Advice from a First-Year Graduate Student

By Annette Cooper

Recently, I had the opportunity to help students in an English 101 class who were struggling with constructing an argument. The class was hit with a wave of shock after realizing their ideas mattered in this assignment. These students had felt limited by the writing assignments they received in high school, but now they recognized their authority to take a position on a topic and support it with proper evidence and reasoning. They were now the experts. It hit me then: this is exactly what being a new graduate student has felt like.

In graduate school, there’s no longer the top-down hierarchy that separates professor from student. The professors now see me as a colleague and someone to work alongside. I have expertise they find valuable, but at times, I’m still unsure where this expertise has come from. While not much has changed since graduating in May, I’m now expected to know concepts and apply them off the top of my head. Like the freshman in this English 101 class, I haven’t been sure of what to make of my expertise as a first-year graduate student.

The English 101 freshmen needed to fine-tune the skills they learned in high school, and similarly, I’ve needed to fine-tune the skills I developed in my undergraduate career. I remember looking at my course syllabus on the first day of graduate school, and after a slight panic attack, I was able to make sense of the words on the page. In fact, many of the concepts outlined in the syllabus were based on what I learned in my undergraduate program. I knew this stuff—now, in graduate school, it was a matter of further applying my knowledge.

Thankfully, I’m in a cohort program and have begun to make some new friends. It didn’t take long for us all to realize we share the same feelings and struggles of adjusting to graduate school. Yes, we’re now graduate students; however, the expertise we’ve struggled to find is a continual process, and it doesn’t magically appear when you’re handed your Bachelor’s degree.

To future graduate students, hang in there and remember what the first day of your freshman undergraduate year was like. Look at how far you’ve come—look at how far you can go.

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