What I Learned from My First Semester of Grad School

They say that success does not come without failure. That is one lesson I heard throughout my schooling but never took to heart. But it is something I really came to understand this past semester.

There is a lot of stuff you do not get to see behind the scenes of Instagram. I always say that Instagram is a highlight reel of one’s life. Comparing it to your behind the scenes, everyday life is not fair to you. And with that, I hope sharing my experiences will give you some insight that we are in this together, that we all go through tough times.

And we will weather the storm.

I remember that feeling of excitement at the start of my first semester of graduate school. I had spent the better part of three years studying for the necessary tests, completing hours of research, and filling out applications to 20 schools. It was not until I had the acceptance letter in my hand that I felt a wave of relief. Each Ph.D. program in economics is incredibly competitive For my program in particular, out of 75 applicants, they select three. I felt I had finally worked to where I wanted to be and ready to start on my new adventure.

The start of the semester was not so different from my undergraduate experience. My classes, three in total, were not too difficult, at least I did not think so. I was also a teaching assistant for a class I loved. I was doing well on all of the problem sets. I took my first midterm in microeconomic theory on a Tuesday in October without too much pause. I studied hard and, as with similar exams, felt the work I put in would reflect the grade I would receive. And, after feeling I understood every question, I knew I had aced it!

7 out of 75. I will never forget logging into my school’s website and the unnerving panic that set in. I thought there must be some mistake. Did the professor mistakenly enter my grade into the website? I could not call my department, as it was after work hours, or my parents, who were traveling abroad over time. I felt so stuck, plagued with so much anxiety, dread, and uncertainty, that I called the afterhours phycological services hotline just to speak to someone. I needed to know the world was not going to fall apart.

I honestly cannot tell you how I managed to sleep that night. It was not simply the fact I had failed the exam so terribly. My department fully funds my Ph.D. program, paying for tuition, health insurance, and a stipend to live on. To maintain funding, a student must meet certain requirements, including maintaining a high GPA. A grade like this could mean I would lose the funding I worked so hard to maintain.

After barely sleeping, I immediately felt the need to set up a meeting with my professor. Surely I could find an explanation as to why I had done so poorly. The professor, a old man who looked like the standard economics professor in every way, said that maybe I should drop the class, that I was not cut out for the economics program. It’s too bad I needed this class to graduate. “Is there anything I can do to improve my grade?” I asked. He responsed, “do better on the next one.”

Do better on the next one?

I was so used to success, more specifically success coming easily. Within a span of 48 hours, I went from a not so difficult, on track semester to feeling as though I was digging myself out of a pit that was too deep. I was so nervous, so afraid of letting everyone down. Now that I have been through the struggle and seen the other side, I feel compelled to write how I possible pulled myself from the abyss.

Step 0: Don’t Panic

When you’re upset, though – especially if you’re having a serious break down, like a panic attack – you’re not thinking clearly, and everything seems much worse than it is. If you’re anything like me, that means you’re going to start feeling guilty and angry with yourself for wasting time breaking down instead of doing something about the problem, and perhaps embarrassed that you, as a grad student, are breaking down at all. This, of course, only makes you feel worse, which perpetuates the panic, which makes you feel guiltier, and so on.

So, this is me giving you permission to take a little time to be upset. You’re not wasting time. You’re not making things worse. Panicking can be valuable.

Look, crying feels good (once it’s over). I find that letting your fears and worries out drains me emotionally, and that I can focus and think more rationally in the period of numbness that follows a breakdown. So. It sounds weird, but let yourself be upset, if that’s what it takes for you to start to calm down. Then, you can move on to the actual plan.

Step 1: Reach Out

Reaching out for emotional support is important. If there’s a friend, a family member, or an RA you can reach out to, I highly recommend you do so. If there isn’t check out local  resources. A week after I found my grade, I immediately sought the help of a therapist. I will say It before and say it again: talking things out helps. She was the one that reminded me that I was still at a university, that I had a purpose here.

Besides reaching out to talk about it, you should reach out to your department, your professors, your TA’s, and even just older members of your research group, if you’ve joined one.

It may not feel like it sometimes, but what I’m about to say is 100% true: wherever you are, be it school or a job: people do not want to see you fail. This isn’t optimism trying to put a shine on my feelings of inadequacy either. This is purely cynical rationale.

They’ve gone through an incredible effort to search out the people they think are the best and the brightest. They’ve spent a lot of money finding you, bringing you there, and getting you on board.  They are very motivated to help you succeed.

For example, my department admin was able to point me towards a tutoring program I didn’t even know existed. Setting up my first tutoring session was immediately comforting, and the program ended up helping me out a lot. The TA for one of my classes was able to share with me some statistics about the class I hadn’t realized, and could give me hard data that things weren’t nearly so hopeless as they seemed. The TA’s for my final class gave me their support, and some very specific, counterintuitive study tips that helped me survive the weekend and the upcoming test.

Step 2: Make a Plan

I found that making a plan is crucial to escaping failure. This is not just because it makes your work more efficient, but also because it helps you escape the feeling of being a failure. Having a concrete plan is proof that things are not hopeless, and becomes evidence that you are accomplishing something.

The plan may change – you’ll do better or worse on things than you expect, you’ll find something is more or less helpful than you anticipated, you’ll find out about new resources and methods to try – and that’s okay too. Because of this, I, personally didn’t specifically write my plan down.

The most important thing is that at any given point in time, you can say, “This is what I’m doing to make things better.”

Step 3: Iterate this Process as Necessary

Even if you follow steps one and two, you may not see immediate improvement. You may also make improvement in some ways, and backslide in others. It’s important to remember that progress isn’t linear. The mind demons calling you an imposter are lying, even if things don’t turn around like you expect.

So go back to step 0, take a big breath, and remember. You can do this.

I do not tell you this story to ask for pity or celebration or any sort of something for you. No, why I wanted to share my story was to tell you that, even if you feel lost, facing insurmountable odds, or have any feelings of worthlessness, you can pull yourself out of this. Life is

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