seminars, courses, lab rotations, etc. not to mention teaching, research assistant-ships, and/or part-time jobs. 

Instead of having hard deadlines for assignments and tests there can be a lot more freedom involved. If you don’t have strong time management and self-discipline skills you will get a crash course in both of these during your first semester. Don’t worry if you don’t, you’re pretty much forced to pick them up if you ever want to graduate in a decent amount of time. And it is completely NORMAL to question whether you belong in your program. Ask another grad student whose been around there a while and they’ve probably experienced feelings of inadequacy themselves numerous times. Once you realize you’re not alone you’ll feel better.

Not only is grad school a fairly new experience but many of you are new to Edmonton as well. I can assure you, despite the cold winters and small town feel of the city, once you get used to your new surroundings you’ll see the potential and liveliness Edmonton has to offer. And in no time you’ll settle into and become a part of the diverse and dynamic U of A community. In fact, one of the best pieces of advice I can give you is to get involved on campus. Find a group, committee, or team where you can meet other grad students. I cannot stress enough the importance of having a supportive group of other grad students around. I say grad students specifically because if you have to cancel on beers and pizza for the second time in a row because you ran into problems with an experiment, no one will understand better than someone else who’s had a similar experience. Not to say my non-grad student friends aren’t understanding, it just takes a lot less explanation. It’s not like you will be working a standard 9-5 all the time. Also, getting involved will distract you from the frustrations of school and thesis work. My personal preference is volleyball; it’s great to smash a ball when your latest assay hasn’t worked. Yet again.

Along with a supportive group of friends, humor is important. You have to be able to laugh at spending 15 hours straight in the lab. Like a lot of other students I’m a huge fan of and Despite the incredible amount of work grad school can be it is also an extraordinary experience meant to be enjoyed. Sometimes you need a little humor to get through the not-so-fun parts.

Plus there are many benefits to grad school other than getting the degree. For instance, if you look hard enough you could probably find 1-2 free lunches a week and each one of those lunches will likely come with a pretty interesting seminar too. Sometimes I sit there and I can’t believe I’m getting paid to listen to someone talk about their research… Usually while eating a pretty decent lunch. Another major advantage is the opportunity to travel by going to conferences and usually it’s acceptable to extend your trip by a few days so you can explore a new city. I’ve gotten to travel to quite a few amazing cities in North America –with the costs of my airfare covered. Plus, there are plenty of interesting people you are going to meet both on and off campus who will share the same interests and passions as you. Collaborate with others from the U of A and see how you might be able to work with the connections that you’ll make during your conferences whenever you have the opportunity. It will enrich your education, your resume, and your life.

So to sum it up, some things you’ll want to keep in mind for your first semester (and beyond) will include:

1.    Time management: if you don’t already have a grasp on this, you’re going to by the end of your first semester.

Levels of Procrastination
Image courtesy of

2.    It’s normal to question whether you belong or not to your program.

Stich - Where do I belong?
Image courtesy from Pinterest

3.    Get involved! You’re part of a diverse community, so make new connections and explore your passions.


4.    You’re NOT alone! Share your experience with other grad students.

Community Group Hug
Image courtesy of

5.    Support each other.

Guba and Patches high five

6.    Keep up your hobbies. 
(Again, my preference is volleyball, but you can pick what makes you happiest.)

Volleyball at UAlberta (intramurals)

7.    Don’t forget to laugh.

Evil laugh Tina Fey GIF
Image courtesy of Tumblr.

8.    Search and you will find free food.

Pancake Breakfast at UAlberta

9.    You will get to hear about amazing academics and may be one of the first outside of their lab to hear about cutting edge results!

Discovering the Hell Diamond

10.    Conferences = travel, networking, explorations, and collaboration.

eHub Conference

11.    Collaborate!

Group Work with Guba and Patches

12.    Enjoy!

The Carlton Dance
Image courtesy of

If there is any other advice or info I have missed please add to this in the comments section.

----About the Author


Hi, my name is Shannon and I’m here to provide you with a YouAlberta graduate student perspective. I am currently in the last year of my degree and have (quite) a few years of experience on the U of A campus as both an undergrad and graduate student.

I am excited to show off our student experience both here at the U of A and in the broader Edmonton community. We have a dynamic campus culture full of events, groups, and just day to day awesomeness. My passions include science and getting others involved in science related activities, volleyball, hiking, and camping. I’m also full of tips on how to have fun on a student budget. Over the next year I hope I can show you how to make the most of your U of A experience because there’s so much more to school than classes and expensive textbooks!


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