Actually, not really. Apparently Pennsylvania missed the memo that it’s supposed to be warm. It’s been 40 degrees this week and yes, it’s made me cry. Don’t judge me. I’m a Florida girl.
Summer is such a precious time. Everything finally calms down a bit, you get the opportunity to crank out some work without the added stress of classes or department obligations. This is actually my first real productive summer here, since last summer I spent recovering from a broken leg (but hey, it couldn’t have been all bad since that’s why I started this blog!).
Although I’m hoping summer will pass by extra slowly, one of my favorite times of the year is right around the corner: the beginning of the fall semester and the welcoming of the new grad students into our department!
I’ve been reflecting on my last two years in grad school and thought I would write a blog post of advice I wish I had gotten (or wish I had followed) when I first arrived at Penn State. I also asked a fellow grad student in my department about her experience and included her recommendations below too (thanks friend, you know who you are!).
Some of these pieces of advice may not apply to you, but I think, in general, they are a good foundation for setting yourself up for success. Department atmosphere, fellow grad students, and university environment also play an enormous role in this, but there are also some healthy habits and mindsets you can get into that would help.
Let’s get into it!
Establish healthy work habits early
Coming from a 9-5 job prior to attending grad school, I learned the value of leaving work at work to the best of my ability. Sometimes, this isn’t going to be feasible. You may have an exam to study for, a paper due at midnight, or edits to get back to your advisor.
But in general, and whenever possible, try to maintain a reasonable work schedule. Working 60+ hours a week is not only unhealthy, but also unproductive. More hours of work do not necessarily mean increased productivity.
My recommendation is to establish a routine of working efficiently for a reasonable amount of time per week. And when you go home, REST. Use your weekends to have fun, take care of yourself, and REST. Your brain and body need it.
(You may be put in the situation where your advisor expects you to be working long hours. This is a complicated scenario and one I cannot speak about because I have never been in this situation. However, I would recommend talking to your advisor or someone else in your department that may be able to lend a hand about working late and on the weekends. As a grad student, no matter what anyone says, this should not be expected of you. You are a human. A person. With a life. A life that is not completely enveloped in this work, unless you want it to be. Defend yourself and your time if you can. And if you can’t, try finding people who will.)
Maintain your hobbies or get new ones
During my first year of grad school, I was in class when a faculty member shared a story about how, at one point during her grad career, she realized she didn’t have any hobbies. She was using this story as an example of how she broke down because she had been all consumed by her work.
At that moment I also asked myself, “Do I have any hobbies?” and the answer had become no. I used to have sooooo many hobbies. Reading, crocheting, playing video games, running, working out, hiking, etc. And honestly, almost all of those had gone to shit when I got into grad school. After she shared that story, I remember feeling, for the first time, that I had really changed as a person when I got here. I had become someone that focused too much on work and, as a consequence, other aspects of my life suffered.
It’s taken time, but I started reading novels again. I started hiking again and working out regularly. Still haven’t made it back to crocheting, but one thing at time.
I encourage you to maintain your hobbies when you get to grad school. Or, if your hobbies were dependent on your previous location or situation, get new ones. Having an activity to look forward to, that doesn’t come with strings attached, is so valuable. More valuable than I previously gave it credit for.
Thinking about it now, it was SO easy to fall into the mindset of shrugging off fun activities for more work. Why read a novel when you have five papers saved that also need to be read? I kept choosing the latter and, over time, those hobbies became memories and were even more difficult to reengage in after I realized what I had lost.
Don’t be me. Keep doing the things you love for fun.
Make a point to explore your town or city
If you’re entering into a Ph.D. program, chances are you’ll be in your town or city for the next 5-7 years of your life. Make the most out of it! Ask around and see what people do for fun.
This may seem like a straightforward thing, but you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll fall into work obligations and forget to explore. And once things start to get busy, it takes much more effort to seek out activities than when you had more time.
Familiarize yourself with your local area. Go on drives if you have a car. Explore your neighborhood or the downtown area of your town/city. Try new places to eat. Visit stores you’ve never heard of (for me, that was Wegmans, but seriously Publix is still where it’s at).
It’s much easier to do something fun that you’re already familiar with during times of stress. Take the opportunity to figure out what the fun things are early on. It will be worth it!
Meet graduate students outside of your department and people outside your college/university
Look, don’t get me wrong. I love the fellow grad students in my department. These people have been with me through some hard times. And nobody really knows your struggles like your department-mates or lab-mates do.
BUT. Please. Make friends outside of your department.
Even if they are grad students in other departments, just make friends outside of your work place.
Having people that can remind you that what you’re doing is not THE single most important thing in the world (and that if you fail, the world will actually end) is more valuable than you may think right now. Nothing has grounded me more than talking with friends outside of my department, and especially those outside of academia.
My partner that is not within academia at the moment. I am SO grateful for the constant reminder that the things that feel so crushing and so overwhelming to me are, more often than not, not as serious as I make them out to be. Only having friends within your department may reinforce these negative thoughts and also cause you to be talking about work even during non-work hours. I know it may seem silly and nitpicky, but removing yourself from your work to just breathe is so important. And sometimes, that boils down to who your talking to and hanging with in your free time.
One of the best ways to meet people outside of your department is to join organizations! If you’re at a large university, chances are there are organizations that may speak to your passions that you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to engage with in your department alone.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to sacrifice what you’re passionate about just because you feel (or others make you feel) like you should be working all the time.
While at Penn State, I help found our chapter for the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). SACNAS has become a wonderful community for me, especially as a ethnic minority in a very, very white school. I was able to attend the SACNAS 2018 conference with some of my friends from the chapter, and this experience eventually led to me changing my entire dissertation based on what I had learned while there.
However, I will caution with this point. It’s easy to start getting involved in MANY organizations once you start. There are so many awesome groups doing amazing work and activities, and, at least for me, the temptation was there for me to join all of them. For a while, I did. And I almost burnt out.
Like anything else, take this in moderation, but don’t underestimate the power of connecting with people over passions outside of your research.
Find campus or external resources for areas that you struggle in
Personal and academic struggles can be amplified when you’re under stress. Asking for help with your struggles is much easier when you know that resources exist to help you get through them.
Do you struggle with academic writing? Check to see if there’s an academic writing center at your institution. We have one here at Penn State that I JUST learned about, two years into my program.
Do you come from a low-income family or will you be considered low-income when you get into grad school? Many institutions have food pantries you can utilize if things get rough. Having those phone numbers nearby will be helpful if you’re ever in that situation.
Have you struggled with mental health issues in the past or are currently experiencing mental health issues? Look into campus resources for seeking help. At Penn State, we have Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). This has been a great resource for many students I’ve spoken to, both grads and undergrads. The services provided through your institution may be no- or low-cost, which is especially important considering many grad student budgets. Also consider asking more senior grad students about their experiences and where they seek help, and if your insurance plan covers these services.
Speaking from my personal experience, I knew I needed a therapist way longer than I knew just how easy it would be for me to see one. I will forever be grateful to the friends that encouraged me to seek help, and gave recommendations for specific places I could go to that would take my insurance. Sometimes, having someone say “Hey, this place has helped me” versus “They are several places in town that have helped students” can make a huge difference.
Imposter syndrome is real for everyone
People have become more and more vocal about imposter syndrome. If you’ve never heard of imposter syndrome, check out this article to learn a little more.
I struggle with imposter sydrome on the REGULAR.
“Everyone is so much smarter than I am.”
“It’s only a matter of time before they discover that I’m a fraud.”
“I don’t even know how I got in. I was lucky.”
“What if I can’t live up to the standards I’ve set for myself?”
I always knew that other students felt this way. It wasn’t until I started talking to more faculty members that I realized they, too, regularly struggle with imposter syndrome. And they are TENURE-TRACK FACULTY. They actually achieved their career goals. They got the job they wanted and would easily be considered a success story in their former departments. And they still struggle with this.
What I’m trying to get across here is that there’s going to be moments where you have these thoughts. And when you do, know that 1) they aren’t true, you were accepted into your program because others recognized your abilities and 2) everyone, from the first-year grad students, to the post-docs, to the faculty, struggles with imposter syndrome.
Although these thoughts still creep up, I try to remind myself that they aren’t real and try to focus, instead, on my accomplishments and the work I’ve put into being here. I deserve to be here, and there’s no other way around it. You deserve to be there too. Remind yourself of this regularly.
I feel like I could go on but I think I’ve hit the main points I wanted to. As always, I welcome comments and experiences from other grad students!
To current and former grad students: what advice would you give yourself or other incoming students?
To those entering their programs in the fall: YOU’LL DO WONDERFULLY! Keep being you, defend your time, and make sure to take care of yourself.
Until next time,