The Grind Called Graduate School: Part II
Part II: Surviving Graduate School
Congratulations! You’ve just been accepted into graduate school! You’re excited and ready to get started, but at the same time you have no idea what to expect. You’ve heard some horror stories but still you’ve decided that this is what you want. So then, what can you expect and how can you get through this? Well hopefully I can provide some insight based on my own personal experiences. Not every situation is the same, but all grad students go through the same or very similar trials, so I’ll do my best to share what I learned during my graduate career. This part will have assumed that you’ve already got your housing all situated, and thus will focus mainly on things directly related to life as a graduate student.
So let’s start off with something that I think is the biggest challenge to all grad students, especially when they’re first starting out. Remember how I mentioned in part I that you’ll inevitably be questioning if grad school is for you, or how you even got accepted in the first place? Yeah, this is ‘imposter syndrome’ and typically happens right off the bat when you first start grad school. I have some good news and bad news. The bad news is that this never really goes away (even after you graduate!). The good news is that this is completely normal and way more common than you think. Almost every grad student that I’ve talked to has dealt with, or is still dealing with imposter syndrome. You might be thinking “hold up, that still sounds bad.” But the part about it that’s good is that it means you have peers to talk to about it!
Tip #6: Talk to your peers about your insecurities.
During my fourth year in grad school we had just finished sitting through a 50 minute seminar. I had no idea what the speaker was talking about. Me, my labmate, and another grad student all gathered in my lab just to chat for a bit afterwards. As soon as we got to the room, my labmate suddenly asks, “Did you guys understand that seminar at all?” We both immediately said, “Nope!” and my labmate replies, “Okay good, because I didn’t get it either.” Then we all laughed, because at that moment we realized that we weren’t alone! All three of us felt like we were supposed to understand what was being said and that each of us individually were the only ones that didn’t understand it. But just knowing that we weren’t alone in the struggle was cathartic. It was a much-needed reminder that every grad student deals with the same thing. But that does *not* mean that we are unqualified to earn our secondary degrees. Sometimes you just have to talk through it, and that’s okay. Seek out your peers and get through it together.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about probably the most important decision of your graduate school life: choosing a thesis advisor. Your thesis advisor in one sense is your boss (especially if they’re paying your stipend). But much more than that, they are your mentor. This is the person you will be committing to for the next 4-6 years of your life. I say all of that to say this: you better make good and certain that you will be able to work well with this person for a long time.
Tip #7: Pick a mentor that you can work well with.
Now there are several factors that go into choosing a mentor. There’s the research portion of it (do your interests somewhat align). But there’s also the personality, which is a big deal. Do you see your personalities having a major clash at any point? Do you communicate well with each other? What is their mentoring style like? Will they give you a lot of freedom or are they the more hands-on type? Which teaching style works best for you? One thing I’ve learned, especially recently, is that not every teaching style works for every student. That’s not necessarily a knock neither on the student nor the mentor. Not every mentorship style works for everyone, and it’s important that you the student and the potential advisor figure that out sooner rather than later. Again, you will be seeing this person almost every day for the next 4-6 years of your life, so you have to be able to at least get along most of the time and communicate well.
The same thing goes for the other people working under your advisor. For most graduate programs, chances are that you will be seeing these people as frequently, if not more frequently, than your advisor. Can you get along with them, or at the very least, be able to survive half a decade seeing them almost every day? Again, it may not seem like it at first, but graduate school is a major life commitment, and so you must be prepared for what comes with that.
If you couldn’t tell by now, once you enter graduate school, the biggest challenges all have to do with your mental and emotional well-being. It will be a grind, and some days you may feel like quitting. You’ve been thinking about the same topic for so long that your brain is shutting down. This is why I advise grad students to find hobbies they enjoy and stick with them.
Tip #8: Find a hobby.
If you’re thinking about the same topic all of the time and racking your brain trying to find the answer to a question that’s never been answered before, you’re going to wear yourself out pretty quickly. That’s why it’s important to find something else you’re passionate about and to do it as a way to relax your mind. I guarantee that if you have an outside hobby you do regularly you will feel more refreshed and better able to tackle the challenges that come with grad school. The mind can only take so much and that reset button needs to be pressed if you want to keep going.
The last thing I want to discuss is the writing of the dreaded thesis. I can’t lie: this thing is a pain and incredibly stressful to write. You’re essentially writing a short textbook, and now you’re the expert, which brings its own unique pressure with it. As the weeks start to tick down towards the submission deadline, you feel less and less motivated to write, and even the mere thought of writing starts to stress you out. What can you do about this? Well this all goes back to the general theme of stress relief. Writing the thesis is the ultimate grad school grind, and as with any grind, it is necessary to take structured breaks from time to time. And so my own personal advice when it comes to writing your thesis is…
Tip #9: Changes of scenery can be good for writing.
Personally, I have found that my motivation for writing my thesis increased immensely with just a simple change of scenery. For me that meant writing at a coffee shop on the 40th floor of a skyscraper halfway across the city from campus, just so I could have a view. For others, that may mean a day trip to the beach, or even just a walk around the corner to a local tea spot. Whatever it may be, don’t be afraid to change it up a bit if you feel yourself starting to lose steam when writing. Do whatever it takes to get your motivation back so that you can keep pushing through the writing process. Before you know it, you’ll have finished your first draft (the most difficult part) and have it sent off to your writing committee for review. Remember, you’re almost at the finish line, so keep pushing.
There are so many more bits of advice that I could give, far too many to fit on a blog post and many of them very situational. But hopefully I have been able to been able to provide students (both prospective and current) with some insight into the entire graduate school journey. Above all, I hope that all who read this remember to keep pursuing their dreams with all they’ve got. If I can do it, so can you!
About the Author
Wynton McClary earned his PhD in Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. Currently, he is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, and currently sits on the campus’ Postdoctoral Association Executive Committee. You can find him on LinkedIn at: linkedin.com/in/wynton-mcclary/