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back to school

Every year around this time we see the same flurry of "back to school" activity, chit-chat about class schedules, reading lists, and the hectic pace of the first few weeks of the academic year.

Of course, this isn't experienced the same way by everyone. In graduate programs across Canada, students at the Master's and PhD levels face a range of experiences and (mixed) feelings as they contemplate the beginning of the semester. While some are just starting out in their programs, for others the orientation sessions and adjustments to new teaching or research jobs are part of a familiar routine, one that's often being managed alongside increased professional responsibilities, dissertation or thesis work, and family obligations.

Although technically they work on the same academic schedule as undergraduates, there are significant differences in how Master's and PhD students plan out a university year. One is that graduate programs usually operate year-round. Students are registered through the summer months so there's no "holiday" from academic work. Even when coursework is complete, summer research and writing are necessary. Summer is also "conference season" for many Canadian academics, and graduate students are encouraged to participate as part of professional development. Because they must keep working on their degree requirements over the summer, many grad students can't take on full-time jobs during that period. This affects budgeting because tuition fees have to be paid in September, but summer registration incurs fees as well.

Students new to their programs face the increased rigour of graduate-level courses, for which the workload is much more intense than what they faced as undergraduates. They may also be dealing with their first experiences teaching at the university level and applying for major scholarships. Those beyond the first year of PhD programs are likely to be dealing with the hurdle of comprehensive exams or creating a dissertation proposal.

There are also grad students, especially upper-year PhD candidates, who don't spend much time on campus at all other than to retrieve or deposit books at the library, meet with supervisors or peers, or to do work for their teaching or research assistantships. Depending on students' discipline or program, the further along they are in their research the more likely they are to be working independently – especially if few offices are available on campus. In some disciplines (particularly in the humanities and social sciences) the work is unstructured and may be undertaken without much day-to-day guidance; some students engage in fieldwork that takes them far from campus for long periods.

If students have "missed" important deadlines or goals in the previous year's work, the beginning of September provides another reminder that they've fallen behind on their projected timelines, and that extra work lies ahead if they want to catch up. Feelings of frustration are exacerbated by questions like the classic "when will you be finished?", which has been immortalised in Jorge Cham's well-known comic about PhD etiquette.

The tendency to feel stymied in one's work, or frustration from the experience of "falling behind," can feed into itself; often grad students each assume they are the only one experiencing a particular problem. This is called "pluralistic ignorance," and it also explains why some students find it hard to ask for help when they feel lost or overwhelmed. If we assume everyone else is doing fine, it's harder to admit that we're struggling, and harder to be around others as well.

This possibility of drifting away from one's departmental "home base" is one reason why it's important for graduate programs to help cultivate a scholarly community where students find themselves welcomed and supported, and in which they can participate regularly, at every stage of their progress. Keeping that connection going is a contributing factor in students' eventual completion of their degrees. That's why the start of the academic year isn't just a time for informing and welcoming new students. Given the different stages grad students have reached and the diversity of their experiences, it's also an opportunity for universities and faculty members to reconnect with those who are returning and to help them connect with each other.

Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education at York University.