Grad School Series: Going to Graduate School
Now that you have decided to go to graduate school, applied and been accepted, and chosen a program, the next step is to go! I have asked my newest graduate student, Morgan Wagner to contribute this post on Going to Graduate School. Morgan just started her first year at UTEP. She had to move from Wisconsin to El Paso and has had about two months to adjust at this point. The majority of this content is Morgan’s, however, I added some additional tips that I thought would be useful to readers.
The process of applying to graduate school is in the rearview mirror, and you may think the hagrad-school-series-going-to-graduate-schoolrdest part of the process is finished, but in reality you still have a lot to do. It is a time to be proud of—your hard work and dedication to the applications and interviews paid off. You can see your future solidifying in front of your eyes; you have the resources now to continue your education and work towards your career goals. But it is also a time of immense change. I hope that after reading this post and speaking with others who were recently in your shoes, you can feel more confident in continuing your education.
Accepting the Offer/Initial Steps
There is a large amount of structure in the application process. You receive checklists and deadlines and are held to strict time standards. Accepting the offer usually has a lot of structure too. Most Psychology PhD programs have entered an agreement with one another that sets April 15th as the deadline for students to accept an offer. You’ll usually have to fill out paperwork and put down the deposit by April 15th in order to hold your spot.
Although you have until April 15th, you do not need to wait that long. In fact, you should inform all of the programs about your decision as soon as you’ve made one. This allows them to either plan on you coming (if you accepted) or make an offer to someone on the waitlist (if you rejected). This does not just mean letting programs know when you have accepted one, but if you have ruled one out entirely you should let them know right away as well. Keep in mind, these offers can be like a chain reaction – the program you’re rejecting might be the top choice of a person on the waitlist, who is holding a spot at another program with another waitlist. If you have a specified mentor at a program, you should let them know about your decision (professionally) in addition to following the program instructions. Many of these areas are actually smaller than you would think, so keeping things professional and respectful is really important.
Beyond that deadline, the process gets a lot more uncertain. You should email your new mentor as soon as possible to get whatever information you can about the process. The mentor can give you advice (or direct you to the right sources) on what classes to take and an idea of what the future will look like in terms of research. Some mentors expect you to get involved in their research/attend lab meetings immediately, others don’t expect anything until the semester starts. Touching base with your mentor should alert you to the expectations. If your mentor expects you to get involved early, you should be clear about your other commitments. You should also ask about the possibility of summer funding or other benefits. I was able to start during the summer with funding through UTEP’s BRIDGE program which allowed me to get a jumpstart on research. However, if I didn’t have that opportunity, I probably would have had to work.
When I accepted my offer at UTEP, I felt like there was a lot of information that I needed to know that I was not aware of, and I felt unsure about a lot of things. I wasn’t given a checklist or deadlines. My mentor did not know everything that I had to do. The Graduate Chair provided a lot of information, but there were still so many things I had to do that I didn’t even realize. Each program is different, but here are some things that you should be thinking about:
Setting up your email. Arguably, the most important part of accepting an offer and beginning at a new school is getting your university email set up. Not only will you stay in the loop regarding important information about starting the program, it will also be less likely that you are sent to spam and miss communication from university administration. The sooner you can establish yourself professionally within the school you will be attending, the better, and your email is a crucial first step. In addition to setting up the email, you must check it and use it regularly to send emails.
Reach out to your mentor and other required faculty members. Along with setting up your school email, it is important to reach out to your mentor, the program director, and anyone else you have been in contact with during your application process. In my experience, on the day I was extended an offer, I received an email from the psychology graduate program director and my mentor. I responded to both promptly, even though I was still unsure where I would accept an offer. Being in communication is important to express professionalism as well as your genuine excitement for being offered a spot in their program. These relationships will be extremely important during your graduate career, and building them as soon as possible is beneficial to all involved.
Reach out to graduate students. If you connected with any graduate students during interview weekend, it is good to reach out to them. Since they’ve been through the process, they can give you more advice on what you need to do both academically and personally.
Register for classes. Some programs have certain required courses the first year, others you have some options. Look into what is necessary for your program. Other graduate students can be very helpful here.
Get access to your office/lab space. This probably won’t happen until you are on campus, but starting the process early might be helpful. This usually involves ordering keys which can take a couple of weeks.
Get your ID card. Again this might not be something you do until you get to campus, but it is important to start figuring out how to do it.
Get your parking pass. In some schools, it is better to do this as early as possible since parking can sell out. Talk to other graduate students about where they park and look into cost. Usually, the spots closer to where you need to be tend to be more expensive. You’ll have to do a cost-benefit analysis of proximity vs. price.
Budgeting. It is a good idea to get an idea about how much you’re going to have to pay out-of-pocket initially. Talking to other students can be helpful here. Ask about student fees, tuition costs, average cost of books, etc. You should also ask about payment schedule if you earn a stipend. UTEP pays in arrears and the official fiscal start date is after the actual start date, which means that I started in August but was not paid until September. So a lot of the out-of-pocket costs occur before I got my first paycheck. If you need to save up to avoid late fees, you should.
Employment paperwork. If you are getting any sort of stipend, you should ask about the paperwork you’ll need to fill out and the documents you need. You want to make sure you have everything you need when you move so your family isn’t frantically mailing you important documents (e.g., Social Security Card, Green Card, Birth Certificate, Passport, etc.) before you can start your position. You also want time to track down or order official copies if you do not have something you need.
This is just an initial list, and as I said, programs vary in terms of things you’ll have to do. Again, talking to people will help you know what else you should be doing or preparing for.
Once you’ve done the initial steps, the next step is preparing to go to graduate school. For some of you who are staying in the same location where you did your undergraduate or who are moving back to a place you’ve lived before, this process might not be too difficult. However, many of you will be moving. The biggest unknown during my own acceptance and start of the program was moving. I am originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and got my bachelor’s degree at a university only one and a half hours from my parents’ house. I was in the same state and did not have to think much about the move. However, moving to Texas was a much bigger step.
I started with basic Google searches about the area; “moving to El Paso,” “moving to Texas,” followed by reaching out to the other graduate students in my lab about their own experiences moving. Although each city and state is different, a few things were important parts of the process that will be similar.
Finding an apartment. It was very helpful for me to get in touch with current students living in the city. They know where to rent from, where not to rent from, safe parts of town, etc. They can also give you an idea of living costs and what is reasonable to budget for yourself.
Lifestyle. Moving from the upper Midwest to the desert was a huge change. There are different bugs, weather patterns, and landmarks here than I am used to. Learning as much as you can about the climate and culture of the area will help you feel more prepared and comfortable moving to this new place. I moved to El Paso in the midst of monsoon season, which is something I never experienced in Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, rain in the forecast was not as serious as it can be in El Paso. The culture is also very different from my home state, which is not always something you can know before actually experiencing it in that place.
Requirements for moving. There are some things that you have to do, especially when you move states. For example, changing residency might be a requirement. In some locations, you might be able to remain a resident of your parents house while you are a student. In other locations, it is necessary to become a resident of the state to get in-state tuition. Ask about whether or not you must/should become a resident. If you do, you might have to get a driver’s license or ID, register to vote, and/or register your car (and get new insurance) wherever you are moving.
Once you have the basics figured out, you’ll also want to plan for the hidden costs of moving. Moving will be more expensive than you plan for. Even with careful budgeting and considering everything needed for my move, I ended up spending a lot more than I thought I would. Some areas to consider are as follows:
Cost of Actual Move: be sure to consider the cost of getting to the place you are going (gas, flight tickets, U-Haul, hotels, snacks, etc). Gas prices are different from city to city, so budgeting in those differences is important. Moving your things with you can also be expensive, depending on whether you pack yourself, you need supplies such as boxes, or the mode by which you transport your belongings. Depending on the length of your drive, you need to account for meals, snacks, and lodging on the way.
Buying New Things. During my undergrad, I always had roommates and therefore did not own much of my own furniture. I ended up having to buy a couch, table, chairs, and a TV stand; and that does not include the small things you need to have your own place. Some things I never considered that I needed included kitchen utensils, cleaning supplies, a vacuum, towels and washcloths, garbage cans, garbage bags, curtains, the list goes on. All of that small stuff adds up to a very expensive Target trip, so planning for that is crucial for your budget. Additionally, you may find yourself “lightening your load,” so to speak, when packing up your belongings. That can be cost effective in terms of the physical move, but be sure the costs of transport outweigh the cost of replacing it once you have arrived.
Residency. When I became a resident in a new state, I had to pay for my vehicle registration, new ID, changing my address, and changing my insurance. I also purchased renters insurance and added more coverage to my car insurance because of the weather in El Paso. Consider your surroundings and what you would be willing to pay for if it weren’t covered by insurance. I pay a bit more now in insurance, but I know if I had hail damage to my car or fire damage to my personal property, I would not be able to afford to replace/fix it.
Changes in Lifestyle. This category is more so under your control than any of the others, but is still an important consideration. For example, I am living on my own for the first time, so I have complete control over my kitchen. I decided to subscribe to a meal delivery kit to save myself some time at the end of the day and cut down on food waste. This may cost more than my grocery bill every month, but knowing my schedule and how busy I would be, I decided this would make me eat out less (an extra cost). I also moved from the woods-covered Midwest to a desert, and my wardrobe was not appropriate for the change in climate. One of my hobbies is hiking, but to hike in the desert requires different equipment than in the Midwest. Being sure to consider these changes can help you avoid surprises when paying off your credit card bill.
Graduate school can seem scary, but preparing to be unprepared is very important for adjusting well to a new place. There are a lot of resources out there, including current students, your new mentor or other staff or faculty at the school, and even Google searches. These are all helpful in getting used to the new school and city, but sometimes experience is the only way to learn something. That doesn’t have to be daunting; preparing yourself to be surprised and to learn something new is critical for thriving in a new place. Good luck!