What Grad School is Really Like; From the Source
Many prospective graduate students—especially those who go directly from undergraduate to graduate school—have some misconceptions about the “college lifestyle.” While there are many similarities between undergraduate and graduate study, some aspects of university life based on the undergraduate experience are totally different. These can be roughly divided in the following categories:
Greater autonomy and less structure
Naturally, administrative and academic advisers still play a part in overseeing degree programs and their requirements, but it’s unreasonable to expect your adviser (or worse still your program’s director) to hold your hand throughout. There’s a general understanding that grad students will be mature self—sufficient individuals who can navigate their way through the program, from administrative tasks to academic pursuits. Depending on the program, this may mean making a lot more decisions about course choices and structuring your studies than you ever did at an undergraduate level.
It’s not that advisers won’t assist you when you need them to—they certainly will (and many campus services, from financial aid to crisis counselling, are freely available to grad students). But as a grad student you will be given more autonomy and less guidance. You will be expected to be primarily responsible for ensuring that you finish assignments and meet deadlines, plan your thesis/dissertation or final project, and maintain enrollment status, while also handling all non-school related issues, such as relocation adjustments. In fact, many grad students perceive their graduate studies as a full-time job. These are certainly quite serious lifestyle changes that might require all your attention and careful planning at first, but once you settle into your new role it all starts to come more naturally.
As a grad student, your time on campus will be very different than before.
While grad students use some of the same facilities they did as undergraduates, their campus experience differs a lot. It largely depends on the school and the surrounding community, but generally, grad students are less likely to live on campus (in student housing) than undergrads. Instead, grad students tend to live in private off-campus residences, commuting to school for classes, administrative tasks, and one-on-one meetings with professors. Given the topical focus of most grad programs, even when grad students are on campus they tend to function in their specific department, bypassing the wider campus ambiance and activities. This effectively means your interaction with the college campus and the rest of the students will be different: with less time to explore student life than you might have had as an undergrad.
This pattern remains even when school isn’t in session. Despite their similar academic calendar graduate and undergraduate programs rarely see students socializing freely. Many grad students spend their summers taking additional classes or working (internship, relevant job related to studies, research trips), while winter holidays and spring breaks are more about writing papers and catching up on readings than travelling and living it up.
One major exception in this discussion of campus life is the library: In spite of the booming digital information, as a grad student you will become intimately familiar with the interior of the university library. Expect to spend a lot of time there, flipping through dusty encyclopedias in quiet corners where you can concentrate and avoid the distractions.
It speaks volumes that when asked grad students often describe their studies as a full-time job. However, for a variety of reasons, many students have no choice but to take up working during school. While graduate education is far more difficult and intense than undergraduate, it is not impossible to combine with a regular job. Working a few hours per week to earn some extra income, shouldn’t affect your studies or your lifestyle much —many students do this.
It might be a good idea to consider working as a professional while studying (especially if you attempt to do one or both full-time) as this will help you gain additional experience in the field of study you’re pursuing. This will require some flexibility on both fronts. Make sure your grad program and your employer are able to accommodate your needs as a student-professional or you might face considerably more tension on both fronts. Part-time work or study is the ideal combination to help you deal with the pressure.