The first semester
The first semester of your graduate studies when you’re far from home would be a crazy ride. You’ll be shocked by the “American culture” (but don’t worry we’ll soon have a post to absorb some of that shock), you’ll learn to manage an entire home on you own, you will miss your home…very badly, you’ll finally go to places whose names you had only heard in movies. Oh, and did I not mention, you’ll be really overwhelmed by the pressure of your coursework, having no time to even get a proper good night’s sleep. But surely it will be an experience of a lifetime for you and I’m very sure you’ll be able to get through all of that before you even notice.
When you land in the US for the first time, it’s a feeling that can’t really be described in words. You would find yourself caught up in two extreme emotions: a strong nostalgia for your folks back at your home and a surge of adrenalin to take up this adventure of a lifetime. Being jet-lagged to hell, sadly you’d spend all of your first days in the bed (well, a makeshift bed). As and when you gain your normal senses, you’ll be made to sit through 3-4 day long orientation programs and go through other formalities. It will be then that you would actually start exploring around and make some new friends.
Then comes the time for setting up your apartment. Depending on the location and price, some apartments are already fully furnished with beds and cabinets while some look as empty as a movie theater playing a KRK movie :P. But fret not, you won’t have to spend a fortune to furnish your dream home. This is where your friend through the lonely nights since the outbreak of internet, Facebook, comes handy. All the schools (almost) have a group where students buy/sell their stuff. You can get a pretty sweet price (generally less than half) for your furniture. This group is usually not limited to furniture, though, stuff here ranges from books to computer accessories and clothes.
One thing that you may find surprising about the curriculum here is that you get to choose what courses you wish to study in any particular semester. I guess they make you do this so that you won’t be able to take the easy way out by saying I couldn’t perform well because I don’t like all the courses they teach in my discipline :P. No, but seriously, make full use of this flexibility and take the courses you really want to take. Consider the process of choosing the courses similar to the process of choosing what to eat from a widespread buffet, with the different cuisines representing different disciplines. The strategy that works best for me is going to the hall and first skimming through all the dishes. Then I try a few of them which appeal to me in the first round, and finally going the extra mile with the ones which I really liked. Believe it or not, the universities here do give you an option to “try” a course before you commit to it. The courses usually have a drop deadline, by which you should have dropped all the courses that you don’t want to take. In some schools, these deadlines extend up until the mid-sem exam results are out (So yeah technically you can also drop a course if you don’t get good marks in the mid-sem ;)). Talking to senior students will give you the real inside scoop on these courses in terms of the workload, relevance etc. I typically advise the incoming students to keep the first semester open to experiments taking courses across the breadth of your discipline and then narrowing your focus as you move into the program.
Once you are done with the course shopping, slowly but steadily your courses will gain momentum and you’ll find yourself totally engrossed in studies. You’ll turn into one of those “ghissus” whom you had always mocked. That’s just the karma being a bitch! But there’s a sweet side of those intense study routines that will get you addicted and you’ll actually start to enjoy being a ghissu. Towards the middle of the semester, you start hearing the words “career fair” repeatedly in almost every other conversation with almost every other person (talk about exaggeration!!!). Although most of the companies would be coming to recruit students from your senior batch, you should still try to visit them and talk to the recruiters. If nothing else, this would give you an idea of what to expect from these career fairs when your time comes and, at the same time, you can get a feel of what the recruiters are generally looking for in the candidates. You can consider this opportunity as a “mock career fair”, if you may. However, this is not as mock as you think, some companies are looking for interns and they don’t mind picking up good candidates from the new coming batch.
If by chance your university is in one of those cold places, you are going to have even more terrible days ahead of you. As they rightly said during my orientation, the mornings will be as dark as the nights, you’ll be crumpled under the pressure of exhaustive courses while snow blankets all the streets around you but don’t worry, the snow will melt, courses will get over, the sun will show up and everything will be back to normal again. If there is any advice that I can give you for survival during these tough times is that don’t succumb to the pressure and try to take out time for yourself once in awhile. Hangout with your friends, go out for drinks with them. Try to get engaged in any of the various activities going on in your ‘varsity. This would help you maintain your calm in the thunder.
Okay, I’ve spread enough fear already! I’m sure all of you reading this will get through the dreaded semester with a breeze.
Best of Luck!
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