Five Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting Grad School

The summer before I started graduate school, I was nervous. I was leaving a well-paid, almost-always 9-5 job for…something I was pretty sure was not that. I had questions, like: is grad school really as hard as they say? How many hours will I have to work? Do I stand any chance of getting an academic job?

During the visiting weekend, I asked these questions, but I wasn’t sure if the current graduate students were being honest or trying to sell me something (or, in some cases, overreacting). As it turns out, they were all being honest.

At the time, though, I didn’t know that. I tried to find answers in other less seemingly self-interested sources, but I couldn’t find much. There were a few decent books written by successful academics, but what I really wanted was a blog or podcast created by graduate students who were sharing their lived experiences. As C.S. Lewis wrote:

“The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago he has forgotten” (via Austin Kleon, Show Your Work)

Ultimately, I found the PhD in Progress podcast, but it was just 22 episodes and seems to have ended in 2015.

That I couldn’t find much for grad students by grad students now makes sense. Graduate school really is that hard. Grad students don’t have a lot of extra time to write blog posts or make podcasts—and if they did, that time would probably be better spent writing a journal article.1 Despite all that, I am entering the second half of my program, and the demands on my time are different than they were a year or two ago. I also have enough experience in graduate school to answer the questions I had three years ago.2 They’re probably similar to the questions you have now if you’re reading this post.

Is graduate school like college?

No. Graduate school is not college 2.0. Yes, you will take classes. You will write papers and sit for exams. You will learn lots of new things. But graduate school is not the time to explore your interests or find yourself academically. You already did that in college 1.0.

Your substantive courses are designed to quickly bring you up to speed on classic and current work in your discipline. Your methods courses are designed to give you the tools to work on the frontier of your discipline. After you complete these courses (really, before then), your job is to produce original research in your field.

Why do people go to graduate school?

To become tenured professors. Or, put another way:

“A PhD is not a way to postpone a career decision; it is a career decision…” (Kevin Haggerty and Aaron Doyle, 57 Ways to Screw Up in Grad School)

Every faculty member you interact with was once a graduate student is now a tenured professor (or on their way to becoming one). That is what they know, and that is what they are trying to teach you to do. Your courses, professionalization seminars, and milestones are all designed to help you achieve that goal—whether that is your goal or not. That is not to say you have to walk that path, but it is the path your advisors have walked and the one almost all of your classmates are hoping to walk.

What is an average day like?

In your first few years, an average day will include attending classes and doing assignments for those classes (i.e., readings, problem sets, writing papers, etc.), serving as a teaching assistant, and working with faculty members on original research. In your last few years, you will be writing, writing, and writing. Writing your dissertation. Writing academic articles by yourself. Writing with other graduate students or faculty.

How many hours will I have to work each week?

It depends. Those students at visiting weekend weren’t lying—graduate school is hard and requires a lot of work. There is so much reading, and writing, and problem set-ing. How many hours it takes you to accomplish your objectives depends in part on innate ability (e.g., ability to read quickly, understand technical methods, etc) and in part on learned ability (e.g., ability to be proactive, to stick to a schedule, etc.).

I can say that personally, I probably work 50 hours a week on average. But I have never once gone to bed later than 10 PM because I had so much work to do.

Will I be a failure and a laughingstock if I don’t get an academic job?

In many (if not all) disciplines, it is getting harder every year to secure a tenure track position. Yet due to the collective goals of the aforementioned people you meet in graduate school, the pressure to secure one of these increasingly scare jobs has not significantly abated. I will give credit to my own program, which has made an effort to promote alternative careers and connect students with the resources to help them pursue those alternatives. However, there is a feeling among many that there is just one acceptable outcome.

Nonetheless, if you graduate but do not land a tenure track job (whether because the market did not work out of you decided to pursue other opportunities), you are not failure. Simply graduating from a doctoral program is an accomplishment in an of itself—one that cannot be taken away. And that is worth celebrating. There are a lot of jobs out there for those with critical thinking skills, the ability to read and assimilate new information, and quantitative and programing skills taught in many social science programs. All is not lost. In fact, very little is lost at all and much is gained.

If you’re considering applying to a graduate program, hoping for a response on an application, or anxiously awaiting your program start date, I wish you the best of luck.

  1. Present company included. Alas… 

  2. Caveats beware: I am a third-year PhD candidate in a Top 15 Political Science program at a research institution. As such, my advice is probably most applicable to those considering a graduate program in social sciences or the humanities and hoping to get a job at a research university. Of course, I only have my experience to rely on, so your mileage may vary.