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The Friday before classes start holds a mixture of excitement, nerves, and anticipation. Each year on that day, the geology department holds its graduate orientation, an all-day event where first-year to fifth-year students come together to learn not only about policies, but also about each other. In the room, there was a feeling of a fresh start but also the unpredictability of what was to come, especially since the University of Maryland no longer mandated wearing masks. As an icebreaker, students paired up and answered a few get-to-know-you questions, including “What would you have liked to have known about graduate school as an incoming graduate student?”
To me, this is a loaded question. As I start my fifth semester, I ponder what I wish I had known about the program. I began in Fall 2020, when everything was online. I was working from home most of the time. My advisor was kind enough to take time to meet me in person on campus each week. It was a very isolating time for everyone. The saving grace of those online semesters was the people who were kind and made me feel welcome, in and out of the classroom. In one of my hybrid undergraduate and graduate classes, there was a group project. One of the graduate students in my group asked me to go hiking with her along the Chesapeake Bay. She showed me how to find ripe pawpaw fruit, and I ate my first one!
What else would I tell an incoming student? Be sure to engage with people around you. Graduate school allows for independence, but the people in your classes are going through something very similar. Use this time early in your graduate school career to talk to others and become friends. Then, when school gets challenging and very overwhelming (which it will!), you have people to lean on.
Many people mentioned that time management is key to succeeding in graduate school, and to learn which methods work best for you. The first semester or two are challenging: getting adjusted to a new place, starting research on a topic you feel like you know nothing about, taking classes, and possibly teaching a class! It’s a lot of responsibility. There was a variety of advice, from “make sure not to spend all your time on classes and spend time on research” to “learn a system that works best for you and try to stick with it.”
One way I have learned to manage my time in graduate school is to use a stopwatch. At the start of my workday, I turn on my stopwatch. Any time I take a break, I stop my time. At the end of the day, I record how many hours I spent actually working. This allowed me to recognize that I was working and working hard (and also cut down the amount of time I was scrolling through reels on my phone!).
The final issue? The “legal part” of graduate school: how to get insurance, how to get a Maryland driver’s license, making sure all the visa stuff is sorted out, etc. During our orientation, other students shared their experiences with some of these issues. At the University of Maryland, there are workshops that address these questions. But again, we were each other’s best resource.
All of this to say: graduate school is not easy in the least. There will be late nights, early mornings, and times when you’ve practiced a talk over and over and still forget what you were saying. There are times when you feel like you are not supposed to be there—that’s completely normal! But other times, after a long day of collecting samples or when your experiment works, there are feelings of joy and happiness. And it’s incredibly rewarding.
Top Left Image: Carly Maas monitors water quality and takes a water sample. Photo, Allison Dombrowski