This post is written by Sarah Qidwai, a current PhD student and former Gradlife advisory committee member.
U of T in September
Initially starting out as a starry-eyed life science major, I was thrown into a world of opportunity at U of T. I found myself in 2014 graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in History.
I decided in the Fall of my fourth year to pursue graduate school in history. Navigating the application process itself was complicated. There is no OUAC (Ontario Universities’ Application Centre) for applications nor is there a standardized application process for different universities. Every school had their own method and you have to learn to navigate all those steps just to simply apply.
By the time I graduated, I was fortunate enough to have numerous options. I decided to stay here at the University of Toronto to pursue a Master of Arts with the IHPST (Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology). There was a lengthy pro and con chart which helped me decide to stay here.
To be honest, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. No one in my immediate family has pursued graduate school in the Humanities. Also, as an immigrant and someone who identifies as a woman of color, it meant navigating through spaces where I was a clear minority. Never the less, I trudged on.
As an undergrad student, I was actively involved in student life, clubs and held a part-time job. When I started grad school, it was a whole new league. No one told me how many hats I would be wearing. This idiom refers to the notion where someone has different roles or tasks to perform in a particular setting. As a graduate student, not only are you a student, but a researcher, teacher, and still a member of the community at the University. There are brand new dynamics in your life such as your relationship with a supervisor, with undergraduate students, with the lecture who you are a teaching assistant for, etc. You could also be a member of a union (it was my first time as part of a Union, CUPE3902). In short, you have many tangled roles as a graduate student.
I was so overwhelmed when I first started that I seriously considered leaving my program during the first semester. I still remember when I went through the SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) application process for the first time and felt I was not cut out for this place. Slowly, I found myself adjusting to this gigantic leap! The second half of my Master’s program went by much smoother. I was able to find a research project of interest, a supervisor willing to take a chance on me and a graduate community that is always willing to help me. So I decided to stay here.
I just completed the first year of my PhD. I can now say with certainty that my research project focuses on the reception of Darwinism in India during the late 19th century. Though it’s been a crazy journey, I would not be here if I did not have help along the way. I would absolutely like to thank the IHPST for taking me in and helping me out. I am also affiliated with the Centre for South Asian Studies, which has provided me with another community on campus. So I leave you here with some advice I have compiled along the way. I hope it helps you while you figure out which hats you have to wear.
The more you know about your program, the better. Talk to the school of graduate studies, the program administrator, and the graduate chair of your department. Get to know what expectations are and what standards you will be expected to meet to maintain your status in your program.
- Get in Contact with Upper-Year Students
Senior students in your department provide a wealth of knowledge. They can help you decide which courses to take, where to get involved and general assistance in navigating through the university.
Getting involved doesn’t only mean clubs; it could mean sports teams, your course union, and a job on campus. It helps having a space where you are able to de-stress.
- Know Yourself and Your Limits
Remember that you come first and you know yourself best. You need to be able to voice your concerns. Know what your priorities are and who can help if you are struggling. If you are dealing with something personal, make sure people are aware to some degree about your circumstances. We all have our own battles to face.
Financial concerns are a huge part of navigating through graduate school. My advice is based on the fact that I am in a funded program at the university. First off, find out how your funding package works. Every department works differently. Some offer minimum funding, others are unfunded. Also know when you expect to receive funds (for example, with my own funding, it is a mixture of TA hours and fellowship funds). If finances are a concern, look at options on campus. The work-study program is available to graduate students at the university. After you have a picture of what your expected income is and when you will receive it, start drawing up monthly budgets. Include expenses and expected income. Personally, my annual budget goes from September to August, according to the school year. It is one of the tough realities of grad school, we all have different circumstances.
Keeping mind that this is all a personal reflection from my own experiences. My advice is based on information I wish I had known before I started my program, rather than learning all this during my studies. I acknowledge that I am fortunate enough to be in a funded program at the University.