This blog roundtable is part of a series about graduate school – why do it, what is it like, and what to do afterwards. I encourage you to give your own opinions in the comments section, and if you disagree with a point made by the panel, voice your opinion! This is something a lot of my readers can relate to, so I’m hoping to hear from all of you. Note that these are the opinions of those involved, and do not reflect our institutions or departments in any way. For a full list of the questions, read the first post.

How Grad School is just like Kindergarten (click to embiggen) (courtesy phdcomics.com)

We’ve talked a lot so far about the grad school experience – ranging from how to pick a school/supervisor, to some thoughts on how to deal with criticism, and even dealing with impostor syndrome. To round off the series, I thought I’d spend the last two posts talking about some general thoughts and comments.

When it comes to grad school, people have very different experiences – some good, some bad, some horrific. However, there is no denying that graduate school is a very different experience to undergrad; the thinking is more sophisticated, there is more independence, and the challenges you will face are tougher and more nuanced.

To try and give those considering graduate school an understanding of what to expect beyond the academic experience, the panel was given the following prompt: what has surprised you so far about the grad school experience? In which cases did it meet your expectations and when did it fail to do so? (i.e. How is graduate school life different to undergraduate life?)

So, without further ado, lets hear from the panel!

Travis Saunders (twitterwebsite):

I find that grad school has more in common with a 9-5 job than it does with undergrad.  What surprised me the most is that it’s quite possible to be successful while still having a good work/life balance.  Also, I was surprised that doing a PhD has been easier than my MSc – the learning curve in an MSc is much steeper, while I find that in the PhD you’re really just refining skills that you’ve already learned.

Morgan Craig-Broadwith (twitter, website):

For all the stress, competition, rejection, criticism, and tears, my grad school experience was awesome. I would not trade my experience. The education I received is not comparable to that of my undergraduate degree. Undergrad taught me how to study, prepare presentations and write exams. Grad school taught me how to think.

Tim Brown (twitter, websiteLinkedIn, Material Physics Group Website):

The one aspect is, less homework. I remarked several times during my graduate studies, that I could never go back and do an undergrad. That level of homework is something I never want to experience again. With that said, the “homework” takes a different form. There will be periods where you will be working most of hours of the day, to only working a few hours of the day. What you put off today only adds to the pile that builds that you have to work on later. There is a reason why PhD is often referred to as Piled Higher and Deeper.

Okay, so this isn't a great reason by which to pick a graduate school (courtesy phdcomics.com)

Megan Carter (twitterwebsite):

Moving to a new city to do my master’s was difficult. Unlike undergrad where you’re in residence and there are university events set up specifically to help you meet people (e.g. frosh), you’re pretty much left on your own when starting a master’s or PhD. The important thing is to realize that making friends and acquaintances takes time; becoming a research assistant and joining interest/sports groups like Toastmasters and the area sport/social club helped me a lot. Finding a place to stay with roommates can also help (I, for instance, am still friends with my old roommates), but this can backfire.

EpiGrad (twitter, website):

The most defining concept for graduate school, at least for me, is that there is always something you should be doing. As an undergrad, you could ace that test, hammer out a midterm paper, finish the problem set and you’re done for a bit. Sure, you still have to go to class, and there might be more classes that need work, but its possible to simply send off a last assignment and have nothing that needs doing.

Until you turn in your thesis, dissertation, what have you, that will never be true for a graduate student. There is always more work you could be doing, another journal you could be reading, another conference to submit to. At the same time, hardly any of it is due *now*. Balancing the impulse to put everything off until it’s clearly due – and by that time, probably too late to do it, and the impulse to try to hammer out your entire list and burn yourself out in 6 months is a hard problem.

Penny Deck (twitter, website):

N/A

Atif (me!) (twitter):

For me the flexibility has been incredible. I like to work 9-5, and then have my evenings off. And that’s what I’ve got. At the same time though, I’ve got the flexibility to work at home if I want, or make up time on weekends. If I want to sleep in, I can. On the other hand, if I get a surge in productivity at 6pm, I can use that to my advantage.

The other facet of graduate school that I really enjoyed was the intellectual freedom. While in undergrad you are forced to memorize facts and figures that serve no real purpose beyond the final exam, the skills I have acquired and the facts I have memorized as part of my graduate training have clear and direct relevance to what I want to do with my life. That makes it much more rewarding and enjoyable, and thus much easier to do.

Graduate school is a different animal to undergrad, and this was something all our panelists agreed on. However, everyone has different experiences, and everyone enjoys (and hates) different parts of it. What did you enjoy or dislike about graduate school/what are you enjoying or disliking so far?

Check back Monday for our final post: What does it take to be a successful graduate student? Are there any last minute tips/advice/inspirational words you have for budding graduate students?

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