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

Recognizing the five stages of academic culture shock


Milton Bennett, a well-known intercultural communication scholar, likes to say that when we talk about another culture, we often picture it as a remote island – with palm trees, exotic foods and unique customs. Academia is one of these islands, with a language and culture of its own.

Each year, thousands of new graduate students like you land in Academia. They study, they do research, and, eventually, they have to decide whether or not to settle in Academia for good. Whether or not you decide to stay depends a great deal on how well you cope during your first year of graduate school.

Stranger in a strange land

On this island of Academia, the environment and the activities of the culture may seem more or less familiar to you. But you may quickly find that you don’t understand the local language and don’t yet know the laws that govern this strange new place.

That’s because many of the norms and values of Academia are implicit and difficult for new graduate students to decipher. Academia’s permanent residents – Canada Research Chairs, postdoctoral fellows, deans and tenured faculty – use terms like “epistemological assumptions,” “multivariate analysis” and “construct validity” when they describe their research. They all know that you can submit a book manuscript to multiple publishers but only send a research article to one journal. They have a sense of which research proposals are likely to get major funding and which ones are not. And they all agree that last candidate who interviewed for a tenure-track position in the department did not get the job because he failed dinner.

After a few months of trying to decipher expectations in academia, you may begin to feel disoriented and irritable, and even become depressed. No matter how many times you revise your research proposal, your adviser still says that it is a “good start” and recommends yet another revision. You get discouraged, and consider quitting.

You are experiencing academic culture shock – and you’re not the only one. It might be that no one is willing to admit it publicly yet, but your fellow first-years are just as lost as you are.

So what will you experience?

Everyone who has lived overseas is familiar with the symptoms of culture shock, which Robert Kohls, a prominent expert on cultural adaptation, defines as an emotional response to ambiguity in an environment where one encounters new ways of doing, organizing and perceiving things.

Culture shock is cumulative, and results in part from having to function in a situation where one does not know the rules. While culture shock happens to everyone, the good news is that it passes with time, and there are a number of skills and coping strategies (which we’ll explore later this month) you can use that reduce its intensity.

But perhaps the first and most important thing you can do is recognize that settling into graduate school means making a significant transition – and one that will take some time. Experiencing academic culture shock is normal and there are a number of stages you will pass through before you become comfortable and confident in your new community.

Those stages are:

The pre-departure stage, during which you prepare to embark on the graduate journey;

The honeymoon stage, characterized by initial excitement about being in graduate school. During this stage, you may find yourself coming up with enthusiastic and innovative – but overambitious – research plans and trying to attend every event offered on campus.

The participation stage begins when you submit your first research proposal to Research Ethics and need to revise it, when your first paper is accepted at a conference, or when the undergraduates in your tutorial finally understand a concept you have tried to explain for weeks. This stage is characterized by trial and error, by learning from mistakes. You participate in the academic community, but there isn’t much at stake yet;

The shock stage may set in any time after the end of the first term, sometimes as late as the end of the second year, as you become a more and more active participant in the discipline. This stage often coincides with revisions on a major research paper, difficulty preparing for comprehensive exams, rejected articles or doubts about pursuing an academic career. Those of you who are tolerant of uncertainty pass through this stage with relatively mild culture shock symptoms, while those who are not can face insomnia, depression, compulsive eating or conflict with your research supervisor.

The stage of successful adaptation begins as you become fluent in the language of economics or biochemistry and are able to decipher the expectations for presenting conference papers and publishing articles. At this point you are beginning to talk the talk of historians and walk the walk of microbiologists.

Try to identify which stages of the graduate journey you have passed through so far. Reflect on what you have learned about the culture of your discipline and take time observe how experienced scholars communicate with each other.

Click here for practical tips to beat academic culture shock, in Part II of this article.

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

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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