As many of us are starting the winter semester, it seemed an opportune time to discuss surviving not just the winter weather (here’s hoping Michigan’s winter isn’t as bad as last year!), but the rather mentally and emotionally trying process that is graduate school. I’m currently in my third year at MSU and am just finishing up classes, so these tips are only guaranteed to be even partially relevant for your first few years, but hopefully they continue to help me and you in our final years as well!
1. Have a hobby that makes you happy and that isn’t about your work! Reading, pottery, crafting, volunteering at the Humane Society, gaming in moderation, sports, whatever you like. I am a big fan of sci-fi and fantasy books and find that I can’t fall asleep without reading a little bit since it helps my brain stop obsessing about what I need to do tomorrow. I took a pottery class in the spring of 2014 because I’d always wanted to and it gave me three hours of learning something completely different. It was also a class with other graduate students, so it was a great time for us all to rant a bit ;-). I found that something creative and productive in a different way was particularly useful when I spent all day banging my head against a paper.
2. Find someone nonjudgemental to talk to when you are feeling overwhelmed. This person might be a lab mate that you trust, someone from a class you became friends with, or your significant other. It can take a little bit of time to become comfortable around a friend, since many of us are introverted, but it is something that you probably should actively seek out. Having no one to talk to when things get difficult is not a great place to be.
3. Figure out your effective working hours and routines. I’m a night owl and am barely functional before noon without coffee (and 10am is my max with coffee). I’m most effective working late. It took me a while to become comfortable with that fact and reassured that no one was judging me for not being in at 9 am. The same applies if you wake up at 6am no matter what: you can leave early if you aren’t functional past 4:30pm. One of the great benefits of academia is flexibility. I will point out that I am very lucky to be in a lab where my advisor recognizes this and is alright with me working at midnight instead of 9am, and also that working with computers instead of live organisms gives me greater flexibility than you might have. You can write that paper when your brain is most capable, though.
4. Only you can really know your own needs. Other people might try to give you advice, but they don’t know you as well as you do, so if their advice fundamentally doesn’t apply to you, that’s okay. Yes, I realize the irony of this advice, but I’m okay with that since I’m trying to get you to think, not provide rules to live by ;-). I found a few times that people would try to tell me how bad of an idea something was without understanding how I work differently than they do. I happily ignored them and did what worked for me.
5. Grades don’t matter as much once you’re at a terminal degree. Your department (and potentially your fellowship) has a minimum GPA, but as long as you’re above that, you’re fine. It can take a while if you’re coming straight from undergrad to realize that an A in a class with unrealistic standards is possibly a waste of time. I’ve heard the slightly tongue-in-cheek expression that a 4.0 means you weren’t working on research enough. While that’s a bit extreme, it is good to keep in mind that your goal for a class is to learn something that might help your research in the future, not to be perfect.
6. As soon as you have time, work with an undergraduate for even just a couple of hours a week or otherwise teach your work to newer students. Nothing reminds me how much I love science like helping my undergrad through an experiment and seeing her excitement at getting a result. This is also great practice for being a professor and managing grad students and gives you valuable experience to point out when interviewing for tenure-track positions. If you find that you hate working with undergrads, that is valuable too and might indicate you’d be happier with a job that doesn’t require you work with students.
7. Similarly, outreach activities to local schools are excellent opportunities to get excited about science again. Plus, our public school system desperately needs our help to get kids interested in science. There is likely a group already organizing outreach activities on your campus, though finding them could be tricky. It also isn’t actually that difficult to organize short outreach events once you find teachers that want to work with you, so give that a try. If you have questions, feel free to ask me since I’ve done a couple of these things now.
There are definitely many things I’m forgetting; these were the seven I thought of at midnight and scribbled down on a note pad :). I’d love to hear your strategies for staying sane and getting through grad school!