Stop Worrying About Starting Grad School

Some advice on how to prepare before starting graduate school

Posted Apr 22, 2015

When I was 14, I was 6’3” and athletic. I had no experience playing volleyball but I made the freshman team. Because I’m from Santa Barbara, there were a bunch kids who had been playing for years who were way better than me. 

By senior year I was good. Many of the guys who’d outplayed me freshman year weren’t on the team because they’d quit or been cut. My talent versus their skill was no contest. My talent won out. 

Why? Simple. You can teach skill. You can’t teach talent. Over the course of four years, my skills kept improving. I caught up in skill. Their talent (height, strength, coordination, quickness, dedication, ability to practice, etc) never caught up to mine. And mine never caught up to the guys who were more talented than I was, etc. 

The bottom line: your knowledge and skills on the first day are almost irrelevant 4 years later. What matters more is how much your skills are going to improve. That depends on your talent, attitude, and work ethic. 

Graduate school is EXACTLY the same. Some incoming graduate students worry about “am I prepared” and stuff like that. And then you get to graduate school and there’s that one student who seems to know everything about his/her field and yours too. It’s intimidating. 

It shouldn’t be. If you define being prepared as knowing how to be a good researcher in your field, then you aren’t prepared. No one is. You’re a flailing newborn spitting up all over and crying a lot (or at least I was). But it doesn’t matter. There’s plenty to worry about, but your knowledge of your field isn’t one of the things. That will come if you work on it. 

What actually matters is whether you’re smart, ready to work hard, ready to get deeply interested and invested in whatever’s coming, and ready to do what you have to do to learn and improve. Revisit the bottom line above. 

And by the way, graduate school is different from college in a crucial way: in college your professors are your opponents, in the sense that they’re judging you (by grading you). Even if they want you to do well, they also know that need a range of student performance in their classes. You can’t have a top without a bottom. 

Graduate school is more like a team. Your professors aren’t your opponents. They, and your lab-mates, are your teammates an coaches. When you win, they win. 

Think of it this way. On the first day of graduate school, you’re on the starting line. Other students might be a few yards ahead of you. But you’re running a marathon. Their tiny head start means almost nothing. The real question is how much better are you prepared to get.

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