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.

Recommended article: Academics leave your ivory towers

I wanted to share a thought-provoking article I read a few weeks ago about the urgency of sharing scientific work with the media. It’s called “Academics: leave your ivory towers and pitch your work to the media.

The TLDR: Make friends with a journalist/editor! Don’t be offended when they do their job (editing!). Embrace speaking to the public!

Favorite Quote:

Ademo says he would welcome more submissions from scholars. “There’s a lot of research that goes unnoticed,” he says. “It would be great if more academics didn’t shy away from writing for the media and communicating with average people. It would be great if the information came from the source directly.”

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.

Recommended article from Botanical Accuracy

This week in speedy plant-related posts, a break from pictures. Instead, I want to recommend a great read from Botanical Accuracy called “Dear New York Times, when will you start to care about taxonomic accuracy?”  about the totally horrendous disregard by the NYT for proper naming of species. A brief excerpt:

I think that the sloppiness shown in The New York Times when it comes to morphology and species taxonomy would never be accepted when it comes to historical facts and names related to people.  For scientific facts this doesn’t seem to matter to the editors, since fact-checking is lacking and pointed out errors persist and are not even corrected.

It’s great that the author also points out consequences to misnaming and misidentification, such as showing toxic plant pictures under the name of edible ones. This is one of those pieces of scientific advocacy that rarely comes up but is truly important when it comes to proper science communication and outreach.