12 Things You Should Know About the Transition from Undergrad to Grad School
As a native Edmontonian fresh from convocation and starting my master’s degree in the same department as my undergrad (East Asian Studies), I thought the transition to grad student would go off without a hitch.
Narrator voice: It did not go off without a hitch.
Whether you’re a fresh grad student or you’re planning on applying to grad school in the new future, learn from my oversight and check out all the things you should know (that I wish I had known) about transitioning to graduate school at the University of Alberta.
1. If you are a thesis-based student, you must pay tuition in the Spring and Summer!
This is the very first thing I wish someone had told me before I made the choices I made with my money last year. So please budget accordingly!
2. What does it mean to be under the FGSR?
Welcome to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research! It’s a little different over here compared to the other faculties.
You may have noticed that the department or non-departmental faculty you applied to nominated you as a candidate and that FGSR offered you formal admission. That’s kind of how it works, FGSR is your home while you hang out in another Faculty’s building.
FGSR supports every aspect of your UAlberta graduate student experience and offers essential support services throughout your grad career including admissions, funding, scholarships, teaching preparation, professional development, academic record keeping, thesis support, and convocation.
It’s also important to know that if you want to audit a course, a Course Audit form must be signed by both the instructor of the course and either the Chair or Graduate Coordinator of your home department, and then be submitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR) for approval and processing.
3. If you end up struggling with impostor syndrome, know that you are not alone.
Aside from important admin aspects, I also wish that I had known how many people struggle with impostor syndrome in grad school — including the instructors around them. Heck, a lot of the instructors are also grad students!
It can be intimidating because you are now rubbing elbows with very capable, intelligent, and motivated students who are willing to do what it takes to succeed. But don’t forget that you were also accepted into grad school as well! The admission committee saw something good inside of you that signaled to them you have the potential to succeed.
Learn from those around you, but do not allow yourself to feel inferior, or feel that you do not also have something to contribute. Stay true to your goals and follow what is important to you and you’ll be successful in grad school by any measure.
4. Treat Graduate School Like a 9 to 5 Job.
In my undergraduate degree, I could afford to give less energy to my schoolwork in favour of work, travel, and volunteering, but found that when I tried to do the same in graduate school I burnt out really fast. I decided to re-prioritize and allot eight hours a day, five days a week to graduate school: readings, preparing notes for class, paper outlines, and more.
Grad school is not a test of how smart you are, nor a test of how well you and read or write. Your professors, especially if you have the same ones from undergrad, know these things about you. It’s about showing your commitment to your research and your potential to become an expert in that field. Maybe it looks like stepping back from a part-time position and re-budgeting. Maybe it looks like dropping a fun class you wanted to audit. Whatever it is, do what it takes to make grad school your main priority while still keeping the other things that make you happy in the picture.
One last aspect of treating grad school like a job is to remember to be professional when you are reporting something you believe is wrong or unfair — like disputing a final grade or unjust treatment from an instructor. Refer to the FGSR or GSA policies that govern you as a student and share your experiences with individuals you trust. Most importantly, when raising concerns or while engaging in discussion with peers and instructors — it is key to provide critique rather than criticism. Remember that criticism finds fault and is vague; while critique is concrete, specific, and addresses situations with logic and proof.
5. Editors and the Revision Process
If you have lab reports, term papers, or a final thesis project to submit, give some serious thought to your revision process. I know that when I was an undergrad, I often rushed to finish assignments and only worked on editing the grammar and punctuation without giving myself time to give a second look at the content and structure. Everyone has a different way of revising, so use your research skills to find out what is best for you.
It’s also important to note that the Academic Success Centre offers copy editing services for graduate students, instructors, and professors for Masters or PhD theses dissertations, final capstone projects, and documents for publication or career purposes.
6. Navigating the Supervisor-Student Relationship vs. Professor-Student Relationship
Navigating this relationship can be smooth but it can also be difficult, especially if your supervisor is a professor whose class you took as an undergrad. Taking a class with a professor during an undergrad, you’ll often find that if you are doing the coursework and readings plus engaging with discussion in class you will have a happy professor on your hands. But one’s relationship with their supervisor can be much deeper and more complicated than that. For example, it is not uncommon to find yourself being hired by your supervisor to be a teaching or research assistant. Your relationship now includes expectations for high-quality and timely work as well as conducting yourself professionally in the academic world as you are now a reflection of your supervisor. Even if you are not hired by your supervisor, it is actually part of the FGSR Graduate Supervisory Guidelines that your supervisor think of you as a “junior colleague.” Although you are not an official assistant to your supervisor, I suggest doing your best to try to lower your supervisor’s cognitive load.
I must mention that unfortunately because of the power dynamics between a student and supervisor, students can find themselves in abusive or harmful relationships with their supervisor. Some cases like the Avital Ronnell one at NYU can even spark international interest and debate. As noted earlier, be sure to reach out for support in a professional manner to organizations that represent you including GSA, FGSR, and the student ombuds. In fact, you can find “Resolving Conflicts in Supervisor-Student Relationships” within the University of Alberta Calendar for concrete steps you can take.
7. What does the GSA do for you? What kind of opportunities are available?
As defined by the Graduate Students Associate, they are:
“A student-led, not-for-profit corporation, with a mission to advocate for all graduate students to the University of Alberta and the Alberta Government for a safe, supportive, respectful, accessible, and inclusive community that fosters the multi-faceted roles played by graduate students.”
Put simply: they work hard to advocate for improved quality of life for all grad students. They negotiate crucial agreements that directly affect us, plan social events, and offer funding opportunities as well.
You can get involved by serving as an elected graduate student leader (GSA President or one of four GSA VP seats), becoming a GSA representative for your department, or joining a GSA standing committee or University of Alberta committee!
8. Your classmates are one of the greatest resources and assets to you.
It may feel like you’ve just entered a very competitive space — and it’s true. You are competing with your peers for funding, participation marks in class, conference presentation spots, and more. However, your classmates are also one of the greatest assets you have. For one thing, they can provide support when you are struggling with coursework or research. Your cohort knows what you’re going through better than probably anyone else on campus. They can suggest journal papers, books or even theories to look up that may bring your research to another level.
Not only can they offer you a second pair of eyes when it comes to readings, assignments, lab reports, and grant applications, they can offer you emotional support as well. Even just walking to SUB with a classmate to grab a coffee or snack to take those crucial breaks together can make your situation feel a bit better. Your peers will even go a step further and often organize social events to give everyone a chance to blow off some steam off campus.
Maintaining a positive relationship with your classmates may be a key aspect of securing a position or being accepted into a research project in the future!
9. Use social media and e-mail newsletters to stay plugged into the latest happenings within your field!
Look up e-mail newsletters and Facebook groups for people in your field. These are huge resources for information on open positions in institutions around the world, the latest research in your field, and upcoming scholarships and conferences. If there’s a journal article or research monograph that particularly speaks to you, look to see if that researcher has Twitter. Often times they are posting about their upcoming research or sharing their opinions on issues in the field. This is also a great way to identify a potential supervisor for your next degree!
10. When struggling with deadlines and coursework, communicate with your professors and ask for extensions as early as possible.
Just because this is a more professional degree than your undergrad doesn’t mean that academic allowances don’t exist. One thing I definitely wish I knew last year, is to ask for extensions as early as possible. Going through grad school is a much more recent memory for your supervisor and professors. They really do sympathize with what you’re going through and are more likely to grant extensions and other allowances the earlier you request them!
11. Paid Opportunities Available on Campus
So, you only got offered partial funding this year. Or worse, you weren’t offered funding at all. It can happen, although departments work their hardest to avoid this. To help supplement your income, what can be done?
Well, opportunities like this one are available! Being a YouAlberta blogger is a great way for me to make some extra cash while maintaining grad school as my priority. Positions offered by various offices within the university for students usually boast fair pay and flexible schedules. Check out the Careers page and Career Centre to see what opportunities are available.
12. Grad Student Mental Health Services
You’re probably reading this blog post because you are worried or nervous about transitioning to the grad school life. That’s totally okay! But know that when self-care and social support aren’t enough to help us deal with our problems, it’s perfectly alright to seek professional help as well. As grad students, we deserve access to professional services that suit our current situations.
That’s why the Graduate Student Assistance Program (GSAP) exists, in order to:
“provide immediate assistance in times of crisis, support you through life stage transitions, prevent problems from being overwhelming and help provide support and advice for achieving your health goals.”
If you are enrolled in GSAP, your partners and dependents can access the program including access to registered psychologists and master’s-level registered counsellors. Quite literally, these are our peers. So the cool thing is not only are they professionals but we also get that peer-to-peer experience which is crucial.