Advice on your Transition to Graduate School

Grad School

So a little background about myself and getting into Graduate School:

I grew up in Jacksonville, FL and decided to complete my undergraduate degree at a small private institution, Florida Institute of Technology (Florida Tech), in Melbourne, FL.  I studied Electrical Engineering and had not given graduate school a thought until my senior year, spring semester. So I had to pick schools, apply, and choose, within a couple months. This is far from normal. You should scope out schools in your junior year and take the GRE. Your senior year, around November, is when you should have all your applications completed and be prepared for each application fee (ranging from $60-150 depending on the school and program). I was extremely late, since most applications close in December or early January, and I had to limit my choice of schools to those accepting “rolling admissions.” I wanted to apply to 10 schools, however I could only apply to 4, and there is an extremely small chance of receiving funding (Fellowships: Teaching Assistant or Research Assistant) when you apply after December.

I applied for Master’s programs at (in order of first to least choice): University of Florida, University of Maryland, Texas A&M, and Florida Tech (my undergraduate school). In my statement of purpose (SOP), I mentioned two professors I would like to work with based on their research. I emailed them both and asked if they had a chance to review my application and one responded setting up a call. When we talked he asked me why I was not applying for a PhD program, and, gee, I haven’t given that a thought. For many reasons, the PhD program seemed to align with my interests and three weeks before I graduated, I accepted the PhD offer and fellowship award.

So in four months I had gone from considering graduate school to applying to Master’s Programs to considering a PhD program at my first choice school to, finally, accepting the PhD offer at UF. You can now imagine that I had no idea or time to focus on transitioning from undergraduate life to a PhD program. A couple days after I graduated, I visited my advisor and new school (it was only a 3 hour drive from Florida Tech) not knowing how to act, what questions to ask, and what to expect. Looking back on this visit, there were so many things I wish I had asked or done. Two weeks later I left for a summer internship at Intel in Philadelphia, PA, where I commuted two hours a day, worked 40+ hours a week, and spent my weekends visiting distant family and explored the northeast.

Finally late August 2014 is when I officially started my PhD program. I had not prepared and had no idea what to expect.

Knowing all of this now, here are the top 5 advice topics that I wish someone had told me:

  1. Graduate school is a career choice; if you are being paid, you are an employee and should work 40 hours a week. If you are “bored” one week, which is very possible for a new graduate student, then you should be reading more about research and interesting topics in your field; read papers and journals. There is always something to learn in graduate school.
  2. Know your options after you graduate. Some options for engineers include academia (teaching and/or research at a university), national laboratory, working at a big company, or starting your own. Know your options during your first semester so you can plan the rest of your schooling to help you prepare for your career besides taking some classes. If you aren’t sure, talk to your advisor about it and attend Career Fairs. Apply for internships and try things out. You never know until you truly experience a taste of each option.
  3. Dress like you are being paid to be a student and researcher or teaching assistant. This doesn’t mean wearing suits or even dress pants and skirts to work, but wear jeans and a clean t-shirt. Girls, cover your boobs and shoulders. Say goodbye to leggings and shorts that come above your fingertips. I would say that on days where you don’t have to see your advisor or class, then it might be good, but as overall general rule, you are starting your career and developing a reputation on your campus. You will be making relationships with other faculty and students you teach.
  4. Get a hobby that includes individual exercise. It’s really easy to forget about working out when you’re working full time; sometimes 60 hours a week. I play volleyball but it is hard to get a court in a gym at regular times with regular people. So I decided to pick up biking. It’s a great work out and means of transportation at a large university. I can also ride by myself if I am craving a work out.
  5. Stay involved with Alpha Phi. Alpha Phi is colonizing at UNF this year (where I grew up and 1.5 hours from me) and is colonizing at UF in 2017. I have been volunteering with the colonization at both schools. This allows me to make Alpha Phi alumnae contacts and still be active in what I am extremely passionate about.

authorSpecial thanks to Transitions contributor Madeline Scuillo! –

Maddie is a 2014 graduate of the Theta Zeta chapter at Florida Tech. During her time in the Theta Zeta chapter she held various positions including Director of New Member Education and Vic President of Programming and Development. She also attended the Emerging Leaders Institute (ELI) and the Undergraduate Inter-Fraternity Institute (UIFI). Maddie is currently a second year PhD student at the University of Florida studying Electrical Engineering, and serves on the Extension Team for the recently colonized chapter at the University of North Florida.