The Post College Professional

What’s The First Year of Grad School Actually Like?

Posted by Michelle McGuire on Apr 12, 2019

Tags: Grad school consideration

In 25 days I will finish my first year of graduate school and I am feeling every emotion imaginable. I’m excited to reach the halfway point, nervous about where my summer internship will be, incredulous at how fast the time has flown, and scared of the higher expectations that I’ll face next year.

But, most of all, I am exhausted. Sure, I’ve grown to the point where I can’t even remember what my mindset was eight short months ago. And I am excited to see where this program will take me next year and beyond! But that’s what you hear in every pamphlet or student interview when you’re thinking about graduate school. It conveniently leaves out the part where finishing your first year feels less like a victorious sprint to a finish line and more like a crawl. When I finally cross that finish line and sleep for a week, I can say for sure these valuable first year lessons helped me get there:

You’re going to fail. There’s inevitably going to be one project that’s a train wreck. You’ll put a lot of work in, try your best, and then crash and burn. For me, this project involved a well-intentioned team, a difficult client, an ambiguous assignment, and a less than desirable end product. I still cringe thinking about the feedback email we got from our professor with a not so great grade. As much as this experience was a gut punch, it was valuable since failure will inevitably happen in the real world too. School provides an environment where you can safely cope, process, and learn to pick up the pieces with grace.

You’ll start to itch to do something real. I cannot wait for a summer internship where I get to do real work on a real project! So much of my learning has been structured around hypotheticals. While you may be working on real problems in grad school, the work typically stops after presentation day. I didn’t realize how much I would miss knowing my work has impact beyond a letter grade. I definitely value getting to take on so many different types of projects in school to strengthen my skills, but I’m already feeling ready for what’s next!

Don’t be a jerk. This may sound like a no-brainer, but hear me out. There’s a reason this is one of the first things we heard when we started. Simply put, some of your classmates are going to drive you up the wall when it comes to group assignments. Whether your work styles don’t click or it’s just a product of being together 24/7, tempers will flare. Don’t be a jerk about it. So much of what you get from school is a professional network where your classmates will remember you and how you acted at school years from now. I’m not saying don’t resolve conflicts, but make sure you treat your classmates like colleagues even if you’re pulling an all-nighter together. You never know, the classmate that drives you crazy might be able to help you land your dream job one day!

Don’t start to lose sight of who you are outside of grad school. I’ve been interviewing for internships recently, and nearly every place I talk to wants to know about who I am outside of school. The first time I heard this question, I had to pause. I realized that my identity was starting to be taken over completely by school. All I was doing was going to school, doing work, and sleeping. But that’s not what makes me who I am and it certainly wasn’t what the companies wanted to hear about. Whether you have a hobby, are a fitness fanatic, or are a major foodie, make sure you’re giving yourself time and space outside of school work to pursue your passions. This is what will help you maintain your sanity and recruiters know what makes you different.

Only one assignment, two presentations, and four major projects stand between me and the finish line on May 7th. But hey, who’s counting? ;)


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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