10 Things I Learned During My First Day in Grad School

After a summer of anticipation, excitement, and anxiety, I finally began classes yesterday. I suppose this means that if there were ever any doubt before, I am most definitely a graduate student now. And you know what? That feels weird.

It feels weird for a lot of reasons – namely that I still possess the maturity and mentality of a five year old, so trusting me with keys to the English graduate lounge, for instance, seems really asinine. Like do they realize I am actually five? I am literally five years old. And I am supposed to produce a manuscript in a couple years? And you gave me an assistantship with actual adult responsibilities? Do you understand that I am not reliable and arguably not stable?

But seriously, when I evaluate myself and conceptualize myself, I don’t consider myself much of an adult – definitely not the kind of adult that can successfully master any kind of craft. Yet here I am, taking a class called “The Craft of Prose,” with the assumption that I am capable of something, anything beyond eating ice cream, watching Netflix, and tying my shoes as needed.

Spoiler Alert: I only know how to eat, stare at my computer, and tie a basic double-knot.

Is it possible for me to turn in a tied knot for my first assignment? No?

I guess all I can really do is take it a day at a time. And I certainly am learning – in fact, even on my first day, I feel that I gained a great deal of knowledge about what it truly means to be an MFA student in Creative Writing. Sort of.

Since I’m in the habit of sharing all my wisdom with the internet, it seemed like a great idea to write a blog entry about ten things I learned in grad school yesterday. Some of you have asked why I always make my lists with ten items, and for those of you who are wondering, you clearly don’t understand the beauty and completeness of the number ten. And I weep for you.

1. Name-dropping will happen fifty thousand times. It will convince you that you must live under a rock or in a cave, where no literary masterpiece has ever reached you. You will question if you’ve ever read a book before.

Probably a thousand times during the course of my first day, I was asked if I’d read this book or that author, and received at least fifty recommendations for writers that would DEFINITELY CHANGE MY LIFE. I began to wonder if I knew what a good book – or even just a book – was and if I’d ever seen one before.

The thing is, folks aren’t usually asking if you’ve read something because they want to be superior to you in some fashion. They’re usually asking because they want to geek out about something they love.

If the name-dropping intimidates you, try to relax. There are approximately twenty-five bazillion books in the world, and expecting yourself to have read each and every one of them is ridiculous.

Remember: You are not a better or worse person for not being familiar with a certain text or author.

 

2. Everyone has imposter syndrome. It is likely that only one person in your entire class feels remotely qualified to be there.

This is something you’ve probably heard before, but I definitely observed this on my first day. Everyone I encountered, spare a couple people, were worried that they weren’t good writers or students, and that they didn’t belong in the program with the rest of us. When my professor asked how many of us were suffering from imposter syndrome, every one of us raised our hands.

The reality is, we all feel insecure – and keeping that in mind moving forward can be helpful.

It’s also good to remind yourself that you aren’t in grad school to be better than your classmates. You’re in grad school, hopefully, to be the very best you can be. You got into grad school – someone saw potential in you, make no mistake about that – so take this opportunity to dig deep and do better. Not better than the student sitting next to you, but better than the writer or student you were yesterday. The only person you need to compete with is yourself.

 

3. When switching academic disciplines, you will spend a long time unlearning nearly everything you’ve learned – particularly about writing.

My professor was adamant when she said that we would not be writing academic papers. When she mentioned that bullet points would be acceptable for our first assignment, I thought I was going to pee my pants. I had spent five years in undergrad perfecting an argumentative essay, complete with a three-part thesis, and now I was being told that turning in a list was perfectly fine?

If you switched disciplines like I did – in my case, Anthropology/Gender Studies to Creative Writing – you will probably find that you will have to unlearn a lot of what you practiced for so many years. The habits that are so deeply ingrained will have to be excavated and replaced with new skills, new practices, and new habits. It’s a process, and one that will take time, but you will emerge from it (hopefully, how the hell would I know) a more versatile and interesting writer.

R.I.P. THESIS STATEMENT

 

4. Night classes are still the worst. Even when they are in grad school, and even when you want to be there.

I was excited for class. On a scale of uninterested to jazzed, I was definitely *~JAZZED!~* for my first class. However, my enthusiasm was drained as the sun began to set, and we eventually descended into darkness in the middle of the class. Night classes, man. They still suck, no matter how stoked you are to be there. If I had advice on how to make it better, I would give it to you. But I don’t. Sorry.

 

5. The first day of school will never change, whether you’re in middle school or in graduate school.

We still care about our outfits. We are still nervous as fuck. We still don’t know how to talk to each other. We still want to be liked. We still feel awkward and out of place. So many of the feelings on day one are still the same, each and every year. The first day of school goes through several permutations, but remains relatively similar no matter how old you get.

It’s still a day filled with promise. It’s still a day filled with awkward introductions. It’s still a day where we have to repeat several times how our last names are pronounced (unless it’s Smith or something, fuck all of you who have easy last names).

And it’s kind of comforting, that kind of consistency. It’s kind of nice.

6. Second-years are your best friends. Get to know them. Bother them incessantly. Learn their ways.

By far, one of the most helpful resources on campus has been the second-year students. They know the ropes, they usually find your wide eyes and bushy tail really adorable (it induces a pleasant nostalgia for them, I think), and they’re privy to all of the college’s secrets – like where the 24 hour computer labs are, for instance.

The returning students that I’ve become acquainted with have been incredibly kind, and have helped me feel confident in my decision to attend.

If I can offer any advice to my fellow incoming grad students, it’s that you need to seek out the returning students and make them your best friends. Handcuff yourself to them. Cling to their leg and never let go. Follow them everywhere. All of these things are probably illegal in some capacity, but hopefully they’ll be flattered?

Because really, the transition will be so much easier if you use them as a guide. They won’t bite. Probably.

7. Even in grad school, some students still insist on texting during class.

No, seriously. I hope they had a good excuse.

8. Women’s colleges are unlike anything on the face of the planet.

I’m attending a women’s college for graduate school–

“But Sam! You aren’t a woman! What are you doing there?”

Well, lucky for me, the graduate programs are co-ed!

Anyway, I’m attending a women’s college, and I have to say the environment is brilliant so far. I love being at a small school that isn’t being overrun by dude bros (no offense…), and has such a strong emphasis on a socially conscious pedagogy. So many of the students are passionate activists with a commitment to social justice; I don’t have to constantly defend my politics each time I meet someone new. There’s a culture of political awareness and engagement that I am thrilled about.

And I’m beginning to understand how a women’s college (or really, a college of marginalized gender, since we admit non-binary and other trans* folks as well) is a uniquely important space that lends itself to this kind of culture. There’s really nothing else like it. I love it.

 

9. It’s normal to want to cry your eyes out during your first day. Well, I hope so, anyway.

Graduate school feels like the culmination of so many struggles, so much hard work, and a lot of trust in a pipedream that seemed like it could never happen.

Sitting in the classroom, I felt so much gratitude – and weirdly enough, I had moments throughout the experience where I felt like I could cry. Because I was appreciative, because I was overwhelmed, because I was happy, because it felt so surreal and heavy with possibility, because I am probably really weird.

I’m not sure who else feels this way on their first day, but I had moments where I was looking around campus and something magical would catch me off-guard – a tree that was especially green, a painting that was especially lovely, or a cup of coffee that was perfectly bittersweet, and all of these things brought me to the point of tears.

And if you’re like me, and the tide of gratitude rushed in and almost overtook you, I can assure you that you are not the only one. We can be weirdos together.

10. Faculty need you – perhaps just as much as you need them.

Not in the same capacity or for the same reason, but during a time when adjunct faculty in particular are getting the short end of the stick, students’ voices are increasingly important in the fight for fair and just working conditions, wages, and treatment for the faculty and staff at your university.

This is especially relevant at my college, where slimy, shady administrative moves this past summer led to the unjust and inconceivable lay-offs of invaluable faculty members, as well as decreased wages across the board – all the while, student tuition costs continued to rise.

Faculty members are often limited in what they can say and what kind of action they can take, which gives students a powerful role in the fight for educational justice.

Just as the faculty at your university work tirelessly to advocate for you as students, it is absolutely essential that you, wherever possible, show solidarity with the educators and staff that are committed to your education. This means familiarizing yourself with adjunct and staff unions on campus, should they exist, and keeping yourself informed about the conditions on your campus. Be sure to ask faculty if there is any way students can get involved.

If that isn’t motivation enough, remember that the quality of your education is directly impacted by the working conditions that faculty face at your university. Your advocacy is an investment in your own education as well.