I just finished my first semester as a master’s student in natural resources! While it was overwhelming, the support I received from professors, mentors, and other students amazed me. Beginning a masters program in the middle of a pandemic is definitely an experience I would not want to repeat again. However, my experience is your foresight! Here are three big tips I have for first graduate students.
Regardless of what field you are in, prepare for a lot of reading and writing. I expected to write maybe three papers maximum for classes and wouldn’t worry about my thesis until later. This semester, I took nine hours of coursework and wrote seven papers that amounted to around 22,000 words and 64 pages of single-spaced writing. I also read 85 peer-reviewed research papers for classes and assembling my first section of my thesis. Yes, I began writing my thesis my first semester of graduate school! Luckily, my graduate adviser prepared everything for me when I began, so I began my project this early, which is something most students aren’t prepared to do. If you are going to start graduate school or are thinking about it, awareness of the amount of discipline-specific reading and writing is important. For help with reading scientific papers, see my tips in this blog!
Another big lesson I learned this semester is there will always be a fee to pay. I hopped onto this opportunity since my graduate adviser received a large grant to cover all my tuition costs. However, I missed the graduate student fee required for university upkeep every semester. And while this is understandable, I was not prepared for it to average out around $650 every semester. Even if your tuition is covered, housing is covered, or research is covered, be on the lookout for these vague “student fees”. This is another reason to constantly search for grants or scholarships, regardless of your financial situation.
Something my adviser warned me about at the beginning of this program is that graduate school is lonely. As an introvert, I usually go to one or two social functions and then pick my group of friends. The pandemic this year made this even harder. Luckily, my adviser recruited two other master’s students who became quick friends. There are fewer social organizations for graduate students, so if you’re going to be in a similar situation soon, I would recommend looking some of these up before starting and maybe even reaching out whenever you begin. Recruitment was hard given the CDC guidelines and reaching out individually to a group might actually be the best way to find a niche. Many first meetings and introductions were via email or over a screen.
I think it was very important for me to go into this situation, living in a new town with no friends or family or even an avenue to really make genuine connections, with a strong support system already in place. And regardless of pandemic or not, I would say the same for anyone beginning graduate school. I think graduate school is an amazing opportunity to find people who are specifically into what you are. It’s why you are in the same program! The easiest way to reach out to someone is to ask about their research. Remaining stuck by yourself can be easy, but finding friends is also easy. Whatever your situation, always feel free to send me an email at email@example.com or find me on twitter!