Grad School Day 1: Awkward Small Talk

Day 1 started at a respectable hour of 10.30, with the first half an hour for registration. Registration means 2 things for me 1) filling in forms and signing my name, explaining that yes, I am technically Elizabeth, but please call me Lil, and 2) awkward small talk.


Well, I was pleasantly surprised when I found out my name badge said Lil (hurrah!), and less pleasantly surprised when I realised I was in a room of 60 people I didn’t know, trying to hold my overflowing handbag, take off my coat because I was so hot from the walk, and drink a cup of coffee, all whilst scanning the room looking for an ‘in’ to start a conversation with someone so I didn’t have to stand awkwardly by myself.


I see a girl with a name badge on who is in the same tutor group as me. I use that as my in. To my surprise she is even more shy than I am. Retrospectively, why should I have been surprised? She was also standing on her own, sipping her coffee. We exchanged pleasantries, what’s your name, what do you study, where do you live…but the conversation stalled, and I felt self-conscious.


I’m awful at conversation


A guy approaches, and restarts a similar conversation, and she slips out. I manage to get in some ‘leading’ questions, my way of making small talk more bearable for myself. Leading questions are anything that can’t have a one-word answer. Why did you choose to study what you do? What led you to a PhD in Cambridge? What did you do over the weekend? I have got so good at these leading questions, because it means I don’t have to talk about myself, a thing many of us are not so great at. The other person may talk a lot more than I do, granted, but still there are no awkward silences. As I have reached the ripe old age of 23 (so ripe, so old, nothing more to be learnt), however, I have become so used to awkward silences that I care less now with every awkward chat. Yes, at times I still have waves of crippling self-consciousness, but I am slowly learning that silence is ok, and you will not always be able to have an amazing chat with everyone. In fact, there are many instances when silence is better than OK, but I will save that for another post.


11.01 rolls around, and we are called into the main auditorium. I survived. I walk into the auditorium and sit with my new friend. Small talk is over, for now.


Grad School: Initial Scepticism

I’m a graduate student, studying for my PhD in Earth Sciences, and a few weeks ago I enrolled for ‘Grad School’, as suggested by my supervisor, put it in my diary, and forgot all about it. A few weeks later, I received the timing and location and a pre-course booklet, complete with a (very vague) timetable, and a pre-course questionnaire.

I was sceptical. What was ‘Grad School’ going to teach me? Hopefully how to finish my PhD without having a(nother) mental breakdown. Probably some jargon about the corporate world and how to enter it after I finished, or how to stay in academia if thats what I chose instead. I asked a friend who had been before, how was it? What should I expected?

“Oh, it was good. You should go.”


An email came through addressed to me and 6 others, from Jen Allanson, our Grad School ‘tutor’

Good morning,

I just wanted to take a moment to say hello! and to introduce myself. I’m Jen and I’m going to be your group tutor at GRADSchool next week.

I’m really looking forward to meeting and working with you.

See you Monday.

Have a great weekend

Best wishes


Short. Concise. How I like most things. How I am, standing 5ft 3 tall and only chipping into conversation when I feel I have something to add.

The pre-course booklet asked us to agree to 3 things:

  • to come with an open mind
  • to be prepared to be involved throughout the course
  • to respect each others differences

So Monday morning, I walked the 30 minutes to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where our grad school was to be held, with a (fairly) open mind, prepared to feel awkward in all inevitable small talk that I was about to be involved in, and ready to respect the fact that people are different and I do not have to like everyone and not everyone (/anyone depending on how anxious I am feeling on a particular day and what cruel tricks my mind is playing on me) will like me either.

So what is ‘Grad School’? And what did I learn?


Amazing. It was amazing.


And I learn a lot.


A fuckton.