Undergrad vs. Grad School: What’s the Difference?

‘Twas the night before my first day of graduate school when I found myself Googling “what to expect.” I was 25 when I decided to go back to school, and, since I’d been out of the game for four years, I felt a little uneasy about stepping foot on a college campus again.

I quickly freaked myself out when the first post I clicked on warned of “extreme name-dropping” in grad school environments. I was so riddled with anxiety — had I read enough books? Had I read the right books? Was I even a good writer? — that I could barely sleep.

But I soon learned my fears were futile as my classmates gathered around the table in the first creative writing class of my grad school career. It was a laid-back environment where people talked openly and bounced ideas off one another. If I didn’t understand a reference, I simply wrote down a note to Google it later. I knew immediately, as my professor talked of his New York Times past this was undoubtedly the environment (and program!) for me.

That said, there are stark differences between undergraduate and graduate school work. I wish the article I’d read before my first day did a better job of preparing me for something other than the cutthroat threat of name-dropping, but I adapted pretty quickly, and my world didn’t end. Here are some of the main differences between grad and undergrad that I’ve experienced:

No one lives on campus. (Well, hardly.)

Making friends in grad school is a bit trickier. You don’t just magically live next door to the person who will become your best friend. Almost everyone in my graduate program either rents in nearby towns or lives at home with family, which makes for a slightly altered social landscape.

If you’re looking to make friends, you’ll have to put in a bit more effort. You can do this by staying on campus after class or  taking up a student job and socializing with coworkers..

Our grad school program has a “go-to” spot after class, like most programs do. Every Thursday, a bunch of us meet g up at a local place for drinks and fried pickles. It’s a great way to get know the people in my program more intimately.

Events are not mandatory. But they kinda are.

During my first semester, there was an event called Writers Speak every Wednesday. I didn’t go to any of these events, save for the last one, which consisted of readings by fellow MFA students. When I arrived, I realized I’d been missing out. This was why everyone in my classes seemed to know each other so well: They’d been hanging out every Wednesday night at Writers Speak.

Socializing with peers wasn’t all the after-class events offered. It was a time to get to know professors, forge relationships with them beyond classwork, and network with local writers.

Not to mention, my classmates and professors apparently had noticed that I didn’t attend. “Wow, you’re never at Writers Speak!” one of my professors proclaimed. From then on, I resolved to show face. By the next semester, I had a much better sense of who to pick as my thesis adviser because I had spent so much time chatting with my professors at events.

Graduate candidates want to be there.

Grad school holds a magnifying glass to what it is you really want to achieve, therefore it’s more competitive. Students — especially thesis students — genuinely care about craft, progress, and their dissertations. Everyone is campaigning for the same things: Writers all desire to get published, and most of us want to teach after we graduate. Unfortunately, the percentage of how many manuscripts are actually published is small, as are the amount of teaching jobs.

That’s why it’s crucial to remain focused. From my perspective, it seems the more work you publish during grad school makes it easier to get published post-grad. It also helps you look more desirable for teaching jobs. What you accomplish in grad school directly influences what you accomplish once grad school is over.

Effective time management is key.

Most people I know in grad school are full-time students who also (somehow) manage to juggle full-time jobs. I attend school full-time and freelance write for various online brands. Some of my student friends are bartenders. Another teaches gymnastics to toddlers. Others are parents — the ultimate full-time job.

My daily to-do list usually looks like this: Wake up, write two to three hours of thesis, freelance write from home for another 2-3 hours, head to class, do my homework for my next class on break, go to another class, commute 40 minutes home, write another two freelance articles. It’s a full schedule, but it’s hardly unique.

On Thursdays, I take a break from my freelance work and stay on campus with friends from the program or, as aforementioned, hit up our local spot for drinks and pickles!

If I don’t stick to my daily to-do list (which admittedly, sometimes happens), things would start breaking down financially and academically. I stay focused by setting timers: two hours for thesis, two hours for homework. Once the timer goes off, I know I’m ready to take a break and move onto the next task. The timers keep me in check so I know I’m dedicating my time and efforts to the right task in the moment.

The post-grad future is bright.

In grad school, I gained invaluable information regarding my craft, like-minded friends (who always want to write books!), and a better understanding of the time management method that works for me. When I graduate from my program, I plan to leave with a fully edited non-fiction manuscript, X-amount in savings, and an impressive teaching resume. While the fundamentals of undergrad and grad school are the same, there are some stark difference to navigate. Hopefully, you’re now better equipped to handle the challenge.

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