• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Expectations vs. Reality

Taking a moment to look back on his first term in graduate school, Andrew reflects on his goals—those where reality met his expectations and those where his expectations fell short of reality.

December 17, 2018

Andrew Bishop is pursuing a Master of Public Policy at the University of Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @xiongandi.

On the first day of my final year teaching, I had my students work on a couple of "back to school” activities that helped set the stage for what they wanted to get out of my language arts class. They worked in groups to determine what they needed from me, what they needed from each other, and what our classroom should look like to help them find success. Each student also set academic and behavioral goals that we locked away in a “time capsule” until the end of our first semester. When we opened the time capsule, students reflected on whether or not they met their goals, and what they needed to do moving forward to reach them. These activities helped my students to set expectations and guided me as their teacher in ensuring that these expectations met reality.

As I’m writing this post, I’m snowed in from the first major snowstorm of the year. Classes ended last Thursday, and I have only one final project and an exam to close out my first semester of grad school. In the midst of the chaos that comes at the end of a school term, I’m happy to have a moment of solitude to reflect on what my own expectations were for this semester and take stock of how things turned out for me. Overall, I’m pleased with how the semester went. However, I know there are still a number of areas that I want to improve moving forward into the next semester.

Expectations met reality when:

1. I held true to my goal of keeping a workday scheduleIf there is one habit that I would recommend all grad students adapt, it would be holding a “workday” schedule throughout the week. I found that coming in early to school gave me enough time to complete most, if not all, of my work at school before returning home in the early evening. This allowed me to maintain a fairly healthy work-life balance and reduced the amount of stress I faced. It also ran contrary to my undergraduate experience where my sleep schedule was inconsistent and I made less-than-healthy decisions with my time.

2. I pushed myself outside of my academic comfort zone. Part of the reason why I came back to school was to continue building my skills by going outside of what I know how to do. This semester provided me with countless opportunities to do that. I opted in to a number of projects that I never previously had the chance to try. I used video to convey a messages in new ways, designed and ran experiments to test hypotheses, and learned how to analyze and interpret statistical data. Not only have these experiences made me more comfortable with stepping outside of my comfort zone, but they are also skills that I can bring and discuss with future employers.

Expectations fell short of reality when:

1. I didn’t “have time” to pursue my own personal research questions of interest. With class readings to finish, problem sets to complete, and exams to prepare for, I didn’t “have time” to spend delving into the literature around topics that personally interest me. I put “have time” in quotation marks because the reality is that I simply did not prioritize doing this. In grad school, it’s important to find the balance between what your program’s curriculum sets out and what drives your own personal interests in the material. While I found a great deal of value in my coursework, I have to acknowledge that I still need to find my own personal balance.

2. I didn’t write as much as I had anticipated. I enjoy writing and came into grad school with the expectation that I would write for a set amount of time each day. The purpose behind this was to make writing a part of my daily routine. I would have the chance to write more, and with this additional practice, ultimately improve my writing ability. While I wrote on occasion for class, I did not maintain a daily writing schedule. As a result, I did not write nearly as much as I had initially wanted.

I can already see my list of goals for next semester developing from where my expectations did not meet reality. With only three semesters left in my program, I want to make the most of my remaining time in school. To sum it up, I plan on moving into next semester by writing more and asking more questions. This will bring my expectations ever closer to the reality that I want for myself in making my graduate experience worthwhile.

Take some time to reflect on your own semester. Where did your expectations meet reality? Where did they fall short? Feel free to share your reflections in the comments below.  

[Image taken by Kevin Breiner and used with permission.]


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