How to survive and thrive in graduate school
Graduate school can be difficult due to the unstructured nature of the process, and the lack of information about what to expect. So here’s what we think you need to know!
Adjusting to grad school
Most students feel a mixture of anticipation, excitement, hope, insecurity, and fear during the first several weeks. It’s normal to experience some physical and emotional symptoms during this change. Adjusting can be especially difficult for international students or those who’ve moved their partners/families (guilt!).
Chances are, no one sent you a brochure outlining how graduate school is different from undergrad so you can adjust your expectations. Now, you will have more readings and tasks than ever before and maybe even more than you can actually complete (instead of finishing your to-do list), you will be responsible for learning the material independently (instead of having lectures that teach the readings), your colleagues may view you as competition (as opposed to potential friends), and working like a “good student” now means keeping pace (but not completing every task as well as you’d like to), earning A’s, B’s and maybe an occasional C (instead of all A’s), and getting some accolades, but no longer being at the top.
Impact on your relationships
Unless your family, friends, or partners have attended graduate school, they also won’t know how the graduate school process is different, and this can lead to frustration, jealousy, and hurt feelings on both sides. When your dad asks you a third time to explain what you’re studying, your stepmom asks you when your thesis is “due,” or your partner is angry that you’re “still working on your research; it’s been 3 years!”, it can make you feel like they don’t understand you anymore.
You need a strategy for completing graduate school. Runners train differently in order to run a sprint race versus a marathon. Graduate school is more like a marathon. You’ll need to pace yourself, eat, hydrate, and conserve your energy sometimes, even though you’ll feel like you could run faster/work harder. In graduate school, there are so many exciting opportunities and tasks to do that your work can easily become what you think about and do 24/7/365, crowding out other important relationships and activities in your life.
Impact on your confidence and identity
You may think “I’m not as smart as everyone else here” or “When I turn in this paper, my advisor is going to see that I shouldn’t have been admitted.” This has been called “The Imposter Syndrome” and it’s common, especially among females. This can lead graduate students to feel anxious, procrastinate, or over-correct for these feelings by talking/bragging about all the things they have done or do know. Also, you’re now one of many “big fish” in a “little pond” and that shift in how you view yourself and your abilities compared to others can feel disconcerting.
Taking constant care of yourself is now a priority
Because so many tasks will need your attention, it will be easy to forget or to think there isn’t time to take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Maybe in the past, self-care wasn’t so necessary; you just drank more caffeine if you felt tired, pulled all-nighters if you couldn’t get your work done for the day, and skipped lunch if didn’t have time to eat that day. Like the successful marathon runner, if you don’t make adjustments to get more sleep or pre-plan for lunch, finishing the graduate school race may be much more difficult for you.
Becoming an associate instructor (AI)
Most teachers go to school for 4+ years to learn how to teach, so becoming an AI may require a steep learning curve for you. Therefore, you may experience anxiety, frustration, and self-doubt for a while. Teaching also requires a lot of time, so balancing teaching along with your other school priorities, relationships and self-care will require quite a bit of trial-and-error before you can feel confident about yourself as an AI. Many AI’s also find they need to adjust their expectations of themselves and their students, get help learning how to respond to students who are disgruntled or who come to you in emotional crisis, and develop a “thicker skin” to student feedback from course evaluations.
Yet another task you’ve never experienced before, hearing horror stories about others’ experiences, not knowing what to expect, and the looming possibility that failing could end your graduate career—qualifying exams can feel scary! Your expectations about how to prepare, how you “should” perform, and how you’ll feel afterward can cause you unnecessary stress. It may seem that everyone else is preparing better/faster/with less procrastination than you (yet again, threatening your confidence)!
What does it mean to “do research”? “How do I find my research interests?” These are common fears new graduate students face when they begin their research. Proposing and writing your thesis/dissertation may trigger different fears for you (e.g., “What if it doesn’t make a significant contribution to the field?”, “What if it doesn’t get published?”) and problems (intense procrastination, sleep problems) than you’ve experienced before, and this may surprise you or make you feel guilty, panicked, or depressed. Sometimes this is due to incorrect or unrealistic expectations (“I’ve written a 50-page paper before, so why can’t I write this thesis?”), unrecognized insecurities (“I’m so behind; now I really have to write a really good thesis to prove to my committee that I deserve to pass”), or poor fit with your advisor/committee (e.g., a too hands-off).
Advisor, department, and cohort relationships
Your department is probably fantastic, but some graduate students do experience misunderstandings, personality mismatches, department politics, or in the worst-case scenarios injustices, exploitation, harassment, or discrimination. These can happen with faculty or colleagues. Think about it: you’ll be spending thousands of hours with these people, developing into a make-shift “family” (complete with parent(s), “the golden child,” the “rebel,” etc.), and all families have conflict at times. You may find yourself accidentally in the middle of these situations or feel strongly about speaking up but powerless or afraid because of power differences.