Hit the Ground Running: Five Ways to Survive Freshers’ Week for New Postgrads

This blog has been on hiatus a wee while, as yours truly was helping with a friends wedding, at a conference, and then down with a nasty bug.  I thought that a good way to revive it might be to suggest some survival tips for new arrivals. You see, this is the weekend when all the new students descend on universities nationwide.  (If you’re in certain other nations, you’ve already started, but here in Britain, the term is just about to begin.)

It’s been four years since I came to the UK as a starry-eyed postgrad, and almost as long that I’ve been an officer in the postgrad association here helping other international students settle in.  So while I was incredibly lucky and actually managed to avoid culture shock and homesickness and all that goes with it, I’ve witnessed enough for twelve lifetimes.  If you’re just arriving, here are some tips, both from my experiences and others, that might help you hit the ground running. While aimed mostly at postgrads in the UK from North America, it may translate to other situations as well. I hope so!

1. Don’t worry about sleep.

You’re going to be tired, you’re going to be jet-lagged. Freshers’ Week is an exhausting labyrinth of inductions, socials, society fairs, wine receptions. (Yes, your department in the UK will give you wine. You will get used to this faster than you think.) Go to everything. You’ll meet other students, just as lost as you, who will invite you to the pub, or the happy hour at the local dive, or to stay out wandering the streets til the sun comes up.  Do it.  Even if you’d really rather stay home and Skype your best friend while watching The Daily Show on Youtube.

Freshers’ Week is an odd thing, and it’s surprisingly important to take advantage of it.  Yes, you’re here to work and not to spend every night at the pub till 5am. (Actually, most pubs close at 11, but don’t be fooled; there’s always somewhere to go. This is the week you will find it.)  Later, you won’t hang out with most of these people, and you’ll have to spend a lot of nights at your desk writing essays and thesis chapters and research proposals. Those nights will be easier if you don’t feel like you’re alone in the world. Right now, the trick is to meet so many people that some of them stick, and become real friends.  So go out, even if you’re tired. Talk to people. Make friends. You have about two weeks before the chance will dry up, so use it while you have it.

2. Drink, or don’t, gracefully.

Many people think they are hilarious when drunk. Some people actually are. But look–it’s both embarassing and potentially dangerous to get so drunk you don’t know where you are.  Besides, see Freshers’ Week above–it takes a real toll on the constitution and the wallet to go out all the time. Know your limits. The idea is to socialise and meet new people, not get paralytic.

If you don’t drink, go out anyway.  Juice and soda are ridiculously expensive in comparison to the Designated Driver rates of many bars in the US and Canada, but it’s often worth the sacrifice to be social. There’s no need to make a big deal about it, just order what you want. Most people won’t even notice, let alone judge. I never realised before how many people actually worry about this, so don’t. The pub is an important social centre, especially in smaller towns, as I’m about to cover.

3. Understand rounds.

There’s a ritual to going out for drinks with British people. (Actually there are a lot of them, but you’ll pick up on them.) One that has a tendency to throw people off is Buying Rounds. In theory, everyone in a given group will buy a round of drinks for the group.  In practice, especially as students are usually pretty skint, it doesn’t always work this way–if you really only have enough money for one drink for yourself, just say so, it’ll be fine. Otherwise, if someone offers you a drink, accept with the understanding that you will be expected to buy them one as well. Rounds don’t always have to be bought in the same night or the same place, but you really should keep track of them in your head.

Tutors and lecturers, if you go out with them, will often buy you a round without such an expectation, but you still have to offer.  A lot of the time, when you offer, they’ll either decline or ask for something they know is cheap, because they realise you’re a skint student. If you want to be considered a colleague (and you do, because you’re a postgrad) you have to offer your round.

(Look, there are other websites for telling you how to network at conferences and write introductory emails. But believe me when I say one of the most important places you will ever go as a postgrad in the UK is the pub. The US and Canada don’t have the same relationship with the pub that Britain and Ireland do, and it is worth cultivating.)

4. There’s no place like home. Deal with it.

Some things will be better at home. Some will be new and exciting here.  Some won’t actually be better, but you’ll feel like home was because that’s what you’ve been used to. That’s all fine.  It’s okay to express mild disbelief at the state of British plumbing, for example, and how the idea of hot and cold water coming out of the same tap in the bathroom has apparently never caught on.

But do try to avoid constant comparisons to things back home. You’re here to learn about a new culture as much as about your subject, so get to know it.  Make peace with the strange licensing hours, the little switches that turn the electricity on and off, the general cultural disapproval of tumble dryers. Just enjoy it.  There’s always someone who can’t settle in, who’s always complaining about how much better things are at home, and it’s tiresome.

On the other hand, people will be interested in where you come from, and will want to hear about it. Have a few good stories about your hometown, your family, or your school. Just don’t talk about it constantly. Return the favour by asking people about themselves. I know this sounds basic, but you’d be amazed at how many people have never quite mastered the art of listening to the other person’s half the conversation. The winning combination is to be interesting and interested. Practice it if necessary.

5. Be homesick sometimes.

Even if you have the best attitude ever and are open to all sorts of new things and loving your course, there will be ups and downs. Accept them. Conventional wisdom says that it takes three months to actually settle in a new place. First you often go through stages–a honeymoon period where everything’s new and exciting, an exhausted period where you’re tired of new and exciting things, a down period where you just want to go back to what’s familiar and stop trying to make it in a crazy new country. And sometimes it won’t be any of that–a song will come on that makes you think of that kid you dated in high school, or the smell of someone cooking chicken just the way you mom does it, or news from home you can’t stand being too far away to deal with. It’s okay. Just be sad for a bit. (This is also where the friends you made at the beginning come in handy, though it’s also a really good reason for the existance of Skype.)

So, that’s five. That will cover a lot of the social aspects of moving in–in the next couple of days, I’ll cover How to Deal with Housemates. From there on, you’ll be on your own.

You’ll be fine. You’re off on an adventure, enjoy it!


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