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Open Letter to a New Grad Student

Dear New Grad Student,

Sorry I didn’t catch your name. We met a few months ago at a poster session during an internal symposium. Though my work is significantly outside your field, you showed an unfettered interest in my project. It didn’t surprise me when I asked if you were a grad student and you answered, “Uh… yeah, I guess” and informed me that you had graduated mere weeks prior to our conversation. I couldn’t help but smile as I remembered times when I too was a sponge for knowledge.

Do your best to hold on to that unbridled enthusiasm for as long as you can. Grad school will steal it from you if you let it. But grad school can also feed it.

The unfortunate and fortunate reality is this: grad school is hard. I remember visiting my hometown at the conclusion of my first semester as a grad student. Friends and acquaintances looking to make conversation would ask a question that I would (at least at times) grow to despise: “How’s grad school?” I raised more than a few eyebrows by not answering with some variation of “It’s great! I love it! This is exactly what I want to be doing!” Most often I offered a simple, “It’s hard.”

It is hard. Two and a half years later, it’s still hard. If you haven’t already, you’ll learn about something we call imposter syndrome – it’s that feeling that you’re just pretending while everyone around you has it all together. Don’t believe the lie that you don’t belong here. There will probably be days (or months) when you want to quit, when you just don’t think you can get out of bed to go to one more class or run one more experiment. But there will also be times when you remember why you started this journey in the first place.

Sometimes motivation meets you in times or places you don’t expect. It might be in your advisor’s office. (It might not.) It might be in that class you decided to take when all your friends and colleagues thought you were nuts. (It might not.) It might be at that first real conference you get to attend or the first time you get to present your work. (It might not.) But if you look hard enough, it’ll be there.

So, my friend, welcome to this sometimes exhilarating, sometimes dark and terrifying, often physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting world we call grad school. Above all, remember that you are not alone on this journey.

All the best,
A Fellow Traveler