Sept. 23, 2019

What I wish I knew: Getting started in grad studies

Two senior graduate students look back and share advice for others starting out

It takes time to learn how to cope effectively with the challenges of graduate school.

What if your future self could drop in on your present-day self with tips on thriving in grad studies? Until the physics department sorts out time travel, we have the next best thing: two doctoral candidates tell us what they wish they knew when they started their programs.

Durga Kale is a PhD candidate in classics and religious studies, specializing in eastern religions. Hormoz Izadi is a PhD candidate in geoscience, specializing in geophysics. Both Kale and Izadi are nearing completion of their programs.

  • Photo above: Doctoral candidate Durga Kale. Photo courtesy Durga Kale

My GradSkills: What is the one thing that surprised you most about grad studies at the University of Calgary?

Kale: The small graduate student cohort at my department surprised me. It was my initial impression that although small, there would be at least one other student with a similar area of focus (eastern religions) as mine. Entering a smaller department than what I was used to with a smaller group of peers is something I would have prepared myself for differently.

Izadi: What was surprising about grad studies was how mentally challenging it can be. I never expected how difficult and ultimately necessary it is, to constantly remind yourself that you can get through the program. Maintaining motivation was difficult something I did not foresee. I don’t know if it’s something you can prepare for in advance, but you can certainly develop a certain set of habits or coping mechanisms to get through it.

My GradSkills: When you started, was there something that turned out to be more complicated or time-consuming than you thought it would be? What changes did you have to make, and what impact did it have?

Kale: In the beginning, accessibility to professors and having informal group discussions with people in the department and across various disciplines was quite challenging. In my third year, the graduate students from my department convened an interdisciplinary working group (named CRAIG in collaboration with Calgary Institute of Humanities) that helped open the space for discussions.

Izadi: My program has taken longer than anticipated, which has had a positive impact by giving me the chance to explore opportunities beyond research and develop skills and a network of friends and colleagues.

My GradSkills: If you could go back in time, what piece of advice would you give yourself starting out?

Izadi: I would tell myself to enjoy your time in grad studies. Take care of your mental health and wellness and get involved. Don’t compare your research and timeline with others. So often we get caught up trying to compare our level of productivity with others in our program. This is not healthy, as we don’t really have a way of objectively gauging our own research progress against others. Finally, get involved with the grad community on campus!

My GradSkills: If you are not from Calgary, what do you wish you had known about moving and living here?

Kale: I think I was well prepared for the cold. But getting used to meeting fewer people in a typical day was a process of learning for me. Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) activities on and off-campus were a welcome change and staying in Crowsnest Hall in my first year helped me socialize.

Izadi: I am not from Calgary but I’ve been living here for more than 10 years now. You get used to the cold, especially if you get into winter sports. Other than that, it’s a safe, clean city with friendly people and very high living standards.

My GradSkills: What do you do to relax, unwind and de-stress? How important is it to have a way to escape from the stress of grad school?

Kale: My go-to activities for relaxation are yoga, hiking, playing with my dog, and hanging out with friends. The yoga sessions on campus are a great way to unwind after a busy day. Activities around campus are a great way to meet new people. Additionally, I enjoy attending sessions at the Taylor Institute which are a part of my professional teaching and learning development.

Izadi: It is absolutely necessary and critical to de-stress. I spend time with family and friends, read, listen to music and podcasts, and cook. The GSA and the university as a whole provide great events and resources for students to de-stress and reduce anxiety levels.

My GradSkills: What has been the most challenging thing about grad studies at UCalgary?

Kale: I think I am circling back here, but meeting new people and making connections has been challenging. More recently, the department of classics and religious studies has made efforts for student-scholar networking, and I can see growing interest in networking, critical discussion and so on.

Izadi: Keeping the end goal in mind, maintaining motivation and persevering through the difficulties and challenges we all face throughout grad school.

My GradSkills: What has been the most rewarding thing about grad studies at UCalgary?

Kale: The most rewarding aspect of my time at University of Calgary has been making friends in the department and working with my current supervisor. She has made every effort for my academic and professional development.

Izadi: The people I’ve met, friendships I’ve made and the opportunity to get involved with the grad community on campus have been the most rewarding parts of this experience.

Doctoral candidate Hormoz Izadi

Doctoral candidate Hormoz Izadi.

Courtesy Hormoz Izadi

My GradSkills is part of the Faculty of Graduate Studies. My GradSkills connects grad students with workshops, resources and training to help them develop transferable skills and navigate grad school, internships, entrepreneurship and career preparation.