Top 5 things you need to survive grad school (a guide for all the baby grad students and aspiring applicants)

Every time I’ve looked at Facebook in the past two months, someone else was posting about how they were going off to grad school or taking the GREs or otherwise embarking on a new and exciting academic journey. The posts have gotten so thick they’ve nearly drowned out the engagement/wedding/baby posts, which is a minor miracle.

I’m excited for my new companions in academia–there’s a lot to love here, and certainly an infinite set of things to experience. However, essentially nothing prior to grad school can give you an idea of what the experience in itself is actually like. You haven’t asked the right questions, there’s always some dreadful or exciting (or both) surprise just around the corner, and the pace of it all is nonstop.

To help with the culture shock, I’ve compiled a list of the top five things you need to survive grad school.

5. A hobby. The time you spend in grad school will be a constant war between your thesis and everything else in your life that you enjoy. “I love my work! That’s how I relax! When I pull a 16 hour day I’m having fun!” you insist, raving wildly after spending seven straight weekends reading review papers. No, friend, that’s you developing Stockholm Syndrome. Your thesis has taken you hostage. It’s incredibly important to set aside time for yourself. Often, having a hobby can help provide a reason to take that time. Just make sure it’s not something that’s tied to a source of stress in your life, such as money (a second job doesn’t count) or professional success (neither does updating your LinkedIn).

4. A writing schedule. At the core of academia is reporting your results via publication, but most academics also find this to be one of the most arduous parts of their job. Much like you need to set aside time for yourself, you also need to set aside time for writing. If you don’t block it out, I can guarantee it won’t happen, because you’ll always find an excuse to avoid it. If it’s there in your calendar, you can’t schedule meetings over it, you’ve made a concrete commitment, and you’re justified in telling everyone else not to disturb you. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, form a writing group to add some peer pressure into the mix, just to make sure you don’t cheat on your schedule. Also, remember that not all your writing has to be good writing. If you’re feeling stuck, write 500 words of nonsense, or outlines, or something non-academic, just to take off some of the pressure. Then get back to it.

3. A therapist and/or dedicated group. “But I’ve always been a pretty well-adjusted person!” you say. “I have friends, and a significant other! I talk to my parents at least once a month! And I’m pretty open and good at sharing my feelings!” Unfortunately, unless they’re in academia, those people will not understand. They will try, so hard, because they love you, but they will. Not. Get it. And at some point, they will probably reach the end of their tolerance for hearing you complain about your writing, cry about your failed experiments, and angst over your lack of progress. If you casually complain to friends who ARE in grad school, you’re likely to devolve into mutual wollowing. You need a constructive outlet for your feelings. Therapists are great because they’re paid to do exactly this, and those you find in a university town often have experience with cases similar to yours. Facilitated support groups, run by many university health centers, can also provide a more structured outlet, decreasing feelings of isolation through peer support.

The sad truth is nearly half of all PhD students have a form of depression, and one in ten consider suicide at some point in their career. These conditions often necessitate professional intervention. It’s best to start building these connections with healthcare providers early in your time in grad schol, rather than be faced with the struggle of doing so when you’re deep in an emotional hole.

2. A personal support network. The previous point may have unjustly made people who care about you sound useless in supporting your grad school journey. This is absolutely not true. In addition to your structured network of health professionals and peers, your loved ones can be incredibly helpful. However, you should be proactive about helping them help you. As explained above, most of the people you are used to relyng on for emotional support don’t have a deep understanding of what it means to be in grad school. Because of this, they may respond in ways that you find nonsensical or even upsetting. If you tell them ahead of time what you want from them, you can avoid this trap. Here are different “support settings” you can try with parents, significant others, or close friends:

  • Just listen (without commentary)
  • Listen and agree with everything you say (make sure to put a timer on this one so it doesn’t turn into the aforementioned wallowing)
  • Listen and offer suggestions
  • Make you dinner
  • Force you to exercise with them
  • Call you once a week, no matter what

1. An iron will. If you applied and got accept to grad school, I suspect you’re extremely driven, extremely lost, or some magnificent combination of both. Either way, if you braved the admissions process, you’re probably above average on the stubbornness scale. Grad school will test that stubbornness. Start your mantra now: “I am good at this. I am a good person. I deserve my success.” You will need this in the coming months when imposter syndrome tries to eat you alive, when your experiments inexplicably implode, and when random events in your personal life disrupt your focus.

But it’s true, isn’t? You got into grad school. You can do this.

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