GP’s Declassified (Grad) School Survival Guide

“In a graduate school full of post-docs, insane professors, and free school lunches, Graduate Perspective – that’s me – tries to do the impossible: create a guide that will help you survive school”

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In a few short weeks the hall, libraries, and classrooms will again be packed with students. Some of you might be starting graduate school this fall. Looking back at my first day of grad school I remember I was both nervous and excited to meet my peers, explore new research, and make the next big discovery. However not everything was smooth sailing. There are so many things I wish I would have know or had someone to tell me about. After talking to several of my peers who went to graduate school, I realized that we faced similar challenges and experiences. I decided to put together a guide to grad school. These are things I wish I knew before starting:

1. The graduate school difference. In graduate school you will find yourself in a sort of limbo between undergraduate and the career world. While you will be taking less classes and involved in less activities compared to undergrad, managing your time effectively with your work is going to be much more difficult. In many respects you will have the same expectations as an employee without the benefits. Just know that other students are struggling with the same challenges. It will take time to adjust and develop an effective work ethic to get your work done and still make time to have fun!

2. Find a mentor. A great mentor will make your life so much easier. Find an older graduate student or post-doc who does similar work. They will be a great source of advice on both grad school life as well as your research area. It will help decrease your learning curve so you can get to the exciting parts faster!

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3. Get on the same page as your advisor. The advisor-student relationships are some of the trickiest to navigate. Each relationship is unique, but one recommendation is to understand their expectations early on. You should strive to exceed these expectations, however do it in a way that is sustainable in the long-term. Another important aspect is to get your advisor to be upfront about funding and deadlines to prevent the unexpected.

4. Make friends and build a network. I honesty thought I would come in on the first day and instantly make friends. But it took me a while to build-up a network of friends. Not only are friends great for keeping your sanity in check, but they can also be great sources for help or information. I personally think the best way to make friends is to put your foot forward and introduce yourself.

5. Develop a healthy routine. The classic trope of a graduate student is of someone sitting late alone at a computer surrounded by Mountain Dew and Doritos. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Developing a consistent work schedule can help you set boundaries for your time. You don’t have to work crazy hours to be successful with your work, you just need to be effective with the time you set. Along with that, creating a healthy and sustainable diet for yourself is also important so you can focus at work and feel good.

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6. Take opportunities and make opportunities. You will get bombarded with tons of emails every day. Most of those emails will probably end up in your trash. However, I urge you to scan through those emails for opportunities that might be useful for you. Graduate school is a great time to develop your resume, learn career skills, and build your network. There are so many resources available for you to accomplish those goals, you just need to take them. Just because you don’t see others taking advantage of the opportunity to sign up for a company visit or attend a talk, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. I have found some of my best experiences came from taking advantage of those opportunities.

7. Summer and vacations. Summer and spring break are a thing of the past. Generally, you are expected to work like a full-time employee (see point 1). However, that does not mean you can’t take vacations. In fact, you should! I have found that when I take time to separate myself from my work, I come back with new energy and motivation. And honestly, life if too short to always be stuck in the lab.

8. So much writing. I am in the science/engineering field so I expected to spend most of my days doing experiments, however I find that I sending most of my time writing. I seriously wish someone had warned me! Nevertheless, it has been a great learning experience growing as a science writer.

9. The cycle of motivation. You will have days of high motivation when you feel like you can get anything done and you will also face the lowest of low motivation when you don’t even want to go to the lab. This is the cycle of motivation. The highs and lows can stretch for a day, a week, or even a few months. The greatest challenge is overcoming the lows. You have to figure out what makes you motivated and come back to that when you find yourself at your lows. Personally, I am motivated by conferences, especially presenting in front of a crowd, because in that moment I realize that I am making real tangible progress. I come back excited to continue my work!

10. Don’t fear failure. Graduate school is the path less taken for a reason. It is a difficult and long road ahead. You will face your fair share of failures in one way or another. It could come in the form of stumbling into dead ends with your research or a paper rejection. Remember, that at the end it is not your failures that matter but it is how you overcame them to reach your goals that counts.

I hope this guide will help you as you get through grad school whether with as little stress as possible. If you have any more questions about grad school or suggestions feel free to comment or email me graduateperspective@gmail.com.

For those who are in graduate school or have finished, what are some of the things you wish you knew before starting?

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3 thoughts on “GP’s Declassified (Grad) School Survival Guide

    1. That is a great point. For us they recommended we take our required classes because we do our qualifier after the first year. Afterwards it was nice taking 1 or 2 classes that did not require much work just to space out the day. When does your department typically present proposals (I am actually working on mine at the moment!)?

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      1. My program is two years, and they urge the us to have our proposal done by the end of June before summer begins. I personally thought that having two classes (one of which is statistics), a seminar, and writing my proposal was a lot to handle at times. This surprised me though because in my undergrad I took 5 courses every semester, so I thought handling 3 would be alright!

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