Advice for New Grad Students

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Hot tips for surviving and thriving in grad school. Background image (without text) by Joanna Kosinska 

August in academia means a lot of new beginnings, especially for those starting grad school. Around this time of year, social media teems with advice for new grad students—read this book, run from toxic advisors, reconsider your life choices altogether. As a former grad student and now director of a graduate program, I’ve got ten tips for new grad students that take into account the work part and the life part of grad school.

  1. Find *your* people. The hardest part about grad school? It’s not the reading. It’s not the writing. It’s the peopling. Navigating social dynamics is the most challenging and rewarding part of grad school. As I tell students every single orientation—the folks in your program will end up being some of your best friends in the world. (Or, cough, your lifelong nemeses, but that’s another article entirely). The key is to find YOUR people.In recent years, I’ve noticed a trend for grad students to start cohort, class, and program group chats. While I love the idea of broad social support, group chats are rife for promoting toxic behavior and social comparisons that cause unnecessary stress. It’s okay to unplug, guard your privacy, and recognize that frankly, you’re not going to like everyone. And that’s okay. (Just don’t be a jerk. See #6 below.)Without a doubt, my top piece of advice for new grad students is to find one or two or three trustworthy and likeminded folks to confide in, rather than putting everything in the group chat. Find the folks who will support you, cheer you on, and can commiserate without spiraling into toxicity. Be patient—these relationships don’t happen overnight—but recognize that your besties might come in unexpected packages. I was shocked when I bonded with one of most intimidating members of my cohort, over serial killers of all things. And 14 years later, we’re still at BFF status. Also know that your close ones might not be from your cohort. Some of my nearest and dearest grad school friends are from the cohorts ahead of and behind mine.
  2. Remember, everyone is smart here, but nobody really knows what they’re doing no matter how they sound in seminar. Let me repeat: Nobody really knows what they’re doing. It doesn’t matter where they went to school before, how many theories they spout, who they know, how many publications they have—everyone is figuring out “how to grad student.” (Or for folks in doctoral programs who already have Master’s degrees—how to grad student in this particular program at the doctoral level.)
  3.  But recognize all “smarts” aren’t equal. Grad school is especially bewildering because everyone is smart, everyone is driven, and (almost) everyone is there because they care (what they care *about* varies wildly, however). But you’ll quickly find that all smarts aren’t equal. Meaning—cohorts will be made up of people who graduated from college yesterday, people who worked for 20 years before starting grad school, people with kids, people who ran their own business first, people who still work outside jobs, aka a whole variety of folks with a range of life experiences and types of wisdom. Recognize and honor those different lived experiences.
  4. Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. I have this quote tacked up on my bulletin board. I tell new grad students this quote at orientation. I remind myself of the dangers of comparison constantly. Roosevelt was right: Comparison is the thief of joy. It’s also VERY UNFAIR to yourself as a new grad student to look to more advanced folks in the program and feel inadequate. It’s hard not to compare—especially when so much of grad school involves seeing others’ accomplishments in literal print—but try. (And I will keep trying, too!)
  5. Do the work. Especially in recent years, social media has made it easy to “look” like a grad student and create an image of doing grad work, while not actually putting in the time required to read, think, and write. The thing about graduate education is that there is always way more work to do than there is time, but the more concentration you put in, the more benefit you’ll get out. This is not an admonition to spend every waking minute studying (do see #8-10), but rather to do the work needed to succeed. Actually read the important articles—more than once if you can. Take notes. Outline. Read for class early enough that you have time to think and contemplate. And when you can’t—which will be most of the time, let’s be honest—develop strategies that help you prioritize and prepare enough to participate in class authentically. My least favorite thing as a student (and now professor) is when students who clearly haven’t read the material attempt to dominate the discussion with tangential questions and comments. Don’t be that guy.
  6. Be kind. Academia is a REALLY, REALLY, REALLY small world. You’re not going to like everyone, but you don’t have to act like it. Be kind or at the least, collegial. Because if you stay in this career, you’ll likely end up seeing folks from grad school for the rest of your life. (Yes, I’m afraid it’s true.) Also—higher ed has enough problems and we can always use more academic kindness.
  7. Choose your choices. My grad school advisor and mentor Dr. Sarah J. Tracy shared this bit of wisdom at orientation—choose your choices, and “Say no to good so you can yes to great.” It’s impossible to do everything, period. And it’s especially impossible to do everything well all of the time. You *have* to choose where to focus your attention. I say this as someone who commuted between states during my first year in the doctoral program, while working full time in an outside job, while working an assistantship, while planning a whole wedding. There was a reason I was putting cheez-its in the fridge and forgetting my car payments. I was trying to do all the things. And while I survived that year, I did so feeling like I did nothing well. Figure out what your goals are, what projects are meaningful, what topics you want to invest your time in and do those. And then bracket out the rest. This won’t be easy but learning how to own your choices and politely decline the extra is a skill that will help you greatly if you stay in academia.
  8. PRIORITIZE SLEEP. But you can’t do anything without rest. This should really be my #1 tip—prioritize sleep. And rest. And exercise. And eating healthy. Your brain is a machine that needs fuel and resetting regularly, and you will not be doing your best on no sleep. Even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment when those papers are due, making time to get enough rest will be worth it.
  9. Make space and ask for help. Grad school is a huge commitment that doesn’t often plug right into already full lives. Talk to your loved ones and tell them up front, with regular reminders, that you may not be as present as you like for awhile. That especially during the busy times (read: from midterm on), you may miss social events or need to attend for shorter stretches. That you’ll need help during the busy times. Having regular conversations is especially important for loved ones who haven’t gone to grad school who may not understand the round-the-clock demands on your brain. Making space may also mean taking an honest accounting of your time and what you can fit in, while still preserving your wellbeing.
  10. Do grad school. Don’t be grad school. With all of these tips in mind, remember that grad school is a thing you do, not who you are. The folks I know who had an easier time with the ups and downs of grad school (myself included), recognized that grad school was a part of their identity, not their entire identity. While we definitely worked hard, we still rested, took our dogs for walks, socialized with friends (in and out of the program), practiced hobbies, saw our families, and took breaks from work. When things went wrong (cough, ask me about my first and last experiment), it made it easier to recognize hiccups as part of the grad student role, rather than as a failure of identity.

Also, try to have fun. Grad school is a weird and wonderful time of life where you get hang out with other people who care intensely about similar things as you and fully nerd out. It’s challenging and stressful, sure, but also pretty special.

–Dr. Shawna

P/S And what kind of professor would I be if I didn’t also recommend some reading? Books and links like you might like:

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