What’s the difference between an undergrad and a grad student?

One of the first things that change when you become a graduate student, no matter how hard you try to avoid it, are your friendships. Gradually, and sometimes suddenly, all those friends you spent every day with during undergrad because you had classes together and had the same lunch breaks and then would head to the bar after exams drift away as each of you moves to a different university, state, or program for graduate school. You try to stay in contact, but soon you’re overwhelmed with coursework and juggling a part-time or full-time job (or multiple part-times). You’re also constantly being pressured to research, publish, and attended conferences. Some of your friends are as overwhelmed as you, others don’t really understand why you can’t seem to text them back except at 2:00am, right before you fall asleep for the next four hours before waking up and doing it all over again: work, class, and study… Once a month you give in to your need to stare at anything except a piece of paper, your computer screen, or the stacks of books at your library, so you agree to go out even though all you really want is to cuddle with your S.O. or zonk out catching up on your favorite series.

The second thing that changes is your own appreciation of your friends. People who used to seem fun and exciting are now just plain annoying and you wonder why they can’t settle down or take anything seriously. For some reason you find yourself constantly explaining to them that “Yes, I do really need to stay home this weekend to read out 1000+ pages for class and catch up on the 18 hours of research you were supposed to do for your professor during the week but couldn’t manage to squeeze in between your overwhelming course load and other jobs”, which can be a bit frustrating when you don’t have time to explain your life choices to other because you’re too busy paying the consequences for them. Suddenly, whenever that one girlfriend who always calls to complain about her insane love life and needs you do help her get over her most recent ex (despite the relationship lasting less than a month) you just want to tell her that if she has time to have a love life than she really needs to refocus her priorities. But, instead, you hold your tongue and set aside, with pain, the novel you had to finish last week to sit with her and advise her for the millionth time why moving in with a guy she began dated a month ago is not such a great idea.

The third thing that changes is your sudden desire to spend as much time as possible with your family, who are so proud you’re in graduate school that they’re willing to pay for dinner, clothes, and textbooks. They want you to go grocery shopping with them? Of course you have time, especially since it means they might chip in for your groceries as well. As the apparently most successful child, you can’t wait to hang out with those siblings who are struggling to live up the high standard you have just set. After all, you moved out by 21 and were paying all your own bills and education by 24 (the intervening three years were a justifiable struggle as you figured out how to balance your budget). Of course, big holidays are still a drag because your extended family can’t understand why you’re still unmarried and childless and why you can’t just settle for the part-time you currently have or accept the full-time position you were just offered as an assistant. For them, the most a woman can aspire to is to be someone’s assistant/secretary/receptionist and your desire to live the island/town/state you were raised in seems insane. There are only so many time you can repress an eye-roll before you develop a strange tick…

Of course, the most noticeable difference between a grad student and an undergrad is that grad students are essentially invisible. Despite being the ones who grade papers and tests and answer every undergrad’s inquiry via e-mail or man the receptionist’s desk at the department, it seems like both undergrads and the university administration is unaware of our existence. Whenever we sit in class monitoring a test or covering for a professor we constantly get asked whether we’re a student or simply ignored (joke’s on them because we grade!). There isn’t a single cafeteria or coffee shop on campus open past 5:00pm, even though the earliest graduate course doesn’t begin until 4:30pm. Student associations and student councils make campus-wide decisions without a single graduate student representative present because we don’t have time to sit at a student meeting for 3+ hours complaining about the administration’s inefficiency…we’ve been at it so long we know all the ins and outs of the bureaucratic nightmare we commonly refer to as “public university administration”. All the changes these undergrads are demanding seem unnecessary to us…why do we need digital boards when we can’t even have a coffee shop that’s open 24 hours or parking closer to our classrooms so we don’t have to hike across campus at 9:00pm?! Clearly our priorities are quite different. On those few occasions we leave our offices/libraries/dorms to socialize we no longer bother to go to campus parties or hang out at the pubs around the university, preferring to drive as far as possible from the area we spent ALL our time in to visit a new restaurant or bar. After all, we work 40+ hours a week to pay our bills and if we do have money left over why spend it on the world’s worst tasting beer?

Finally, we no longer feel tired, hungry, or lonely. These are our natural state of being and complaining about them has grown old or pointless. Even the unbearable stress and anxiety of juggling work, school, and social relationships has become our norm. We handle emotional breakdowns and panic attacks on a weekly basis and think of them as cathartic instead of scary. Someone broke down crying in the middle of a three-student seminar because they haven’t even begun answering the questions for the master’s exam? Totally normal…actually you have to struggle to hold back your own tears because you’re still trying to compile the list of readings and figure out what the student write-in question for your exam should be! You carry waterproof mascara, eyeliner, ponytail ties, and concealer around like it’s the only thing keeping you together, which it probably is because the only thing you CAN keep together is your appearance. You stopped contemplating suicide because at this point you’d rather die from sheer exhaustion typing your thesis or dissertation than give up. You invested your physical, mental, emotional, and social health into this graduate degree, so you sure as hell are going to get it or die trying…no one can stop you, not even yourself!


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