Life as a Grad Student

McGill… first semester and beyond

I promised I would start from the beginning, so I guess that would be the most logical place to begin. The first few days of my first semester as a grad student were pretty basic, filled with new student orientation, getting used to new classes and new professors, and so forth. I would say it wasn’t really until the mid-late September or early October that things became pretty intense.

To begin with, I was for sure one of the older students in my program. At the time I was a first year grad student I was 30, whereas many of the other grad students in my program were probably in their mid to late 20s. Having been out of school for so long, it felt weird being back on a college campus, especially surrounded by students at least 10 years younger than me. I felt old, lol. In addition to my age, I felt like I lacked certain skills that other people had acquired prior to attending grad school. I didn’t have much experience working in a library nor did I have experience working in an archive. I just knew that I wanted to go back to school to get a Master degree, and that’s what I was there to accomplish.

First semester…a closer look

I’m not going to sugar coat things because I’d like to try to be as honest as possible and give as unbiased an account of my time at grad school as possible. First semester was pretty rough. I had underestimated how difficult it would be getting back into the swing of being a student. I didn’t know too many people, although I did have a small group of people who at the time I considered to be my friends. We hung out a few times, and they helped me get through some hard courses (especially my coding class). Even though we haven’t kept in touch, and I’m unlikely to ever seem them again, I’ll always be grateful for their support and friendship during my first semester at McGill.

At the time I was single, whereas several folks in my program were married and/or had boyfriends/girlfriends/husbands/wives/partners, etc. It did get lonely sometimes, not having someone to spend time with on a daily basis. But, that’s life. The fact that I didn’t speak French made me feel like even more of an outsider. For the most part, I got along time not knowing French (there were two instances where not knowing French was an issue…I might go into that in greater detail for another post) but I knew I wasn’t a Quebecois. As an English speaking American, living in Montreal was quite an eye opening experience.

The good, the bad, and the really bad

Here’s where I break down the good parts and bad parts of my first semester at McGill. I wish the good list was longer, but it honestly wasn’t.

The good: I really enjoyed being on a college campus again, living and studying among students from all over the world, from all walks of life. There was a distinct racial/ethnic and religious diversity at McGill that was refreshing. It was nice to see visible diversity on a daily basis. I also enjoyed exploring campus on my own (more for another post, I promise!). That was a lot of fun.

The bad: My courses were really difficult, especially my coding class. I went into that class not knowing anything about coding. Since my background was as a history undergraduate student, never once did I take a computer science or coding class. The first day of that class I was completely and utterly overwhelmed. So, on top of having to adjust to life as a grad student, living in a predominantly non-English speaking region (Quebec), and go to class, do assignments, and take exams, I had to learn a completely new skill set. I will add that although that class was tough, I could not have asked for a better professor. Our professor was kind, helpful, and most important of all, very patient. I went to her office hours, I went to the weekly tutorials, and I made sure to attend every lab (although since our labs were at 2:30 in the afternoon every Friday, it was very tempting to skip). The professor for that class and the TA made sure that they taught the material to the best of their abilities. To this day, if someone asked me to code, I couldn’t do it; however, I’m familiar with the basics of what coding is, and I’m familiar with certain words and functions. Essentially, coding is a type of language that humans create in order to talk to computers. That’s it, in a nutshell.

The really bad: After first semester had ended, and while I was at home on winter break, I found out that I had failed one of my courses. I was very frustrated and also anxious because I knew I would have to take that course again next fall. I won’t go into too much detail here, but basically it came down to a professor who didn’t know how to teach and didn’t care about the students, an unfair grading system, and an impossible amount of material to memorize for the final exam. Fast forward to Fall semester 2018, a completely new (and much better) professor, a fair grading system, and an open book, open note mid term and final, and guess what – I ended up passing! This experience taught me that the professor can really make a class miserable or make it if not amazing, at least bearable.

McGill after first semester

I won’t elaborate since I’ve already spent a good chunk of text doing just that. I will say that things dramatically improved after first semester. This was not only evidenced by my grades but by my overall attitude. There were a few people who ended up dropping out of the program after first semester, and honestly I can’t say that I blame them. My first semester at McGill was absolutely brutal. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I guess the saying what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger really does apply to my initial introduction to life as a graduate student.

There. I’ve written enough, and I’m feeling a bit drained of energy. Part 3 of my blog series will be continued shortly. After all, there’s nothing like a nice little cliffhanger to make you want to read more, right?

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