Making the Transition: Undergraduate and Doctoral Programs | Solomon

written by:

Dr. Beth D. Solomon
Auburn University


By the time the first day [of school] arrived, Wemberly had a long list of worries. What if no one else has spots? What if no one else wears stripes? . . . What if I can’t find the bathroom? What if I have to cry? “Don’t worry,” said her mother. “Don’t worry,” said her father. But Wemberly worried. She worried and worried and worried (Henkes, 2000).

Though Wemberley Worried is a children’s book about a nervous girl starting elementary school, many of the worries Wemberly had were similar to my experiences as a first-year student—both as an undergraduate and a doctoral student. I was armed with knowledge on student development and transition theories as I started my doctoral program. Despite the knowledge, I had a similar experience as a first-year undergrad; despite the experiences being 11 years apart. Throughout the first year of my doctoral program, I reflected on the commonalities. A few years have passed since I completed my doctoral work, and as the new school year approaches, it seems to be the apt time to share my transitions and experiences. In higher education we are about to be joined on our campuses by students who will be navigating the same kinds of things that I will describe here.


New University Welcome Letter: Welcome to campus! We are excited you are here. When you come to campus, here are a few things you will want to bring with you:

  • Bedding (Twin XL)
  • Communicate with your roommate about shared items such as: MicroFridge, television, fans, etc.
  • Laptop
  • Area Rug
  • Alarm Clock
  • Clothes Hangers
  • Cleaning Supplies
  • Pictures/Posters
  • Shower Caddy
  • Towels

Think back to your first day of your freshman year. What were you feeling? What were you excited about? Nervous about? Did you want your parents to go home as soon as possible or did you wish they could have stayed a bit longer?

If your first day on campus was anything like mine, there were nerves—lots of them. My parents moved me into my room, my mom made my bed because according to her, “That’s what mom’s do”, we went to the bookstore for some college swag, and we all shed some tears when we had to say goodbye. Fast forward 11 years. I moved into my off-campus apartment for my Ph.D. program. My parents helped me pack up the car, drive down with me, and move me in. My mom, yet again, made my bed, and we shopped for some new college swag.

Naturally, I cried when they left, knowing that instead of four hours, I was now 15 hours away from home. However, I finished unpacking and organizing. After that the lost feeling set in. You know that lost feeling? The one where you realize you’re on your own? You have to make new friends. You have classes and have NO clue where they are? Yeah, that set in. Only this time, I didn’t have a week of orientation. There were no hundreds of ice breakers that are awkward, but at least it allowed you to say hello to someone by their first name as you pass them on the way to class, or rather, as you try to navigate your way to class.


New University Welcome Letter: Part of your welcome to our campus will include your orientation program!

As an undergrad orientation included a tour of campus, Title IX training, ice breakers, and sessions on academic integrity. While some of the requirements for an orientation program were similar, the reality was, spending a Saturday morning in a classroom with other new students was not as helpful as I had hoped. Quick introductions, course requirements, library information, some of these things were like my freshman orientation, but the biggest difference was the online training. I was shocked. How on earth could Title IX training be online? Wasn’t this something that had to be done in person? Also, why was everyone that was new not at orientation? Years ago, I wondered how people skipped orientation, apparently, some things never change, like how people complete online trainings.

I had to do an online training before I started at Union College—AlcoholEdu. I had to email the Dean of First Year Students for an extension. I was working at a summer camp in rural Vermont and could not take AlcoholEdu or my math placement test unless I had a day off and went to the Dartmouth College library (talk about feeling WAY out of place…). I did not want a hold on my account, so I asked for, and got, the extension. When I did complete the program, I took notes on the entire thing. I passed the tests, and I learned things. Once I got to school, I learned that people hit play on the training sessions, walked away and then took the quizzes. My first thought was, “They cheated!”

I showed the Dean my notes from that training when I interned for her three summers later. We laughed over it, and still laugh about it today. I’m always going to be a serious student. I’ll admit it, I learned from that AlcoholEdu experience, and as a doctoral student while I had Title IX training playing, I was organizing my kitchen and putting away groceries. I mean, I helped facilitate trainings on Title IX for the past few years in Residence Life, and since I didn’t walk so far away that I couldn’t hear the training, it wasn’t cheating.


New University Welcome Letter: Your roommate may become a great friend in your life. It is also possible that you can have a great roommate but different social circlesthere’s no one right way to have a great roommate experience!

As I prepared for my undergraduate experience, everyone talked about finding their roommates on The Facebook (yes, it was THE Facebook back then) and then being able to post on their walls and look at their profile picture. That was how simple Facebook was “back in the day.” Union did things a little bit differently. You didn’t get your college email address or roommate until August, so there was no trying to find a roommate via some board on Facebook before you were assigned one. When I eventually learned her name, I emailed my roommate. She hadn’t set up her email account (which I learned when we finally met in person). Believe it or not, I actually called her on the phone—a total struggle for an introvert. Despite trying to plan, we still ended up with clashing bedding (and personalities), but somehow coexisted for a bit. Not everyone meets or lives with their life-long best friend their first year of college.

As a doctoral student, I was lucky. I got to pick my roommate. I knew things were going to be great because we had been living together for 10 months already. She was perfect. I should probably mention that “she” is my dog, a Chihuahua Spaniel, named Pudge. Pudge and I know each other well, I mean, we were introduced at a shelter, and over the course of an hour (and about a hundred pieces of hot dog), became best friends, and fell in love. It is true what they say about rescue dogs, you’re never sure who rescued who, but either way, Pudge had little choice in our living space, and in our move (Sorry, Pudge).

We had a few house breaking issues when she moved in with me (a challenge I thankfully hadn’t faced with my undergraduate roommate), so I was all ready to spend some time trying to teach her the run of the new place and my new schedule. I got Pudge a haircut, which turned out to be her being shaved, but at least I wouldn’t feel bad about her having a ton of hair and moving to the South in August. We hopped in the car (well, I shoved her in a crate) and when we finally arrived, she adjusted better than I did. She learned to float in the lake with a life jacket, made friends at the dog park, and never really put up a fight. Dogs are adaptable. They are also good roommates, and our décor didn’t clash.

Additionally, she was a great listener and she didn’t really talk back. It’s kind of nice. Though I’m sure my neighbors might have concerns that I had full conversations with her. While she is a good roommate, the biggest difference is my undergraduate college roommate celebrated when I left for class because she would have the room to herself. Pudge pouts and sits on the couch waiting for me to come home every time I leave.


New University Welcome Letter: You’re here and going to have great social and extracurricular experiences, but your academic courses need to be your focus.

Speaking of class, what do you wear as a doctoral student? Business clothes? You’re a full-time student—can you wear a sweatshirt? Flip flops? What will everyone else be wearing? How do you take notes? Computer? Pen and paper? Was using a colored pen appropriate? What about one from another school? Should you use a pencil? These thoughts flew through my head as an 18-year-old, and yet again, at the age of 29. Before the first day of my doctoral program, I thought I would not have any concerns about re-entering the classroom. Instead, I found myself reminiscing on my first day of class at Union College, and feeling very similar.

First Day of School

New University Welcome Letter: What to expect on day one: Looking for a certain building? Look for staff and faculty in polo shirts to give you directions (and a doughnut)!

I packed literally EVERYTHING I could possibly fit into my backpack on day one of my first year of college as an undergraduate. I also figured out which building I was going to before leaving because I didn’t want to be caught carrying a campus map. Once I arrived, I quickly realized everyone was just as lost as I was, as we all pulled out planners, binders, folders, notebooks, computers, pens and paper. Was using the college provided planner with the student handbook in the front “cool”?

No one was willing to admit to the lost feeling, and shuffled their student handbook planner under everything else. A sophomore in the class pulled out a notebook and a pen. I followed suit. A year under your belt at college makes you a pro, right?

Students talked about SAT scores, majors, and if they were an athlete, to try to find connections and make small talk with others. I bonded with the girl across the hall about summer camp. I didn’t need people knowing my SAT scores (which were horrible), and I was already feeling self-conscious that I wasn’t a “scholar” like the young woman across the hall. Was I not smart enough to be in this “honors” program? Did I not belong at Union?

I cried. Lots. I had some of those same feelings from time to time in my doctoral classes when other students seem to have more of a grasp on the material than I did. The only difference was, as a doc student I knew that this feeling had a name—imposter phenomenon. Just like undergraduate students, no one wants to admit that they feel like they don’t fit in. It’s where the idea for this article came from—chatting with the professor that I worked with and realizing that I was far from the only one who has had these feelings.

First day of school as a doctoral student meant bringing just about everything again. How do I get to the classroom? How do I make friends? Where do I sit? The list went on and on. Luckily, in my first class the professor told us it was a technology free class—phew. I didn’t have to decide how I was going to take notes. I went with a colored gel pen. Some things never change (well, the brand was a bit nicer this time around than 11 years ago, but same concept).

As an undergraduate I went into college as an undecided major. I told everyone that I majored in “life”. I took things that I liked, hoping something would speak to me. I found myself doing the same thing as a doctoral student. While I knew what I was focusing on academically, I was not sure what I would write my dissertation on. I hoped that through coursework a subject would speak to me, begging me to study and write about it. Just as I dreaded the “What’s your major?” question, I got nervous when people asked me what I wanted to do for my dissertation.

One thing I had already figured out by my first year in college was time management. I’m thankful that my downhill ski racing “career” taught me more than how to ski fast. Balancing everything from workouts, practice, and travel, to homework and classes helped me succeed. It’s a skill I will carry with me forever, and I’m glad I learned it early. Balancing time seemed like a non-issue for me, so I decided to do the unthinkable. I took 12 credit hours that first semester of my doctoral program. So much for a social life.

Social Connections

New University Welcome Letter: Get involved and make friends!

So, as a freshman, I was shy, not sure what I wanted to do socially or academically, and thought that parties were scary and intimidating. I spent part of my high school career at a boarding school, but for some reason, living away from home was new all over again. After all, you could get in trouble for being at those parties, and I was (and am) not one to get into trouble.

So instead I decided that I would support the athletic teams. I grew up with my dad saying, “If you cannot be an athlete, be an athletic supporter”. Well, I ski raced, but it was “Club D3” and I was in no way college varsity athlete material despite my short stint on the women’s cross-country team.

So I wandered off to my first college football game. It was D3, so nothing like what was on TV.  I read up on the stats beforehand (naturally), so I knew a few names, but other than that—there I was, standing up against the fence, clueless. I didn’t know how to get where other students were sitting, and I was there alone. I jumped each time we scored, and they set off cannons, and after watching few more plays, I walked home. I called my parents. I told them I went to a football game.

Fast forward 11 years. I went to my first football game as a doctoral student—alone. This time I at least managed to figure out how to get student tickets, and figured out the disaster that everyone calls game day parking. After getting lost on campus, pulling into the wrong area a million times, I found myself parked literally a mile from my apartment. Lesson learned.

I dragged myself across campus, already defeated and dripping in sweat. My transition to the South was not even close to complete. The heat was still beating me each day. My goal was to watch the running of the hill—I had heard it is the most exciting 25 seconds in college football. It seemed like a Clemson thing to do, so I went (thinking back to my dad’s saying of being an athletic supporter), again alone. I managed to get right up against the boundary where the team was announced and ran onto the field by Howard’s Rock at the top of “The Hill” (thank goodness I’m short), and watched the team run down on to the field.

After sweating for another 12 minutes of game time, I left and walked home, exhausted and overheated. Talk about totally being confused—football up north requires layers and blankets not sunscreen and constant hydration. Why I was dragging myself around at 95 degrees out with 90% humidity was beyond me. It seemed like the thing to do though, and why not support my new institution’s football team? I heard it was part of the experience, though I was completely perplexed as to how all those fans were going to stay to watch a noon game in that sun and heat. Once I finally made it home, after a freezing cold shower, I sat under an air conditioning vent, and called my mother and told her I went to a football game. Clearly history repeats itself. (Note: My mom doesn’t even care about college football).

Each time I came across a new experience in the first semester of my doctoral program, I was brought back to my first term at Union College. Trying to make friends, navigate campus, and doing it all on my own this time. I was on my own without the same support system I had as a first-year student.

Without realizing it, I relied heavily on my Resident Advisor (RA), who was fantastic and helped me through my transition. This time, I had no RAs, and unlike my transition to the working world, there were no co-workers in my department. Yes, there were other doctoral students and candidates doing research and working with and for professors, but let’s be honest. It was NOTHING like joining a residence life staff full time (think balloons, door decs, flowers, signs, t-shirts—the student affairs uniform of belonging—and a decorated office and apartment).

After figuring out the flow of classes, work, and making some friends, things started to feel more normal. In addition to being a new student, I was very new to the region. I moved 1,000 miles away to complete this program, and for me it was a big change. It was the farthest I had lived from home. While there were moments that I missed—snow, car horns, angry drivers, and the uniquely grating Boston accent—I found South Carolina to be welcoming. Despite being a former ski racer, and still an avid skier, there was something nice about being able to walk outside without a jacket and feel the warmth of the sun on your face in January. Besides, home was only a flight away.

Transitions take time, and everyone has moments of feeling lost. As I sit back and think about how far I have come, I realize how change can put you right back to where you started. For me, it brought me back to my first-year at Union College. For others, it may be different, but transitions are not going to happen overnight. I will never know all the answers, and I may still get lost on whatever campus I am on. Life is funny like that.

The Year in Review

After my first year of living in the South and being a doctoral student, I learned more than I could have imagined. My learning was beyond the classroom, which will not surprise those in Student Affairs. I utilized many of the lessons in the work I did with students. Beyond learning how to make friends, find your way around, caring for yourself (and a dog), learning a new culture (regionally and within higher education) are things I continue to utilize in my conversations with students and colleagues today. I find that I embrace a new sense of bravery, a readiness for challenging myself in new ways, and always find ways to make connections. While not every area in higher education is full of confetti, t-shirts, and welcome signs, finding a way to connect with new students each year is important. We often do not know what students are going through, and while there is a focus on undergraduate transitions, we should remember our new graduate students (at all levels) are going through transitions as well.

As we welcome new students into our campus communities this fall, please don’t forget the graduate students. I urge you to spend some time getting to know them individually. Help them connect to state chapters of professional organizations, or across different departments on campus. Knowing students on an individual level and understanding where they are in development and transition is something stressed in graduate preparation programs. We should aim to role model that for students as we get to know our doctoral students—after all, they are the next generation of educators for our graduate programs.


Henkes, K. 2000. Wemberley Worried. Greenwillow Books.

Dr. Beth D. Solomon is a lecturer in the Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology department of the College of Education at Auburn University. She earned her B.A. from Union College, her M.Ed. from Salem State University, and her Ph.D. from Clemson University. Dr. Solomon’s research interests include leadership development, student-athletes, college athletics, and student development.