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Breathe. If no one else has told you this, let me say it now: you belong here. You may not feel like it and that’s ok. This is a big transition, whether you’re going from high school to college or undergraduate to graduate work. It can take some time to find your footing and imposter syndrome is a real thing. I guarantee you everyone else in your cohort is feeling just as nervous, anxious, and maybe a little confused. Give yourself time to adjust.
You belong right where you are. It may feel like others in your year group know more than you do, but I’m betting they don’t, or if they do, rest assured you know just as much in your own area of expertise. I remember when I was doing my first MA, I kept thinking that everyone knew more than I did, and sooner or later they’d figure that out and realize I didn’t belong; and then one day I overheard a couple of students talking in the bathroom and I realized none of us knew what the hell we were doing. We were each finding our way. So, relax and trust the process.
Yes, the language of academia can be weird. Think of it like its own dialect. That’s one of the things you’re learning and no one expects you to speak it fluently from day one. When you come across books or articles by scholars and you really like the way they’re written, save them and try to read more by that person. The more you read, the better a scholar you will be, not just because you are reading more information, but because this is one of the ways you will develop your own academic voice. That takes time and a lot of practice.
If you haven’t found it already, go buy the book “The Professor is In,” and check out the blog by the same name. This is the book I wish to Gods someone had given me when I started graduate school. It’s been tremendously helpful.
Do not leave your required language exams until the last semester. You will hate your life. Get on those things from day one.
Be present in your department for social things now and again. It makes a difference and you’re all in the same boat after all.
Most of all, try to enjoy what you’re learning. The world will not end if you get a bad grade. Don’t be afraid to approach your professors. They’re human, they’ll talk to you. For those starting their undergrad or graduate careers via zoom, I know this isn’t the academic world you expected, but try to make the most of it. Hopefully next semester we’ll all be back to in-person learning again. Most of all, welcome back to school. It’s exciting regardless of whether we’re in person or not. ^_^
The autumn term started for me last week and already its pace is frenetic. I love my studies but adapting to my new schedule is a bit like being punched in the face. As I see incoming freshmen and new grad students, taste their excitement and also their nervousness I wanted to reach out to those of you, my readers, who may also be heading back into academia’s hallowed halls (or to vocational school, apprenticeships, etc.).
Where ever you’re going, know that you belong. Imposter syndrome is something we all often wrestle with, no matter what our academic or technical qualifications. I’m going to let you in on a little secret that I learned about six weeks into my first MA: no one in your year group knows any more than you do. Lol They’re ALL feeling just as insecure and challenged. They may be hiding it better, but you are in no way alone in any uncertainties you might be feeling. Persevere. You CAN do this. Also, don’t hesitate to reach out to other grad students, your advisor, and campus counseling. That’s what they’re there for and with your peers especially, we’ve all been there. We may be crazy-busy, but most grad students I know are more than happy to lend an ear to newcomers. Don’t be afraid to rely on the resources available to you. Also, make sure you have a good support network. School can be really stressful (when the term started, I looked at my husband and said ‘nice knowing you. See you in December. LOL, which is funny and yes, I was joking, but the number of hours and stress we put in can really strain relationships). Don’t neglect your most important relationships. You may not have a lot of down time, but cherish that which you do.
If you have learning disabilities, (I do, I have dyscalculia) anxiety disorder, chronic pain, physical impairments of any sort please, please register with your office of disability services. It’s usually pretty easy to do and it will allow your professors to provide accommodations that you may need as the semester progresses. Don’t be embarrassed to do this and don’t put it off. This office is there to ensure that you have the most productive semester you can possibly have, and more importantly, to ensure that the university complies with all legal requirements related to disability. This benefits you – take advantage of it.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and for those of you in grad school, I’m going to tell you what I wish someone had told me from day one: this is your career. It’s never too early to start treating it in that light. There’s a wonderful book that I highly recommend (read it sooner than later – I really, really wish I’d found it when I started back to school) called “The Professor is In.” it gives invaluable advice on navigating the often-confusing terrain of academic life from graduate school to professorship. The author (bless her!) also has a very active blog and it is really a god-send. You can check that out here. She gives advice on everything from how to dress for success, to writing a book review, a CV, to your first job interview and more. I recommend this site to everyone, not just academics. It’s been life-changing for me.
Here’s some advice that you probably won’t take, that I should take more of, and that I’m going to say anyway: GET REGULAR SLEEP and don’t stint on meals. For me, this is crucial as lack of regular sleep can tip me over into migraine territory at the drop of a hat. But this is something that is important not just for those of us with chronic pain. You’ll do better in your studies if you sleep. For years, I lived on about four hours of sleep a night. It was my husband who pointed out that this contributed to my migraines. It killed me to admit it, but he was right. It also stunned me at how much more I could remember from studying when I got 6-9 hours of sleep a night (chronic pain makes sleep problematic, but for those of you in the same boat as I am, do your best). Do not stay up all hours cramming. Do not wait to the day before a test and pull an all-nighter. Nothing is more important than getting regular sleep. Nothing. Nutrition and exercise are important too – again, do your best as the semester progresses – but sleep is the most important gift you can give yourself. Naps are your friend.
Finally, work as hard as you can but if you’ve given your best and still get a less than perfect grade, that’s OK. A bad grade will not kill you. It will not ruin your future. I got into my top choice PhD program with two poor grades on my transcript (in both cases, I knew the class would be really challenging and had taken it for the challenge, because I knew that while I wouldn’t do well, I would learn and get better in that subject, and I did. I can honestly say in both, I gave my best effort). Don’t slack off, but don’t think you have to be always and ever absolutely perfect.
Academia is a weird little world, just like any other vocational setting. Each department has its own unique culture. You’ll find your way. Just remember: you belong, just as much as anyone else there. Don’t ever forget that.
Good luck with your studies, my readers and for those of you not in academia or going back to school in some way, but who have people you care about who are, well, maybe taken them food once in a while (Seriously. There is nothing better than coming home from class utterly exhausted and not having to cook) and understand that they’re not avoiding you. They’re just exhausted and probably overwhelmed with work. Seriously, feed them once in a while! ^_^ They will thank you for it and just knowing that you are there and understand and support them can make all the difference in the world.