“This isn’t what I thought it’d be!” (Expectations vs Reality, and the Journey of Self-Discovery)

I remember being an undergraduate student taking a research course overseas. It was a research methods course, and we were paired with a faculty member from our host university in our host country. At the end of my time abroad, I remember my faculty supervisor turning to me and asking, “so, you’re coming back here for graduate school, right?”

That moment was pivotal, because previously I’d never even considered graduate studies! In fact, I’m quite certain that my initial reaction to her question was (badly) suppressed laughter. I was stopping after my undergraduate degree. No more school for me.

Little did I know then that I’d find myself on this crazy journey of self-discovery and redefinition that would ultimately result in an M.Ed in progress (with the crazy thought of pursuing doctoral work as well). When I reflect on where I have been and where I am now, I can weigh the expectations that I held for this process against my actual experiences. Graduate school is a process of self-discovery. Everything you thought you knew and understood about yourself, your work habits, and your working and personal relationships with others will be challenged. You will dance on the edge of your comfort zone until you feel ready to spread your wings and fly…but don’t be alarmed if you come tumbling down a few times as well. It is all a part of the process.

I came into the program bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was excited to start researching my topic and eager to use my research to make a difference in the world. I had visions of T.A.ing, research, travel, conferences, grants, and publications. Ambitious? Probably.Lifeplan

As I’ve gone through the process, I’ve begun to better identify what I expected and appropriately adjusted my expectations to match the reality of graduate school. Here are my top five examples:

Expectation 1: I need to know exactly what I will be researching before I enter the program.

REALITY: This is not the case here at Nipissing. Luckily, you don’t need to know your whole thesis outline before you apply to the program. You don’t even need to know what route you plan on choosing (thesis, MRP, or course). I changed my mind a few times before landing on a thesis topic that truly felt right for me.

Expectation: I will be free to study EXACTLY what I’m interested in and this will lead me to finding meaning in my life.

REALITY: This can be partially true. In graduate school, you spend a lot of time focusing on what interests you. I’ve also found that it is sometimes helpful to explore other topics of interest in your courses (not just your thesis or MRP) because sometimes your brain just needs a little bit of a break and there’s something to be said for being well-versed in a variety of subjects. As for finding meaning, in my journey I have discovered that there are so many different parts to me and all of these need attention. My family and friends, my participation in sports and activities, my love of music and strange historical/political events and trivia are all things that make me unique and are meaningful. My thesis is important but it’s just one part of the larger picture.

Expectation: I will easily make friends and we will do all sorts of grad-school stuff together. 

REALITY: Ha (insert laughter here). The friend-making process has been interesting to say the least. To be fair, I have made some very solid friendships in graduate school. I still did not realize just how isolating the whole experience would be though. In my undergraduate degrees, I almost took it for granted that friends were the people who were in your classes with you. Graduate school is a whole other experience; friendships have gone online. Even though I opted to do my Masters onsite in North Bay, it has been hard to meet the other graduate students who are here as well. It takes a concerted effort to get together but believe you me that effort is well worth it.

Expectation: I will be smart and confident in Grad School. I will totally know what I’m talking about. I will be attending conferences and I will be publishing!

REALITY: Again, this one isn’t actually untrue. You CAN do these things in Grad School. You really can. For me, this one has just been a particular struggle with Impostor Syndrome (The American Psychological Society likens it to feeling like a fraud. Read more here). That pretty much sums up my first year – keeping my head down and working hard, hoping against hope that Nipissing wouldn’t find out the major mistake they made in           accepting me because there’s absolutely no way I can be working at this academic level, after all. In my second year, I’m recognizing that Impostor Syndrome is a cognitive distortion (yay, psychology?) and that I actually do belong here and I can make a valuable contribution to my field. I can attend conferences and I can publish. I just wish I could have a little more faith in myself from the get-go. (editorial note – this blog will be posting on Impostor Syndrome again in the future!)

Expectation: The thesis defense is the scariest thing in the world.

REALITY: Seeing as how I haven’t gotten there yet, I can’t speak to the reality of this one. I have heard from former students here and at other institutions though that your thesis team will not send you in for your defense if they do not think that you’re absolutely ready. I find that reassuring. I’m not going to lie; I still expect it to be the scariest thing in the world.


Needless to say, I’m very grateful for that day back in my undergrad where my faculty supervisor planted the graduate studies seed in my mind. Never in a million years would I have pictured myself here doing this but I would not change it for anything. I’m learning how to frame my expectations in a way that they might actually line up with the reality of the situation and that certainly helps. It is still good to have expectations, in my opinion, because they help to excite and motivate. Excitement and motivation are necessary in graduate school; they are what help carry you through to the finish line.

what-if-you-fly


Thanks to today’s blogger, for her thoughtful and honest contribution:

Catherine Giroux

November 4, 2014

1 thought on ““This isn’t what I thought it’d be!” (Expectations vs Reality, and the Journey of Self-Discovery)

  1. Thanks, Catherine, for your excellent post! We are still accepting submissions and suggestions for future content. If you are interested in participating as a contributor, or have a topic you’d like explored, please don’t hesitate to contact a moderator 🙂

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