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.

How to survive comps like a pro (or at least seem calm about your situation when people inquire)

I finished my comprehensive exams in November (at Santa Cruz, these are the qualifying exams that test broad content knowledge), and there were a lot of things I learned about the best way to approach them. Read on for some of these insights!


1. Make a spreadsheet with all your reading pages in it.

Use this to know exactly how many pages you need to read per day to finish on time and to record your progress. I also aggressively color-coded mine, and made a count-down until my goal date for finishing my reading.

2. Commit to concrete, achievable goals.

Don’t expect to marathon through all your reading in the month (or week!) before exams. Plan ahead and try to keep your reading to less than 50 pages a day. Then make sure you actually do read, every day.

3. Set aside blocks of time to study.

If you don’t commit a certain time slot to reading, other things will encroach upon your comps time until it disappears entirely. Do yourself a favor and block out a chunk of time in your calendar. That way, when someone tries to get you to do something else, you won’t even be lying when you say you have plans.

4. Have a specific reading place.

I was completely unable to read in the lab or in my room at home. I ended up spending a lot of time in study rooms at the library just to be in a fresh space that I didn’t associate with anything else. That meant I was less distracted thinking about all the other things I could or should have been doing.

5. Reward yourself. 

Of course, as a grad student, you probably don’t have tons of discretionary funds just lying around. However, I found that it was motivating to plan to treat myself to some fancy tea or a new eBook at certain intervals (500 pages worked well for me).

When the (written) exam comes

This is my workspace at the END of the exam, which is unbelievable considering how messily I usually work.

1. Set aside a clear “exam space.”

This really only applies if you have a written exam you do at home. However, I found it important to do absolutely none of my exam in the same room where I slept to create an obvious physical boundary between the anxiety of the exam and resting time. I made sure there were few distracting objects available in the space I chose, including my phone, other books, or notes. For the portions of the exam I was allowed to consult materials, I kept my exam items on a different table across the room. Within my exam space, I only had my computer, some water, sticky notes for sketching ideas, and a pen.

2. Externalize distracting thoughts.

I found that during my written exam, I started having all kinds of ideas about my project that completely derailed my from actually writing my answers. Awkward, right? Whenever this started to happen, I immediately wrote the idea on a sticky note, stuck it on the wall behind me, and went back to the exam question. This gave me the confidence that I wouldn’t forget my idea and allowed me to put it aside.

3. Eat and rest well.

My lab friends were kind enough to bring me food during my exam, which was an excellent strategy both for saving time and for making sure I didn’t just eat Cheerios for a week. Also, you are useless if you marathon 20-hour writing blocks for multiple days. Just don’t do it. I took short walking breaks every two hours and didn’t work on the exam for more than fourteen hours per day.

Remind yourself of the obvious things

4. Remind yourself not to panic.

Have you heard the one about the blonde who dies when someone takes her headphones off, and when they listen to her recording, it’s just someone saying, “Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.”? That’s what the exam can be like.

This may seem obvious, but it is actually very important. I made signs that I put up directly in my field of vision reminding me that everything was going to be okay. One of the biggest traps is psyching yourself out, and you don’t have time to lose on that.

When the (oral) exam comes

1. Remember your committee is on your side.

Much like internalizing the idea that everything will be alright in the end, this is difficult but essential. Repeat it over and over to yourself.

2. Use boards or paper to your advantage.

If you are allowed paper or a whiteboard, use them liberally to work through answers. This shows your process to your committee, which is probably an important factor for then, and gives you time to think.

3. Be comfortable with silence.

It genuinely takes some time to think through a difficult question. Don’t feel pressured to respond immediately. If you feel like you need to say something, answer the question with another clarifying question to give yourself time.

After the exam

Take a protracted break.

Looking back at my productivity post-exam, I got almost nothing of consequence done for over a month. This wasn’t for lack of trying–I was merely so drained by the experience that I wasn’t working efficiently. As soon as I embraced my need to rest, my energy levels improved dramatically and I was able to work well again.

A digression about mental health in grad school

About a week ago, I was in a car accident, which kind of threw off my studying plan for my comprehensive exams. For several days, it has been hard to think (as it often is when one’s brain has been rattled around in its casing). I can’t concentrate on much of anything–not my reading, not my data, not my students.

This frustrated me to no end. The voice in my head that I have come to think of as mini Donald Trump kept screaming, You’re on a timeline! You’re slacking! You’re a waste of space! and on into further obscenity. I was violently angry with myself, and for what? Driving in the rain on the best feasible route from my starting point to my endpoint?

As grad students, we’re trained to work all the time, with no mercy for ourselves. If we’re tired, we’re supposed to drink some coffee and power through it. If we’re too sick to come into the lab, we’re supposed to take the day to catch up on reading. There’s a culture of unwillingness to admit that we might have taken time for ourselves, and might want to KEEP taking that time to save our health and sanity.

EEB at UC Santa Cruz does a better job of this than many departments. I have been very lucky to find people I am able to speak to candidly about the need to treat my own body and mind with respect. However, it makes me anxious to imagine admitting to a student at another institution (or maybe even in another department!) that I didn’t put in my forty-plus hours last week. Certainly I would never say something so bold to a faculty member. I’m terrified of the judgement, that seemingly inevitable pronouncement of my uselessness and failure as a scientist.

Is that truly what we think science should be? A slow grind into death by exhaustion? I suspect very few scientists would say total mental collapse is what we should aspire to. We want to be creative and productive and passionate about our work, and to do this, we need space and energy for ourselves to grow and change. An exhausted mind walled in by impending obligations has neither of those things.

Even as I write this, I know that I am doing an awful job at taking my own advice. It is incredibly difficult to embrace slow solutions. I know, logically, that there is no instant fix, apply-directly-to-forehead solution to my injuries, but I want to be back at work. I want to be learning and discovering and teaching. Still, I’m trying to give myself the grace and space I know I need to do things well, and I hope you, dear reader, can find a way to walk this better path with me.