Back in 2011, I wrote an absolute slew of tips about making the adjustment to college. I had several months of distance between myself and the end of my undergraduate career–barely enough time, if enough at all, to start reflecting and giving advice about the college experience. The guiding principle of that advice was: “What did I wish someone had told me before I even moved in to my dorm?” Then when it was September of the same year, I thought to myself: “I wish someone would tell me about grad school before I move in to my studio.”
Well, I’ve gone through two years of grad school and just made my transition from a Ph.D. student (primarily grinding through classes, exams, and bureaucratic hurdles) to Ph.D. candidate (working on research and the ‘d’ word). Less than halfway complete with my career, I obviously don’t have the kind of perspective or ability to reflect on the overall experience. But even so, I feel like there’s stuff to say.
And I’m not talking about the standard tips on graduate school that you’d get from doing a simple Google search. I read that stuff before I moved to California, and it helped in its own way. The top page when I look for ‘graduate school tips’ gives the following ten recommendations, many of which are repeated in various flavors elsewhere:
- Take advantage of professors and other contacts around you.
- Revise your approach.
- Get organized.
- Take initiative.
- Expect to be busy.
- Study now.
- Become an expert.
- Budget wisely.
- Branch out.
If you didn’t notice, graduate school will apparently involve a lot of work and will clobber you if you don’t get your act together.
Another site worth mentioning is one by Molly McCaffrey, who write a book of short stories on graduate school. A page on her site actually gives some more interesting advice (some of it for humorous purposes) that’s worth looking at here. It’s a long list, so some of the ideas she brings up there will probably come up here, too.
About 90% of the advice I see on surviving graduate school focuses on study tips, professionalization (going to conferences, networking), and having a balanced life. These are all obviously important, and I would never undervalue them. My bigger issue with them is that they dance around some of the much bigger obstacles to withstanding graduate school–obstacles that are far more primal and stab far deeper into your core than having a lot to read or figuring out what to eat. In short, here’s what all the advice online tangentially addresses but is maybe worried about saying point-blank (because they don’t want to freak you out and drive you away):
You will feel incompetent, small, exhausted, and alone.
Before going on, I feel like just writing about my own experience with the hope that maybe some of it resonates with you and possibly helps. Or just skip ahead if you aren’t interested in either me or an extended description of those eight words.
“Man, I just graduated college with all these honors! I’m on top of the world! Watch out, universe!”
I’ve never really considered myself a person with that many talents. However, the one thing I knew I was good at was being an effective student. I worked really hard at school, most likely to the detriment of some other things (especially when I was at NYU, where I undoubtedly missed out on so much of the city because I thought I should work a bit more on some paper or re-read a chapter of a book before some exam). But the work paid off, and I felt successful. I might suck at dancing and a laundry list of other things that make for an interesting person, but at least I had some related strengths: I was an effective student that worked hard and always got things done. No exceptions. It was my one personal claim to fame (in my own head), and despite any of my other shortcomings, I could at least attach a decent amount of my self-worth on that. And that’s exactly what I did. I long identified myself as a good student, and it makes sense, even at the age of thirteen, that I wanted to be a professor.
But grad school took away that one thing I had. There was suddenly more to read than I physically could, and the readings were using language that I just didn’t understand. The first seminar I went into was littered with questions I had no chance of answering and a way of thinking that I hadn’t expected. My first response paper was met with a pretty tepid response, even though I had spent most of my weekend trying to just write three pages. My identity was being challenged. My guiding principles, “At least you’re a good student” and “If you work hard enough, you can get it done” weren’t really working anymore. (And it didn’t help for people to keep telling me that grades didn’t matter in grad school. After you spend your entire life thinking about grades and getting into grad school on the back of good grades, it’s so jarring to hear that grades aren’t as important as learning now. First, it sounds like a trap. Then, it makes sense but doesn’t really register in your head. It took me most of my two years to get used to that idea, and I still haven’t totally bought into it yet.)
Beyond having my identity start to show cracks, I felt like, for the first time, I’d actually hit the upper limits of my potential. We spend so much time growing up feeling like the sky’s the limit. Whenever we say that we want to be challenged, we really mean it in small doses–little, temporary struggles that make us focus, reflect, and ultimately become a wiser and better person. We don’t mean challenges that make us feel like we’ve totally plateaued in life and can’t go further. But that was how the first few weeks of grad school made me feel. I know I’m mixing analogies (and the distinction between ceiling and wall), but it feels a LOT like Truman at the end of The Truman Show. He finally feels free after he overcomes a massive storm and uprights his yacht. He’s sitting and feeling the wind and sun massaging his face as the sky clears up and looks wonderfully blue. And then all of a sudden, CRASH. He smashes into a wall. The wall of the studio in which he’s lived for his entire life. He eventually finds the stairs and walks out the door at the end, but that moment where Truman disbelievingly touches the wall, realizes what this means about his life, and starts to mercilessly pound the wall while breaking down–that was grad school.
“Nobody will hear me cry this far down in the stacks…”
It was difficult enough to feel like my fundamental identity as a student who could always work hard enough to get the job done was no longer as valid as I thought. But then it was so trenchantly demoralizing to also feel that I had peaked at the age of 22, leaving 45-60 years to slowly make my quiet descent from a sad mountaintop. I clearly remember that at the end of a seminar in the second week of my first quarter, I walked out feeling absolutely lost and defeated. What was I doing here? I had no clue what was going on. What series of coincidences got me into this place where I didn’t even deserve to be? I had never felt quite as defeated as on the psychological level in my life. And I was supposed to go through at least 5 more years of being constantly reminded that I’m sleep-deprived and incapable? During following weeks, I would be sitting in my cubicle at the department after midnight, still not close to getting everything finished. Especially when that was a Friday night creeping into Saturday, I’d just sit and ask myself where this is all going except in slowly breaking me. Similar feelings would pop up in one-on-one meetings with professors, where I would walk in feeling only kind of desperately prepared and walk out feeling like I’d accidentally walked into an Icelandic spelling bee. How could any of these geniuses even pretend to take me seriously?
It didn’t help, or got worse, when I’d try to talk about this with my friends and family. Even now, if you’re reading this and aren’t in grad school, you might think that this sounds so melodramatic for someone who’s just studying all the time. Since most grad school students don’t even know what grad school will be like, it’s not surprising that people outside of that bubble think it’s just extra college. They might think, “And wasn’t college the best time ever? And besides classes, you can do whatever you want. I have a 9-5 job where I’m a captive during most of the week, forced to do things I have no interest in, while you’re just studying froo-froo stuff that interests you. So shut your academic face.” And there are glimmers of truth in that, but the soul-searching/existential crises are much deeper than that. Friends and family probably wouldn’t think that negatively, though. Even so, they don’t really know what you’re going through, so their well-intentioned advice and encouragement can often sound kind of hollow, because you can tell (either from the generic way they talk or the incorrect assumptions they make) that they don’t really understand the stress you feel and/or where it comes from. It’s obviously not their fault, but those words don’t completely address your real insecurities and exhaustion and quiet fear that you are ultimately in some way a failure. (And in fairness, maybe because you don’t expect them to understand everything fully, you don’t let them know just how deep these issues are affecting you.)
I think my experience is general enough to apply to whatever discipline there might be. After two years of that experience, I can say one thing for sure: A lot of those concerns and stresses don’t go away. Despite all the prioritizing you do and all the new study habits you try to adopt, there’s always more to do than you have time to accomplish. You’ll always be tired and questioning yourself. (One of my professors pointed out a useful term called “impostor syndrome,” where you live your life feeling like you’re a fraud, and it’s only a matter of time before you’re found out for the idiot that you are. That totally applied to me. If it does to you, you should look it up online and get some more insight on it!)
So what’s the advice I have about overcoming the mental stresses of grad school? In short, it’s this:
You’re not alone. And the crux of surviving graduate school (at a mental level) is finding ways to know and reinforce the idea that you aren’t alone.
Maybe my post is at least some evidence that you’re not alone; there’s at least one dude in California who feels that pain. But how else can you mend your broken spirit?
Find people in the department that you can open up to. Everyone’s a bit guarded at first. That’s true of any social situation, and it’s still the case here. You walk in unsure of how much others know/can do, and you don’t want to be the first person to show that you’re feeling in over your head. It’s only worse because your first impressions of most of your new colleagues are so overpowered based on the admit visits. (Seriously: If everyone was as accomplished and poised as they sounded during the admit visits, the sheer brilliance contained in these universities would blind every human being on this planet.) You sit in class feeling puzzled or clueless, but quietly nod along to what the professor says in the hope that the professor doesn’t call on you and that you don’t radiate fear in front of your fellow cohort members, who are all extraordinary scholars that would vomit at the idea of an idiot like you sitting in their erudite midst. The secret? Basically everyone in the room feels that way but is too blind from their own fears to acknowledge it.You meet people in grad school in a different capacity than you do in college; you are first introduced to them as potential colleagues, and friendship follows. It’s already a step in the right direction if all of you get along well enough at a professional level, able to be cordial with one another. (And not all groups are lucky enough to have that.) Then there’s another step when you become good acquaintances or friends that hang out outside of classes and either talk about non-academic stuff or about academic stuff in a safe way. That’s progress, too. But then there’s a third stage when either you or another person utters the magic words: “Me too.” What do I mean by that? It means that one person was willing to open up about their struggles, and the other person, seeing a person allow themselves to be vulnerable, finds some relief in see that someone else feels the same way, and says “Me too” instead of pretending that they’re totally fine. It’s hard to express how much those words (or some variant of them) mean. It makes way for much deeper discussions about your insecurities, and knowing that you aren’t alone and spending time regaining perspective is so great. And those discussions help to forge much stronger friendships. As you go on with graduate school, everyone goes through ebbs and flows, and it’s invaluable to have someone there who sees it when you’re sinking and helps you back up, knowing that you would do the same thing.
There’s a bit of a coordination issue with this, and different departments probably all have different cultures. I know of many departments where showing “weakness” is not seen favorably, especially because the place is so competitive and everyone is always on guard, attempting to look like a champion in order to get ahead. But in my opinion, keeping up that facade is exhausting, disingenuous, mentally unhealthy, and not good to making real life connections. In a competitive culture, it’s much harder to make the first move and admit your shortcomings. But it should be a big goal to have in mind. You will feel so many degrees happier once you find at least one or two people that you feel safe talking to about anything, both personal and academic. (For as nice as it is to be open, it also isn’t reasonable to spread your deepest insecurities across everyone around you. Find a limited but secure safe zone.) Don’t let yourself become distant, mysterious, and perhaps douche-y. Once you find someone that you think might reciprocate, take the risk and drop your facade. And if that’s too difficult to do with someone in your own cohort, look for someone higher up in the department (a second, third, fourth year) that seems secure and warm enough to get things moving in that direction.
Don’t worry if it takes a while to find those special people. It’s just like freshman year of college all over again. In a totally new environment without a familiar network, people either fold in on themselves or feverishly look for their new BFFs. It’s possible that you ended up finding your absolute best friend from college during orientation week, but chances are that you either found your best friends later or really connected with people you met later on in your undergraduate career. Very few deep and profound friendships are born in short periods of time. (The first few weeks of undergrad also have that ‘keeping up appearances’ vibe.) But once you find someone you really relate with, it’s all worth it. So don’t worry if the first few weeks feel uneasy on multiple dimensions. Everyone’s feeling things out, and it takes time for anyone to feel secure enough to settle down and open up. But don’t stop looking!
Laugh. It’s even funnier when you can laugh with others about how crazy or difficult a shared experience was. And this links back to feeling comfortable with people in your cohort.Story time! One of my favorite memories of first year was at the end of winter quarter. All the members of our cohort were taking a required course in statistical analysis and methodology. The midterm in that class was surprisingly and depressingly hard. I walked out of that exam feeling everything I talked about above. I stress-ate at lunch that day and felt like a total loser. But later on, we all started bringing up the issue of the midterm with each other and realized that we all thought it went terribly.
Cut to a month later, when we have the final exam in the class. The test was almost hilariously awful. I could barely produce even the beginning stages of an answer on a couple questions, and I just filled space on the rest of the exam to grasp for as many partial-credit points as I could. But this time, unlike the last, all of us in the cohort knew that this was an absolute collective disaster. As we all turned in our Blue Books, we all looked at one another and laughed. We laughed at the absurdity of the exam and the knowledge that we all bombed. We were all in the same boat. And we laughed all the way to the bar, where we had pitchers of beer at 11:50 AM. I don’t even know what I ended up getting on that exam (I never got it back and wasn’t keen on asking), but whatever. It was a good day.
Find confidence in yourself. If you’re a person that is generally fueled by others’ compliments, then grad school is going to be tough. It seems like the type of people who pursue grad school are those that are their own worst critics. (Or really, that could just be me.) And more than that, praise from professors is infrequent. That’s not necessarily because they don’t like you, but because there aren’t as many opportunities to get praise, because they’re there to push you intellectually, because they might expect you to feel sort of confident in your own capabilities (why else would they have accepted you into their program?), and because their occasional compliments just don’t outweigh the mental accosting you put upon yourself. You might find yourself treating professors’ positive comments like rare minerals, rereading their encouragement on the margins of your papers over and over as if it was a winning lottery ticket. There’s nothing wrong with taking time to bask in those moments and feeling like you’ve done something well.In between those moments, there’s that constant potential for insecurity. You have to fill the void by excavating the confidence out of yourself. Or this is a time when you can turn to your friend(s) in the department and get reminders that you deserve to be there. But ultimately, external encouragement is only a short-term treatment; only self-motivation can drive you through the whole experience. I’m admittedly weak on this front, but I do my best to tell myself the following: “Despite the fact that plenty of luck and factors beyond my control contributed to my being where I am today, I also worked hard and must have had something inside me that the department thought had promise. The kind words that people around me say may be to help lift my spirits, but it’s also not guaranteed that they would say such nice things if they didn’t mean it. And as I slowly start to put more of my work out in the open (which I admit isn’t something that happens early in your graduate career; it’s something that’s happened more recently for me), it seems like it’s going over pretty well. These are too many coincidences to be plausible. To some extent, you’re here because people saw something real in you.”
Like I said, there are lots of moments where I know I should do this but fail to do it effectively. I can be really critical of myself, and there’s always the fear that negativity will drive people away because nobody who’s already under some stress wants to deal with another person who’s perpetually an emotional sinkhole. But in the end, it has to be faith in yourself that gets you through grad school and the rest of life. Especially when you do things that people may not like or understand at much as first, it has to be your own drive that keeps the ball rolling. Others’ encouragement is only so much and won’t always be there!
Get off campus every once in a while. It can be deceptively easy to totally lose perspective with any undertaking you have, whether in or out of grad school. For me, I can find myself staring at some game theory problem from a problem set, totally unable to even get started on it and feeling the weight of the universe slowly pushing down on my shoulders. Or I’ll be under a deadline for turning in a paper and have this vague feeling that if I turn in something substandard, I’ve failed the world.It’s utter nonsense, but it’s hard to get that when you’re in the moment. And if you’re sitting in an office with your professional peers, all of you may be in that same funk and have all lost perspective. Even if a fellow student is in a better mood than you, their words of support may still be subject to some tunnel vision: “I’m sure that it’s not that bad… you could probably get an extension on it.” “One all-nighter isn’t that bad if you can get the work done.” “That instrumental variable approach isn’t perfect, but I think it will probably fly…”
All comforting words in their own ways, but sometimes you need a cleaner kick in the face that reminds you that there’s a world outside your little bubble. Go out and watch a movie. When you go home during vacation, make time where you commit to not doing work. Meet with people who know absolutely nothing about what you’re doing. And if you do have to work, maybe consider finding a new place. Whenever I work at a local coffee shop near where I live, I am surrounded by tech people who are in their own bubbles, and it’s a reminder that there’s a whole different world outside of mine. The planet is large and keeps spinning regardless of what you’re up to. That’s not to say that what you’re doing isn’t important, but it gives perspective. So many people are working hard to make a contribution to society in their own ways, and everyone gets tunnel vision. But in the end, the world will be okay.
This post has now reached 3,800 words. It really needs to stop whether I want it to or not. There’s probably more I could write, and maybe I’ll do that in additional posts, but I feel like the core of what I wanted to convey is here. I know that I don’t always live up to all the tips I just gave, but I do my best to try and will continue to do for the years to come. And just as important as all of this is one last fact that I’ll end on:
Enjoy what you’re doing, too. I can’t imagine being in graduate school (especially PhD programs) if you’re not interested in what you’re studying. As long as you really care about what you’re working on, no level of adversity will completely extinguish your desire to just keep running.
And don’t forget to sleep. Preferably in a bed with a pillow rather than on your knees at a desk on top of a stack of your first year of readings. (Also, binders do not soak up tears.)