First Few Months of Grad School: What You Need to Know

By Viel Tolentino | MEd student, Adult Education & Community Development
April 3, 2023

Assignments here, readings there, and oh…wait, don’t forget those presentations.

When you think about how many things you have to do when you are in grad school, you kind of have to brace yourself—there is so much to do, and it seems like there is only so little time. My colleagues and I always wonder how it’s possible to juggle school, home, and work simultaneously. But by the time you think you’ve got the hang of it, the semester is already over. September and October have flown by, and now we are into November—it only seems like yesterday since I accepted my offer and made my decision to go to OISE. At this point in time, I already feel like a seasoned veteran who has got a hold of OISE life, and I am making my experience here worthwhile.

I wouldn’t have gotten to this point without a couple of things I’ve learned along the way. And so here, I present to you to Part 1 of the 12 Things You Need to Know About the First Few Months of Grad School--and hopefully, with these insights of mine, you’ll be able to get through your first few months of grad school like a pro!

#1 - Graduate Studies are completely different from your studies in Undergrad. 

Depending on what types of courses you’ve taken during your undergraduate degree, you might find grad school much different. I wouldn’t want you to expect that your experiences will be similar to that of your undergrad. In my own experience, my undergraduate was comprised of tests, essays, and presentations. Looking back on my undergrad, there was a lot more lecturing than actual discussion, just because the majority of classes ran for only limited to two hours. When you get to grad school, everything is a little more condensed and there are more opportunities to voice out your opinions, analyses, and perspectives toward the topic of discussion. As for assessment pieces, professors usually assign research papers, reflection pieces, and presentations. So, expect to be more vocal and open in your grad studies, because your colleagues also come with a vastly different set of perspectives and there is a plethora of opportunities for you to participate!

#2 - Organization is Key

Organization skills are an asset to have when you are in grad school because, like I’ve said before; there is so much happening at OISE. Your best bet to making sure you stay organized is to invest in a calendar and mark all the important dates once your professor gives you the course outlines. This way, you already know ahead of time when everything is generally due and whether or not you have overlapping due dates. It makes it easier to plan for other things and when you should start your assignments. It also makes sure that you can plan things not related school, such as hanging out with friends or work.

#3 - Be Prepared to do the Readings and Always Keep Up With Them 

Yes, I understand—readings are quite overwhelming, especially when each of your professors assign 50 pages at a time. How do you keep with 150 pages per week? And is it necessary to do all of them? While you may think that you don’t have to complete all your readings for all your classes, you might actually want to re-think that! Remember, your professors don’t just assign those readings to overwhelm you, but they are there for a purpose! Those readings not only come in handy when you are discussing it in class, but they are also handy when you are writing those papers/presentations! You need to show that you are able to apply your knowledge from lectures and your readings when it comes to assessments! So don’t procrastinate, DO those readings!

#4 - Network, network, network. 

The best part of grad school is the different people you meet in your classes. Each class comes with a unique set of perspectives, values, and experiences. Whether they are working in law, are part of a faculty/staff of a university or college, or are just students that are fresh from their undergraduate studies, they all bring something to the discussions. Depending on what you would like to achieve in your Master’s program, your colleagues could help guide you with the various career paths that you would like to take. That’s why it’s important to network with them and get a sense of their learning goals because they could align with your own learning and career goals. If you’re feeling a little shy, just start off with a smile or a hello and then once you establish a rapport with them, you can talk to them about the class and what program they’re in! Your colleagues provide you with a fresh new set of insights and career paths that you may have never even thought of–so network, network, network!

#5 - Get Involved With Extra-Curriculars 

Whether you enjoy playing sports, learning different languages, or meeting people in your program—UofT has so much to offer when it comes to extra-curriculars. Extra-curriculars are so important to your student life, just as your classes are. Getting involved really enhances your overall university experience. Within the first week of school, various UofT clubs and associations hold a “clubs week”. This is a great opportunity to talk to members and see what their interests are and how you can get involved. It’s a great way to meet friends, faculty, and to get to know your campus!

#6 - Broaden your learning horizons with events, seminars, and conferences. 

Speaking of meeting people, at OISE, we have a plethora of events that happen throughout the year. Many of our presenters include current OISE faculty, students, leaders of various fields, and visiting professors from all over the globe. As part of my Comparative International Development Education collaborative program, one of the requirements is to take part in 5 seminars. The best thing about this is that you get to meet other people in different programs! And don’t worry, it’s not just collaborative programs where you have access to these opportunities, but each department organizes various events and conferences. In my department, LHAE, a staff member sends out weekly emails to tell us about events related to Adult/Higher Education and for the most part–they’re almost all free! Again, it’s a great way to enhance your experience at OISE and it also gives you the opportunity to use those networking skills. So, remember to fit those events into your busy schedules!

#7 - Balance your time to “hit the books” and to “hit the gym”

Living a healthy lifestyle is important—and it’s not just your overall physical health that I’m talking about. It’s also your emotional and mental health! Exercising and meditating are excellent strategies to relieve the stresses of assignments and readings. As a UofT student you also have access to the numerous gym facilities around campus—there are also mindfulness workshops that you can participate in if you feel like meditating! Take part in an intramural, dance with our Zumba instructors, or maybe get a workout in. There are so many things to do on campus to get you active and help you de-stress. The best part of it is that all our facilities and fitness classes are all part of your tuition!!

Hart House gym room
#8 - Don’t be afraid to approach your professors

Sometimes, talking to professors can get intimidating, and it is as if though approaching them may not seem to be the best idea at first. In my personal experience with OISE professors, they are very open to talking over assignments and readings with you one-on-one. Remember, the last thing they want is to see you not do well in your assignments. Establish a rapport with all your professors—ask them questions about things discussed in class, their take on a current event related to your class, or even just by saying hello to them in the hallways. They are also easily accessible by email. Professors also play an important role if you want to further your education in doctoral studies, especially as references or possibly as mentors for your specific field of research. Again, networking is super important when you are in grad school—so take a hold of all those opportunities in front of you.

#9 - Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

From the first time I stepped into a university to becoming a grad student, I feel like I’ve grown and accomplished so much, but it’s all thanks to stepping outside of my comfort zone. There’s this saying going around that “life happens outside of your comfort zone”. And I think that this is completely relevant, especially in grad school, where your limits are really pushed! You definitely have to step outside of your comfort zone in class discussions, presentations, or even when you are at one of OISE’s many events and workshops. It’s really important to recognize that this is all part of your learning. When I first started at OISE, I was a little apprehensive because I didn’t know anyone in my program, and I didn’t know what to expect when I got here. But as the first few weeks progressed, I met so many new people, and became attuned to my surroundings! Just remember, you might feel a little nervous at first, but once you get started, all your worries will disappear—it all takes time to get used to.

#10 - Get Support When You Need It

Whether you are stressing out about a paper or stressing about what to do after school—OISE has got your back! There are so many student support services available to all of our students! For example, if you need help writing a paper, you may find it useful to go to OISE’s Student Success Centre and get help with your paper, or perhaps you can go to OISE’s library if you are having trouble with research. You can also head over to various departments or OISE’s Registrar's Office and Student Experience to seek assistance for your particular situation. When you first step into OISE as a student, you already know that there is a huge network of support that you can access!

ROSE Office lobby on the 8th floor of OISE
#11 - Say Yes to Everything

I attended a UTM convocation ceremony where Bob McDonald, the host of CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, was the guest speaker. I always remember his convocation speech, because it was not only enlightening, but it also rang true to me! He said that when an opportunity presents itself to you, you always have to say yes, because you don’t know where it will take you. He went from being a construction worker to a teacher at the Ontario Science Centre and now to a host for one of CBC Radio’s popular programs. He credits all his success to keeping an open mind and saying yes to opportunities that were given to him. So, I took his wisdom and applied it to my own journey, and I must say, I have grown so much as an individual and as a learner. During your time at OISE, just say yes to all the opportunities that are available to you, because you really don’t know where they will lead. So in the words of Bob McDonald, “Just say yes!”

#12 -Make the best out of your program

To put this blog post into simple terms—make the best out of your program! You may only be here for a year and a half or possibly more, but something you must keep in mind is that it is important to make sure that you take advantage of all the services and extracurriculars while you are here. In doing so, you will enhance your university experience and, at the same time, meet so many people along the way. I assure you that your time at OISE will fly, but just make sure you enjoy it, and be resourceful with all the things available to you.

So, this concludes my extensive list of all things that helped me get through my first few months of grad school. I hope that sharing this will help you start off on the right track when you get to OISE and help you get a sense of what to expect when you get here.

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