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How to survive your first year of graduate school – Part II

Five practical tips to help you beat academic culture shock


When visiting another country, openness, flexibility and a willingness to dig into your emotional toolbox to solve problems are often needed to overcome culture shock.

Academic culture shock is no different: research in the field of cross-cultural psychology demonstrates that tolerance for ambiguity, self-reliance, curiosity and warmth in human relationships all facilitate your progress as you adapt to the culture of your discipline in graduate school.

No matter which stage of culture shock you are working through, the following five survival tips will help you make progress, gain confidence and allow you to feel more at home in your discipline. You may also find that they serve you long after your first year has come and gone.

Tip #1: Have a sense of humour

Approaching culture learning with a sense of humour has been shown to facilitate learning and lessen stress associated with culture shock. Intercultural scholar Robert Kohls refers to it as “the ultimate weapon against despair” during cultural transitions.

So, if you ask a young-looking academic at the department party about his dissertation and he turns out to be a tenured professor in your department, do not be too embarrassed. Laugh, apologize and hope that you will finish your thesis before grey hair arrives.

Tip #2: Know it’s okay to make mistakes

While learning a new culture, we all make mistakes. Look for opportunities to fail in a safe environment.

Everyone’s articles get rejected from journals at some point. So submit them, and get rejected. Reviewers will provide constructive feedback in the process and help you improve your writing. Join a TA training session and safely experiment with your teaching in front of a group of peers. Ask your adviser to let you give short, 10-minute lectures in class to prepare for longer presentations in front of larger audiences later in your academic career.

Tip #3: Take advantage of “cultural informants”

Find more experienced members of your immediate academic community and ask them to articulate the norms to live by in your discipline.

These “mentors” may be senior grad students, faculty members or someone from another university you meet at a conference. Your department secretary will also know a lot about the norms of social interaction in the department.

Think of these mentors as your tour guides to Academia. Ask them to explain the unwritten rules of networking with scholars at academic conferences, to model acceptable ways of critiquing the work of major theorists and to tell you of their expectations for collaborating on research in the lab.

Tip #4: Be realistic about what you can achieve

Do not try to accomplish too much during your first term or even first year. Those who set fewer, more realistic goals during cultural adaptation are more likely to achieve them than those who are overly ambitious.

Setting fewer goals during your first year will allow you to get to know the discipline and help you tackle major tasks such as your thesis or comprehensive exams in the second and third year of your program. Take stock of what you have accomplished at the end of each term, and set realistic goals for the next term in writing.

Tip #5: Learn to speak the language of your discipline

From the beginning, pay attention to how scholars in your discipline write and talk to each other – not just what they are talking about.

The sooner you learn to communicate like an engineer or computer scientist, the sooner you will be regarded as a junior scholar who can contribute to the discipline.

During the first year in graduate school you are like an ethnographer conducting participant observation of your discipline’s culture.

Watch what types of research senior scholars praise, and what types of work they critique and how. Observe how experienced scholars react when someone inadvertently violates the discipline’s norms about collegiality, collaboration or presentation style.

Nanda Dimitrov is associate director at the Teaching Support Centre at University of Western Ontario.

Did you miss Part I of this article? Click here.

Recommended readings:

Boyle, P. and Boice, B. (1998). Best Practices for Enculturation: Collegiality, Mentoring, and Structure. In M. S. Anderson (Ed.), New Directions For Higher Education, 101, (pp. 87-94). San Francisco: Jossey- Bass.

Ward, C., Bochner, S. and Furnham, A. (2001). The Psychology of Culture Shock. (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: Routledge

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