Thriving and Surviving Grad School
Assuming no disasters, this will be the last year of my PhD program. Before the final push, I want to share some hard-earned wisdom so that those entering programs now can find success and avoid common pitfalls.
At this point your mind is probably fairly settled with respect to doing a PhD (although its resolve will be tested–believe you me!). Before that enthusiasm wanes, I’m going to share what I take to be some of the most important strategies for thriving and surviving in what will be both the most grueling but rewarding period of your life so far.
No Person Is An Island
Despite most of our social awkwardness, we are intrinsically social creatures. As Aristotle put it:
But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors.
If you think you’re going to get through grad school alone without a social support network, you’re deluding yourself. In practical terms this means you should create favorable social and psychological conditions for your success–that is, you need to join, create, and invest in community.
You may not like everyone in your department but at minimum you should attend official department events (social and otherwise) and organize/participate in some unofficial social events, for example parties, karaoke nights, bowling nights, and day trips.
Grad students who don’t invest in their community run the various risks associated with social isolation and lose out on many of the obvious benefits. You can’t afford these risks or to lose these benefits. Shift the probabilities of success in your favor and spend some time getting to know other grad students and faculty outside of the classroom. Here are a few reasons why.
At some point (perhaps many) in grad school you will experience bouts of depression and despair–even if you aren’t typically disposed. The most effective buffer and remedy to depression is a community–friends that care about you and that understand what you’re going through; i.e., other grad students. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pull yourself out of a depression by your own bootstraps. You need to be in an environment where others care about your well-being.
But here’s the catch. You can only have a community of people who care about you if you’ve invested in that community beforehand. Few people are sympathetic to those who only take support when they need it but are conspicuously absent when they don’t.
You want your grad student community to be a place of caring, strength, and support. But this doesn’t happen on its own. You must invest. I promise you that if you do this you will get out much more than what you put it.
The quality of your work increases when you engage your ideas with a community of experts and experts-in-training. I know it’s romantic, but few of us are Nietzschean ubermench holed up alone in our cave single-handedly creating ideas beyond our time. Most of us run into mental walls. To escape the thought loops and dead ends in your own head, you need other people to bounce ideas off of and to read your work. People will only do this for you if reciprocate.
Some of your best ideas will emerge from discussions with your colleagues at coffee shops, at bars, or on walks. But these discussions only happen if you’re willing to listen too. No one wants to be talked at. People also want to discuss their own ideas.
Being a Good Community Member
Take on duties, fulfill them. But understand that for community that won’t be enough on its own. Caring communities require reciprocal care and empathy. Recognize that you’re not the only one in your program that’s struggling. Ask people how they’re doing. Offer to talk about how someone’s doing and about their ideas.
From the point of view of relationship-building, the most difficult but most important thing you can do is to recognize that we each come into grad school with different resources and to offer to others who lack where we don’t. Ask yourself, what are the background conditions of your success? Did your parents go to grad school? Do you have a loving and supportive family? Do you have natural self-confidence? Do you have high relative social status compared to your peers?
The best community members recognize where they have won the resource lottery, and do what they can to support other members who aren’t as lucky. To the grad student who is the first in their family to attend grad school, encourage and support them. To the grad student who has a poor relationship with their family, be caring. To the student who is insecure, build them up. Let them know when they’ve asked a good question or made a good point in seminar. A few words of recognition will do wonders.
Most importantly, listen and learn from others who don’t share your social background. Just because you haven’t experienced something doesn’t mean others haven’t. And just because you have experienced something doesn’t mean others have.
Grad school–especially if you have teaching duties–is like drinking from a fire hose. You will almost NEVER have everything done on time that you’re supposed to. From this it follows that you can very easily burn yourself out if you only allot yourself down time “when I’m done everything.” Also, the occasional couple of hours off isn’t going to cut it.
If you never really know when your time off is coming it’s easy to fall into low productivity, procrastination, and/or burn out.
Every week schedule for yourself a full 24 hours off. I do from Saturday evening until Sunday evening. Pick whatever 24 hour period works for your semester schedule. It should be the same every week. This way, when you’re starting to feel burnt out near the end of the week you can push through knowing that you will get a full 24 hours off in just one more day.
This is not to say that you can only take 24 hours off. Some weeks and days will be busier than others. However, regardless of how busy your week is, always have a scheduled 24 hour break. Overall, you’ll be happier, more resilient, and more productive.
Avoiding Self-Esteem Traps: You Are Not Your Work
Possibly the best advice I ever received about grad school came from my sister (who had completed her PhD several years before I applied). She said, “don’t wait until after grad school to start living.” I’ve found this advice to be invaluable.
If all you do is academic work then it’s very easy to conflate the success or failure of one’s coursework and research with one’s self-identity and self-worth. Positive feedback on your work=”I’m happy, I’m awesome!” People critical of your work/research dead ends=”I’m sad, I suck.”
The inevitable vicissitudes of your research, writing, and ideas do not make them a stable foundation for your sense of self-worth. This is not to say your identity should be entirely disconnected from your work or being a student, but it’s easy to make the connection too tight when that’s all you do.
To avoid this problem you should expand your identity and source of self-worth to include other activities. In other words, participate in at least one non-academic group/activity. Volunteer with a charity, join a recreational sports league, do art, practice dance or martial arts. Find some activity that is entirely disconnected from your academic pursuits and make it part of your regular schedule. This way, when things aren’t going so well in school your entire sense of self-worth won’t comes crashing down along with it.
You are valuable for other reasons. Find meaning and purpose in other domains.
Healthy Body, Healthy Mind
Again, this goes without saying. Do not let your physical health go to crap. There is no shortage of literature demonstrating that people who exercise regularly have lower stress levels, are more productive, and have better mood regulation, amongst other benefits.
The main thing in this. In grad school, your primary battle is for your mental health. When you start to let yourself go, you’ll start having negative thoughts about yourself. You can’t afford more reasons for negative self-talk on top of all the other ones that already come with academic work.
The best physical fitness program is the one that you will actually do. Find stuff you enjoy. Not everyone needs to get swoll. Go for an hour walk a day if that’s what you enjoy. Group fitness classes are a fun way to stay in shape. Try hiking, biking, dance, and so on. It doesn’t matter–but do something at least 4 times per week. Much of your success depends on it.
One of the biggest traps you can fall into is to fail to be grateful for the extreme privilege of going to grad school. You begin to complain about how hard your life is. We all do it. But take a look around at how the majority of the world lives. Most people struggle just to survive. And if they aren’t struggling, they go to work at a job they probably wouldn’t choose if not for purely pragmatic reasons.
But you get paid to study and write about the things you love under the tutelage of experts. Think about it. Like just about every PhD student, you have a scholarship and stipend. Your education is free and–depending on the institution–you have somewhere between just enough for a simple life or a little more.
Most importantly, you chose this life. Unlike so many in this world, this life was not a choice forced upon you. Of all the possible choices you could have made after completing undergrad, you chose grad school. Nay, you had the privilege of making a choice.
Don’t let these thoughts stray far from your mind. It’s vital that you keep this attitude of gratitude throughout your studies. You chose pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. What made you think it would be easy? Or that you wouldn’t have to struggle? Isn’t that part of the reason you chose it in the first place?
When things get tough, remind yourself of the extreme privilege you have; that this was your choice; that you had a choice; that society pays you to do what you purport to love.
You are privileged beyond most of humanity for all of human history.
Be Process Oriented
You are in grad school to become a scholar. You aren’t one yet. This means that you must focus on developing the skills and virtues of a scholar rather than on producing particular research units. If you develop these skills and virtues, the results will follow. But if you fail to develop them, the success of your research is purely a matter of luck.
This mindset will help you see criticism from your professors and peers as something positive. They are pointing to areas where you need to improve. You haven’t developed the virtues yet. Your skills are underdeveloped for genuine scholarship. The fact that your professor covers your paper in red ink is a blessing. Look at all these opportunities for development! These red marks point the way to becoming the scholar you wish to be.
Be grateful they took so much time on your work. As you’ll soon learn, grading and giving constructive feedback is tough time-consuming work. Imagine if they hadn’t said anything and allowed you to continue, oblivious to your undeveloped academic skills and virtues? You’d never become what you came here to become.
Epictetus describes the wrong attitude toward criticism:
And so far from looking for someone to bring you to your senses, you are distinctly offended by any advice or corrections. You say, ‘He’s nothing but a mean old man.’
– Discourses II. 17. 37
Thank your professors for pointing out where you need to improve. If all you seek is praise, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Extend the attitude of gratitude to your professors and peers for their feedback.
More on Mind-Set
To my mind, no one has surpassed Epictetus when it comes to describing how we ought to approach grad school:
You see, you are going to have to become a student again–that universal figure of fun–if you really mean to subject your opinions to honest examination. And you know as well as I do that this assignment can’t be completed overnight.
– Epictetus, Discourse Bk I. 11.
I take this to mean that we ought to approach grad school with humility, intellectual honesty, courage, and joy. We also need to understand that success won’t happen overnight, nor will it occur without sustained substantial effort. Grad school requires a great deal fortitude.
As I pointed out in the beginning, none of us are islands. We will sometimes falter. We will sometimes despair. And that’s why it’s so important to develop a caring community around you–people to support and encourage you when you can’t do it alone.
Grad school is incredibly rewarding but tough. You will be tested. At times, you will suffer doubt, depression, and occasionally despair. To overcome these mental obstacles you need to proactively create an environment and habits that mitigate affective volatility and foster support and resilience. A large part of this has to do with creating and participating in a caring community. The other big piece is to structure your life with good habits of action and of mind. With these features in place, you radically shift the odds of success in your favor both for becoming a scholar and for well-being.
For more great advice on grad school from Epictetus, I highly recommend: Discourse Bk II. 17 and 19; Bk III. 5 and 23; Bk IV. 4.
Ami Palmer is a PhD candidate in applied philosophy at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on political epistemology and civic virtue in an environment of widespread misinformation and political polarization. He blogs at Wrestling with Philosophy and offers a free online critical thinking course at Reasoning for the Digital Age.