What I Learned About Surviving Graduate School

One Saturday night a year ago, as I found myself sitting in my apartment writing a draft IRB proposal, I began to reflect on the lifestyle I had chosen. I immediately recalled an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart mocks the plight of young scholars by saying, “Look at me, I’m a grad student! I’m 30 years old and I made $600 last year!” To which Marge replies: “Bart, don’t make fun of grad students. They just made a terrible life choice.”

That episode hit a bit too close to home. It reminded me of many awkward moments—like when an old friend came to town recruiting for his Fortune 500 company and we met up. He just threw down the corporate card and started buying drinks for everyone. And there I was annoyed about the $5 cover. He was eating expensive meals in New York, while I was eating TV dinners.

In spite of all that, I am writing now—in my first position as an assistant professor—to offer a few words of advice on how you can have a successful doctoral experience in the sciences, if you accept a few realities of the graduate-student lifestyle. I was a full-time, fully financed (which is of critical importance unless you are independently wealthy) graduate student. I had a paid position as a teaching assistant, which means, of course, that you do a lot of work without any credit. Here is what I learned.

Remind yourself regularly that there is an end. It is easy to become quickly overwhelmed at the beginning of your graduate career, as everything about it is so different from the undergraduate years. I often felt stressed out. It seemed as if every class session turned into more tasks I had to do, more processes I had to learn, and more mistakes I had made. I had to constantly remind myself that I would get through it all.

Find a way to relax. Flipping out over everything you have to do will not help get any of it done. Organize your thoughts, and roll with the punches. It is no surprise that many graduate students work until late in the night. Make sure to take breaks from the computer, give yourself some “nights off,” and just chill in front of the television. Cook a nice dinner one night, take a long bath, read for fun, paint, listen to music, go skiing, go to a free concert, work out in the campus pool, whatever. The point is to purposely add alone downtime to maintain your mental health. As a wise man once told me, “The sun will rise again in the morning.”

You are not alone, however much it may seem like it. Our work is often solitary. We write our own papers, work on our own research, and some of us even live alone. I know a doctoral student in organic chemistry who actually brought a sleeping bag to his lab and lived there for three days while conducting an experiment. (And it wasn’t even for his own work; it was for his adviser’s.)

But in graduate school, that is by design. We can’t co-write papers for our Ph.D. programs. It has to be our own work. But there is no reason that you can’t share your thoughts and ideas with others in your department.

Research is hard. There is a reason it takes four to six years of full-time graduate work to earn a Ph.D. in the sciences. Learning how to conduct valid research is an arduous process. It took me four months just to think of a dissertation topic for my research. When I polled many professors, they all claimed that was about normal. Learning all of the research methodology is a seemingly endless endeavor. But graduate school is the time to screw up and make mistakes. Simply put: Let yourself be a student.

Play dumb. I mean that in the sense of making the most of the resources around you. Most of your professors are extremely knowledgeable and willing to help. But they will not come to you, so you must go to them. Attend office hours, be an active participant in your courses, and generally just ask for guidance. That does not mean nag. Professors are busy people. But you can tactfully use them, just as they will use you.

Establish a good rapport with your adviser. That may sound obvious, but some students don’t. Your adviser is called an adviser for a reason. You will have questions about your courses, research projects, technical problems, program requirements, research requirements, and faculty lifestyle issues. Ask those questions.

Your adviser will know many of the answers, or at least know whom you can contact for further assistance. A good adviser can help you set milestones throughout your program and make sure you stay on track. Remember: The better you do, the better your adviser looks at the end. He or she wants you to do good work. If you make a name for yourself, you are also making a name for your adviser, and vice versa.

I recommend setting up at least a weekly meeting with your adviser. In addition, attend some nonacademic events together. Go out to lunch, get tickets to a speaker, catch a collegiate sporting event, or even go to happy hour (keeping in mind, if you have a few beers, that your adviser is the one who will ultimately sign off on your degree).

Be passionate about your work. As you refine your topic of research interest, it is important that you select something you are passionate about. Again, that may sound like obvious advice, but I know plenty of graduate students who didn’t, and who floundered as a result.

It is not about what your adviser wants you to do (although the two of you can, and will, often have similar interests). It is what you want to do because you are the one who will be doing all of the work. Selecting a research topic because it’s “popular,” or because you think it will be “easy” or “quick” often ends badly. Dissertations are neither easy nor are they ever completed as quickly as you think.

Find a comfortable place to live. It may not be plush. In fact, it probably won’t be because you’re a graduate student. But it should be a place where you can feel at ease.

I lived in some dumps early on in graduate school, and I reached a point where I didn’t want to live in a dump anymore. I didn’t enjoy feeling bad about coming home every day, and it started to affect my graduate work. I needed a change and found a nice place in graduate housing, where I was surrounded by fellow students. It felt like a community.

With the little money graduate students make, it is important to budget a good amount of it for the best place you can afford to live and write. Finding roommates can often significantly reduce your expenses; just be sure to find someone who understands that you are a full-time graduate student. Our lifestyles can be much different from those working a 9-to-5 job.

Money comes and goes; life experiences stay forever. It can be frustrating to work so hard and have so little to show for it financially. But as the U.S. Marines say, adapt and overcome. Identify your income and remember that no one forced you to become a full-time graduate student. So maybe you can’t afford nice clothes or a good steak. But there are plenty of inexpensive things you can afford. There is nothing wrong with buying moderately priced meals and taking advantage of student discounts.

Focus on the experiences you are having, not on the ones you aren’t able to afford yet. Apply for grant money, seek travel awards for conferences, or even work a part-time job if you want. And if you’re still unsatisfied, it may be time to rethink your academic aspirations.

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