Before you go into Graduate School, consider this.
Despite the blog title, this blog is written for people who are either considering graduate school or are already in the thick of graduate school. I’ll be writing about both the unique challenges of graduate school, and some coping methods that can make the graduate experience as enriching and productive as possible. I’m writing from both personal experience as well as the experiences I’ve gleaned from colleagues, friends and clients.
So the first question is: Why can graduate school be so difficult?
1) First, there is a lot of gray area. Unlike undergraduate or high school, you’re not always given black or white feedback, and you don’t always have a clear idea of how you’re doing or where you stand.
2) There can be periods of isolation. This is simply due to the nature of the beast. You’re working on a dissertation or research project that is long and drawn out and requires countless hours of data gathering, writing, researching and analyzing. This means that it is yours and yours alone. Though you have a chair to assist you, this project is mainly about what you’re creating, so by the nature of how it is, it’s a solo project that requires a lot of alone time to work.
3) You have to be proactive—unlike the structure of undergraduate, you have a lot more choices about how you’d like to focus your academic career and research. Though this lends you a lot more freedom and possibility, it also means that you have to be an active participant in your learning. No one really tells you what to do.
4) It’s overwhelming at times, and at times you may seriously consider quitting. There are a lot of hoops you’ll have to go through (classes, teaching, thesis, dissertation, practicum) and the road is long. It is a marathon, not a sprint.
5) You may feel as though your area of study is all you live, breathe and do. This is good if you’re passionate about it, but you’ll definitely be needing breaks as you’ll brain will be wanting to think about anything else.
6) Don’t expect to get rich during this period of time. In fact, expect your lifestyle to be—how should I put this?—modest, for a long period of time.
7) There is always going to be that rock star colleague who seems to do it all. This may make you feel pressured into feeling as though you, too, have to do it all. Believe me, graduate school is enough. If you want to to add extra projects or involvements, be very selective and be sure it’s something that you truly, really want to do.
After reading this, you may feel a little daunted, as though I’m writing a manifesto about why people should avoid graduate school. That is not at all what I’m trying to communicate. If you feel passionate about what you’re studying, it can be very rewarding and enriching, and the degree can open countless doors to career paths you didn’t know where possible. However, I also don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture. Graduate school is hard for almost everyone.
So how do you cope?
1) Be prepared to get comfortable with the grey area. You can always ask your professor or advisor for feedback, and be sure to be specific and thoughtful about the questions you ask them.
2) Make a conscious effort to have some sort of outlet that is not at all related to graduate school. This could be exercise, or a creative outlet, like music, art, writing, dance, etc. or anything that you feel passionate about that requires you to use your brain and/or body in a different way.
3) Be mindful of your sleep and your caffeine intake. Though there will be nights where you’re up very late, or where you miss sleep entirely; try to make those few and far between. Your brain, your body and your sanity need a good amount of continuous sleep so that you can get through the marathon.
4) Have the “marathon” mindset—be prepared to be in it for the long haul. Break things down into smaller chunks and reward the milestones/accomplishments you achieve along the way.
5) Get support. To decrease isolation, study groups can be a good idea if you can learn that way. If you socialize with other graduate students, try to not always have the focus on conversation be just on graduate school. If you need to vent, do so, yet make sure it doesn’t turn into rumination that simply makes you feel anxious, rather than solve the problem.
6) Plan your budget and finances ahead of time.
7) Give yourself something to look forward to, especially at the end of each semester/quarter. Having those “carrots” can give you a little extra push, especially towards the end of the semester when you feel the most worn down.
8) Be mindful of the comparison game. If there’s a colleague who’s doing better than you, perhaps you can learn from them. If not, just be aware that this other person’s academic performance has no impact on yours.
9) If you find that you are chronically overwhelmed and struggling, having significant difficulty with the isolation and grey area, or feeling anxious due to a lack of frequent external validation, seek help in therapy. If you find that you are struggling with anxiety, depression or substance abuse during this stressful time, please get help. You may just need a space to get support. All licensed therapists have been through graduate school, and many offer a sliding scale because we’ve all been there.