Coping with the First Year of Graduate School

The cracked ceiling in the graduate student lounge was the last thing I remembered seeing before I walked into class late one day. Just minutes before, I had stretched out on a ripped faux leather couch and told myself, “I will just look at the ceiling until the bell rings. I will not shut my eyes.”

While I do remember looking at the ceiling for a long time, I never heard the bell ring because as I stared above, I fell asleep—with my eyes wide open. I’d spent so many sleepless hours believing I couldn’t measure up to my peers that all of that worrying caught up with me.

My classmates sounded so smart every time they opened their mouths to speak, so I kept my mouth shut and wrote down all of the theories and authors they rattled off so easily from memory. Later, I spent time in the library reading and studying, which still didn’t seem to build my confidence. My graduate program was in literary theory and literature from Spain, so all of my classes were completely in Spanish and Spanish was not my first language. I started to blame my language ability for my lack of understanding, but I quickly realized I wouldn’t have understood my peers, even in English, because they had read and studied things I hadn’t been exposed to yet.

After the first month in my program, I ran to the English department next-door on campus and begged to be enrolled in a graduate program there. The receptionist was kind, but she told me to finish my master’s degree in Spanish first and then consider English for a doctoral program. However, by the time I completed my master’s degree, I knew I wanted to continue with a doctorate in Spanish literature.

So, what changed my mind and how did I get through the first year? Developing the ability to more confidently write in another language—and get over my fear of writing altogether—pushed me through.

My first semester as a master’s degree student included a course in which I was mixed in with second-year doctoral students. They were quite intimidating because many were native speakers of Spanish from all over Spain, South America, Mexico, and Central America. They had also read and studied theories I hadn’t learned yet. These students seemed to be applying theories in sophisticated ways to the novels we were assigned to read. It seemed like it would take me so long to get through each of those novels, while taking meticulous notes on symbolism and themes. When I would come to class, I was prepared to talk about what I read, but the other students were talking about things that I hadn’t exactly noticed right away when I took notes.

I thought I could get by with just remaining silent, but one class assignment required us to get up and present a “reflection” paper, based on one of the novels we read. I knew enough to realize that a “reflection” paper was not an emotional outpouring of how I felt when I read my assigned novel. I knew I would have to provide some kind of analysis.

In college, I didn’t hesitate to start my papers early so that I could revise them, but this first graduate assignment caused me to procrastinate for the first time in my academic career. Each day, I would stare at a blank piece of paper and tell myself that any kind of analysis I might provide would not be good enough and that my Spanish would not be good enough, either. I continued to procrastinate until just a few days before the presentation, which is when my anxiety caused me to believe that I had to write this presentation because I didn’t have a “back-up plan” if I failed graduate school.

The first thing I did was to sit in a comforting and familiar spot: my futon in the living room of my first apartment. I cleared off the coffee table and considered being kinder to myself than I had been before. Maybe I would tell myself that I knew more than I thought I did. Maybe I was enrolled in and accepted into this program for a reason. Maybe this novel spoke to me in a way that was perhaps important. At the heart of my assigned novel were themes of social justice, community, and resilience. What was wrong with discussing those themes, through the symbols that repeated and emerged throughout the text? So, I began to write, in Spanish—a language I hadn’t quite learned to master yet.

In just a few hours, I finished in enough time to run my presentation past a few peers from my class. These intimidating “giants” were extremely generous and kind. They listened for my thesis statement. They assured me I had one. They even told me they could understand what I was saying—despite a few word choice and agreement errors I could fix and rewrite.

When I stood up to present my paper, I knew I hadn’t mastered the theories the doctoral students already applied to novels so skillfully, but I knew I had something to say and that what I noticed in my assigned novel mattered. I wish I could say that I trusted myself from then on, but I always had my doubts. With each paper and presentation though, I learned more about the language I was studying and more about myself.

Spending time with my eyes glued to the ceiling, too afraid to shut them for fear of falling asleep and missing something, was no way to live. Ceilings, after all, are limiting and graduate school is the perfect time to learn to push past such perceived limitations—fully awake, with eyes set on a more expansive view.

Cecilia Kennedy, PhD

Paper/Rock Writing Consultation

If you need help with writing assignments or advice for getting through graduate school, I’m happy to lend a hand. Contact me at



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