The Post College Professional

What To Expect The First Semester of Grad School

Posted by Michelle McGuire on Dec 07, 2018

Tags: Grad school consideration

Way back in September I wrote about my first week of grad school. And now, as of December 5th, I finished my first semester at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Brandcenter. Countless hours of work, sleep deprived nights, and vending machine snacks went into this achievement. But I survived! And here are some of the most important things I learned along the way:

They said it would be a lot of work and they’re right. Before I started grad school, every student I talked to said it was more work than I could imagine. I couldn’t possibly understand why. Why wouldn’t I have time to work out, cook meals, and pursue other interests? It turns out they were right though. I easily spend more than 40 hours a week on schoolwork. Between preparing for class and attending group meetings, full-time grad school really is a full-time job. And if you put working part-time on top of that, be prepared to manage your time like you’ve never managed your time before.

It’s the best kind of challenge. Even though I’m working constantly, grad school has been the biggest challenge of my life. Learning happens quickly and it’s about so much more than just the baseline knowledge. You’re expected to quickly learn something, grasp its importance, apply it to real world concepts, and create an amazing piece of work all within a short period of time. My brain has never felt more exhausted, but it’s a difference of night and day between what I knew at the beginning of the semester and now.   

It’s okay to have no idea what you’re doing. You’re not going to be an expert after your first semester of grad school. So much of what you’re doing is building your essential skill toolbox, learning how to work in groups, and trying to grasp your chosen field. You’ll feel lost at times, but everyone does. That’s normal. You will get to the level you want to reach! It’s just a matter of time.

You’re not taught everything. Don’t expect to learn everything you need to know in the classroom. I’m routinely given assignments where I make videos, mock-up apps, and design images. Did I know how to really do any of those things before this semester? No. Do I do now? I’m getting there with the help of Google, Lynda, and patient friends. It’s up to you to learn the skills needed to apply your learning!


Group work is still group work. Group work will be the best of times and the worst of times. But, I’ve found solace in two things. First, I now view group work as a way to learn how to work with different types of people. I know when I get out in the real world again there will be people that I find easier to work with than others. Try to approach group projects as a great place to build your team and leadership skills! Second, most of my classes have a group evaluation after the project. You’ll be able to discuss when your group worked, when it didn’t, and give insight into difficult situations. Your professor will know whether or not your team member actually did work. This can be the light at the end of your group project tunnel.

Don’t lose sight of your goal. Take advantage of everything grad school has to offer to get to where you want to be professionally. Join clubs, go to professional events, and talk to your professors about career paths. I only finished my first semester, but I’m already working on my resume, starting my website, listing companies I’m interested in, and making connections.

And my final lesson is that breaks are magical. I have earned the sweet five weeks of freedom I’m about to experience at the end of this year. And despite the trials and tribulations, I’m excited to do it all over again in 2019.


Michelle McGuire is a freelance writer and current graduate student at the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Brandcenter. For the past year, she has worked with the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) to chronicle working life for recent graduates in our Post College Professional Blog. She will continue to write about her experience of returning back to graduate school (and other work and career-related topics) on an ongoing basis.

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