How I Survived My First Year of Grad School

Photo:  iStock

Photo: iStock


Graduate school is challenging. Term papers don't write themselves and there's always something new to read, whether it be books or scholarly articles. As a PhD student, you have a lot on your plate. But that doesn't mean that you can't excel your first year. Here's what I did to survive my first year in a Humanities Ph.D. program. Hopefully, these tips will help make your transition a little easier.


Plan, Plan, Plan

You have to be strategic with your time in grad school, especially in the first year. For me, that all starts with a good plan.

For example, whenever you get your syllabi for your classes, insert key dates into a calendar, making note of presentations, assignment due dates, and holidays. This kind of planning helps you get a sense of the "big picture" because you map out your entire term.

For day-to-day stuff though, you might want to invest in a planner. Planners are useful because they're portable and require you to write down your daily goals. But you should also set a time frame for each activity that you have to do. ("Read for sociology class from 2:00-5:00pm.") You might also want to consider the goal-oriented approach. ("Start reading at 2:00pm and finish by 5:00pm.")

Try this: Before going to bed tonight, write down three things that you'd like to accomplish tomorrow. By doing this, you'll end your day with a plan and start your next with a purpose.


Develop a Writing Habit

You have to write A LOT in grad school. And eventually, you'll have to write your dissertation. The best way to become prepare for that task  (and your seminar papers) is to practice. Pick four days out of the week. On these days, write two paragraphs (about 150 words) about your final paper topic. If you make this a habit, you'll be able to write at least two double-spaced pages per week and eight pages per month!


Forget About School

This sounds counterintuitive. I know. But remember: grad school is a marathon, not a sprint. If you want to make it over the long haul, you HAVE TO take breaks. Self-care looks differently for different people, from exercising to hanging out with friends to simply catching up with your shows on Netflix. Just do something that's not related to school!

If you're a sociable person, research on-campus and/or community organizations related to your interests and attend some events. If you're more of an introvert, find a good book to read or a good show to watch.

When I started grad school, I got into photography. I used to like reading in my free time. But when reading became my "job," I had to chuck the deuces to that. Photography was perfect because it allowed me to wander and forced me to be present in the moment.

Try this: Pick one day out of the week (preferably a day when you're not reading or writing your 150 words for school) and spend it doing everything but school work. As your semester goes on, and the pressure begins to build, you will look forward to these moments of rest.


Don't be Afraid to Ask for Help

No one completes graduate school by themselves. At some point, you will need other people to help you along the way. Since I went straight to a PhD program from college, I had to quickly adjust to the graduate school lifestyle. It was tough, but I relied heavily on the advice of older grad students and the guidance of my advisors. If possible, I'd recommend checking in with your primary advisor (or a mentor) twice a term: once in the beginning and once toward the end. During these meetings, discuss your concerns, accomplishments, and/or future goals.


Remember, it's just your first year!

Above all, it's important to grant yourself the time and space to grow. It's frustrating when you know what you're capable of yet things aren't going your way. But remember, it's just your first year! You still have plenty of time. Just trust the process.


About the Author

Bennie is a third-year PhD student at Northwestern University, where he is studying African American Studies. He created Just Tryna' Graduate to help Black students get to & through graduate school. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter.