8 Tips for Surviving Graduate School

By Brian Lemay No comments

Recently, I was reading an article from a
few years ago by CBS News – the link’s in the description – and it was talking about
the 12 reasons not to get a PhD. And I gotta say, for somebody who has a PhD those 12 reasons were pretty on point. But if, like me, you’re crazy enough to go for it,
I’ve got a few tips that I learned along the way to help survive and thrive in
graduate school. First and foremost, go to graduate school because you know that
you’ll like what you’re going to be studying at least a little bit, otherwise
it will be pointless and excruciating. So when I decided to apply for a PhD
program, I was a senior in college. I had just recently come off a summer of a
research experience for undergraduates program here at the University of
Minnesota, where I worked with a professor who would eventually become my graduate student mentor. I remember just really liking the process of research. I
grooved on the excitement of discovery, and learning new things, and I think if I
had gone to graduate school without knowing beforehand that I really liked
research, that it might not have gone as well for me. Go when it makes sense for
you. I didn’t take any time off between college and graduate school which has
its positives and negatives. If I had it to do over again, I probably would have
at least paused to consider what options I would have had, had I decided to take a
year off in between. But as it was, graduate school was the next logical
step, and so to graduate school I would go. I also had the benefit of getting
into a program that pays their students to attend graduate school and to work
for research labs. I know a lot of people don’t have this opportunity and money is
a really important thing when you’re thinking about whether or not to go to
graduate school. And as much as I wish that going to graduate school meant that
you were gonna automatically be able to make it rain with money…yeah it’s not
how it works… You will feel dumb sometimes, and that’s okay,
so does everybody else. Throughout my graduate career, I felt really dumb a lot.
And it’s impossible not to compare yourself to the others around, you no
matter how unreasonable that may be. And it really sucks feeling less competent,
or intelligent than the other students in your program. And then there are the
professors who rip apart your writing, in fairness, with good reason, and then they
ask you to rerun eight statistical models with slightly different variables
and look at you the whole time like you’re a complete fool for not thinking
of this in the first place…that really sucks too. But it’s also good to remember
that the students around you also feel dumb sometimes and have to rewrite their papers too. It’s just a fact of graduate student life. Bond over that. It
helps. So does wine. The tunnel is the worst part but believe that you will get
through. I like to refer to years 2 and 3 as the deep dark tunnel years basically
at this point you’re so far into your program that you can’t see the light
behind you, and you also can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel either.
You’re questioning everything about yourself and your decision to embark on
this crazy journey in the first place. You’re being constantly edited, and
changed, and corrected, and pushed, and pulled, and pressured in so many
different directions. You don’t feel good at much of anything anymore, and you
wonder if you’re ever going to get out or if you should just jump ship. And I
cannot stress this enough: This is normal. Don’t feel like you’re not smart enough
or talented enough or committed enough. If you start to question whether or not
you should continue your graduate career, listen to that feeling, and sit in that
uncertainty, and then talk to all the people around you from different walks
of life about what they recommend that you do. Weigh your options and then make your decision and know that it will be okay, no matter what decision you make.
One way or the other if you make a decision, and then keep moving, you’ll
start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Find and do the things that
fulfill you. I learned pretty quickly in graduate school that I didn’t want to
pursue the traditional researcher or professor track, and so as a result I
began seeking out other opportunities to become involved in projects outside of
academia. I got connected with a really cool project in partnership with the
Science Museum of Minnesota they were working with the university to create an
exhibit that was all about the science of early childhood, so I got to see what
I was studying everyday come to life in a museum exhibition. How cool is that?!
That experience pulled me out of my graduate school confines, and allowed me to explore new options and experiences and learn about new careers outside of
academia. That experience changed things in a really powerful way for me, and
helped me get where I am today. Find the people who will support you no matter
what you decide to do. Now making your interest in a non-traditional career
path known to your professors can have its drawbacks when the expectation is
clearly to become researchers, or professors ,or at the very least teach at
a liberal arts school, and you’re the one person who doesn’t want that traditional
career path it can become kind of isolating. Luckily, I was able to connect
with others including my advisor who was really supportive. And regardless of
which direction you decide to go, surround yourself with people who get it,
and with people who don’t. Hang out with other graduate students,
and also not with other graduate students. Allow yourself to be pulled out
of graduate school mode from time to time, and do something completely
different. It can help put some perspective on your struggles and remind
you that the world is much much bigger than just academia. I also recommend
watching copious amounts of Doctor Who, Stargate SG-1, The Office, and anything
else you can get your hands on, but be sure to properly cite these sources of
survival in your acknowledgment section of your dissertation. Yes, I did that. Get
‘er done. I finished my grad program in five years,
which is what we’re supposed to do for our program. There are lots of valid
reasons to stay in graduate school for longer than that, and I have a lot of
friends and colleagues who’ve done that successfully. But I knew that for me I
needed to get out and move on. And I know that the academic job market is really
tight right now, and in non academic careers, some times graduate students
don’t have the requisite work experience in order to get a job, and that really
sucks. But this is where networking comes in. Reach out to anyone that you know for
informational interviews, cups of coffee, happy hours, whatever. You’d be surprised
how much inspiration and new leads come from just a brief coffee conversation.
There are also several really great online communities that talk about
career paths after graduate school, and if you want to talk with somebody who
gets it, contact me. I’m always happy to answer questions and talk options. Own
your worth. Getting your degree is a really cool and exciting experience. You
should embrace that. But for me at least, the few months after I graduated were
times of really important and powerful self-reflection and discovery for me.
Let’s get real for a second: Graduate school can be really tough. It’s a
process of breaking you down to build you back up again, and it can leave you
feeling pretty incompetent and like you’re never going to measure up to the
professors that you work with every day. For me, I had really internalized that I
would never measure up, that I wasn’t smart enough, or talented enough, or
skilled enough, that I was never going to be the best at anything. So in the months
following graduation, when I got out into the real world, I had to learn how to
accept and embrace my own competency and knowledge again. I had to relearn that my
knowledge and experiences and expertise had value and could better the world in
some way. Because really what a doctorate gives you is the ability to learn new
information and synthesize it, and analyze it, and then communicate about it
knowledgeably. And these are really important and valuable job skills. And
once I had that realization, the whole experience really became worth it for me.
Now are there other ways to get these kinds of skills more cost-effectively?
Yes. Would I recommend graduate school for
everyone? No. Do I think that the things we expect of graduate students are more
than just a little bit unreasonable? [bobblehead nods] I’ve come to recognize that for me at
least the purgatory of graduate school was really worth it in the end. What
about you? Are you contemplating graduate school? In the midst of it? A newly minted
graduate school survivor? Share your thoughts on the whole Graduate School
thing in comments and give your tips and strategies for how to survive. For any
new visitors out there, hi! I’d love it if you came back. And for those of you who
watched my last video, I know I said I would talk about trees and contexts but
I decided to do something different so sue me.
But don’t actually sue me – the two of you who are dying to see that video
it’ll be coming out in a few weeks…promise

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