Grad School Experience: Interview with Dane and Aravind


We interviewed Dane Mauer-Vakil and Aravind Rajendran about the transition from an undergraduate degree to a graduate degree, particularly in conducting graduate research. As an undergraduate, you are working to meet certain requirements and receive high grades. However, when you transition to graduate school, the relationship you have with your professors, colleagues, and the research changes. This term, many of you are starting Grad School for the first time, so we thought it would be a good idea to talk a bit about that transition.

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Dane Mauer-Vakil is a Master student enrolled in the Institute of Health Policy, Management, and Evaluation at the University of Toronto with a focus on mental health and addiction services in community settings.
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Aravind Rajendran is also a Master student enrolled in the Institute of Health Policy, Management, and Evaluation at the University of Toronto with a focus on tobacco control policy. Aravind is currently a Research Assistant at the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit, and has an interest in the tobacco control policy, with a focus on e-cigarettes.


What advice would you give incoming Masters students to help them with the  transition from Undergrad to Grad School?

Dane: Going into graduate study is definitely a transition, but I would recommend to be as relaxed as possible, and enjoy it as well because it’s definitely an exciting time in life. You’re going to meet a lot of new people and learn a lot of cool stuff. That being said, I would also urge students to manage their time well, and really be as organized as possible. The workload, in terms of reading specifically, is considerably more than what would be seemed as commonplace for an undergraduate degree. Be cognizant of how you spend your time, but to enjoy it as much as possible. Seek help from your friends and colleagues and your supervisors when needed.

Aravind: I think Dane really put it very nicely. The only thing I would add to what he said is that the point of graduate school is a little different than undergrad. In undergrad, you’re learning a bunch of courses that are already decided for you because of the program you’re in, especially in the first or second year. And you only get some choice in the upper years. Whereas in grad school, you will specialize in a particular topic. Thus, whether you go into a PhD or not, the point of grad school is to really develop your research skills and knowledge in a particular area of interest for you. Another important thing to do would be to try to make the best use of your time in grad school to learn as much as you can about your topic outside of the courses you’re taking. So that means reading up on research papers that interest you, reading separate books that interest you, etc. You want to try to make use of the time as best as you can and try to soak in as much as the knowledge of your area of interest as you can write well because you have access to the library and so many resources.


What would you say has been your biggest challenge transitioning from undergraduate school or graduate school?

Dane: I would say personally the transition for me was potentially a bit smoother than those who came in, either straight from undergrad or came in with little or no research experience. I had a couple of years between undergrad and starting my Master’s where I was working on research so I was able to kind of get into the mindset of doing research. My biggest challenge in grad school was probably just kind of altering the way I thought about what constitutes success or progress towards my goals. In undergraduate, your, or at least in my case, my main priority was to get high marks, so that I’ll be able to go to grad school. And now, as Arvind had alluded to, we’re really in graduate school  to develop ourselves as researchers. It’s less about grades and more about your output, such as writing for journal publications and presenting your work at conferences.

Aravind: For me, I think one of the main challenges was actually living away from home because I lived at my parents’ house in undergrad, whereas now I’m on my own. Apart from that, one of the things that I found a little different in terms of he actual academic experience was definitely the volume of reading that you’re required to do. And, the other thing that was a bit challenging was the extra learning that goes on outside of courses. For example, at the University of Toronto, there are these things called collaborative specializations, which are sort of like minors degrees in undergrad study. I was in one of those collaborative programs, and that was a very new experience for me compared to undergrad, in a good way. I was able to partake in a separate series of lectures and learned about this other topic of interest to me. I think that was really creative and it was also a little unique perhaps to UofT. But, even if you don’t go to UofT, I’m 100% sure that there’s definitely going to be a bunch of lectures beyond your coursework. It’s going to be a challenge to manage your time to try to attend these, but I think it’s super important that you do because you’re going to get a lot out of it.

Book Recommendations

Dane’s recommendation:

The Focus Effect: Change Your Work, Change Your Life by Bruce Bowser and Greg Wells

The Ripple Effect: Sleep Better, Eat Better, Move Better, Think Better by Greg Wells

Aravind’s recommendation:

Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts

Lisa’s recommendation:

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto by Joan Reardon



Thank you, Dane and Aravind, for sharing the excellent advice with us and our readers! 


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