Layer Cake: The Anatomy of Graduate Student Cohorts


Cohorts in Graduate school are like layers of a cake; nicely stacked at first, but eventually the filling sinks into the cake and it settles. If done right, every layer’s taste, texture, and colour complements the other.

The new Master’s students (MSc1) are the top layer of the cake: the icing. They are always neat and presentable for their new position. They are eager, anxious, and maybe most likely to experience the imposter syndrome. You will find them skipping through the halls with their hair dancing in the wind, optimistic at the thought of the knowledge they will acquire and generate in graduate school. On other occasions, you will find them nervously gathered in the hallway exchanging notes. The expectations and stressors of graduate school are made worst by the challenges of living in a new city and starting a new social life. The first year is a brouhaha of anxiety and excitement.

The MSc2’s are the layer under the icing. They are relieved that the first year is behind them and proud to be approaching the first significant milestone of their graduate career. For some, it is a turning point: do I keep going or stop?

PhD1s and PhD2 are sandwiched between the old and the new. It is a no-man’s-land between the novelty of a new phase and the trepidation of the road to come. Presentation takes a backseat since Graduate school has long lost its glimmer. Nevertheless, the excitement of having three new letters at the end of their name is enough to keep most of them going. PhD1 and PhD2s students have proved themselves by defending their thesis and their identity in terms of research and practice is taking shape. Either way, there is a short-lived sense of accomplishment, a night of irresponsible drinking and debauchery, and the inevitable return to a harsh reality.

Interactions with PhD1s and PhD2 should be undertaken at your own risk, as they are a volatile cohort. Like the middle layer of a cake, it is either the favorite flavor or the eccentric addition. Graduate students in the middle years are as stable as dynamite. They are confident and motivated in the morning but have a mental breakdown next to the coffee machine by lunch. Handle this cohort with care.

I am part of the last group: the seniors. PhD3+ students have jumped through countless hoops: Master’s defence, comprehensive exams, proposal, course work, yet they know there is more to come. It is too late to turn back, stop, or to second-guess decisions. Everything has become a checkmark on the road to graduation. Our motto: a good thesis is a finished thesis. For seniors, the excitement of a new cohort arriving has long subsided. Instead of looking forward to meeting the new faces, we wonder if the newbies will take our TAship slots.

layer cake

Like a good cake, the layers complement each other in graduate school. MSc1 students benefit from the guidance of every other layer. They remind us of how optimistic we were when we started this journey. The middle year students can be unpredictable, but they provide the necessary drama to mix.

In my opinion, PhD3+ students are mostly likely to crumble under the pressure. If left to our own devices, we would spend our time knitting, quilting, baking, and watching Downtown Abbey in bed with camomile tea. We PhD3+ students benefit from the energy and pristine motivation of the younger students. Do not give up on us!

After all, we are all sitting on the same plate, being eaten up by the same goal.

Averagely yours,

the candidate.


2 thoughts on “Layer Cake: The Anatomy of Graduate Student Cohorts

  1. Pingback: 2.5 years in 3 minutes | Average: Chronicles of a Phd

  2. Pingback: Dear Annual Report | Average: Chronicles of a Phd

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