behavior human advice research graduate school

What I wish I had known: advice about graduate school (and life) to my younger self

Intrigued by graduate student life? If so, read on to discover the 6 things I wish I had known when I started grad school.

As some of you may have noticed, I haven’t written for TLS in a while. This isn’t because I left the blog - or graduated - but because I took last semester off from blog duties to focus on finishing my master’s thesis. It’s almost(!) done and I’m so excited.

Graduate school can be a wonderful, but also frustrating & confusing time. Over the past few months, as I’ve been getting closer and closer to actually finishing my master’s degree, I’ve been doing a lot of introspection; with this chapter coming to a close, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about all of the ways I’ve grown and everything I’ve learned. That being said, I realized that there is so, so much I wish I had known when I started graduate school in the fall of 2014 that could have made this whole experience a little more wonderful and a little less frustrating and confusing. I wanted to use this blog to write out the main things that I wish my 24-year-old self had known, and hopefully, my advice might be helpful for you, too.

I want to preface my tips by saying that what you’re about to read is based on my own reflections and experiences, and that this isn’t a one-size-fits all guide for everyone in graduate school. If you’re reading this because you’re curious about life in graduate school or even considering going to graduate school, these might be helpful/interesting tips, but by no means should you consider this to be the end-all-be-all of graduate student knowledge, advice, or representative of the only experiences graduate students have.

Painting on My Old Teacher Desk

Figure 1. We could all use this reminder (and especially while we’re in school). Unedited image courtesy of Denise Krebs via flickr.

Without further ado, my sage advice:

Tip 1: Your personal and professional relationship with your mentors and adviser matter as much as (if not more than) the research you’re doing. Your adviser(s) and mentors guide you through graduate school and prepare you for your life after graduate school. (And they are often your main resource and connection to finding a job post-graduate school.) This means that you should be interacting and talking with your advisers - a lot - and just like with any other relationship in your life, your conversations and interactions should come fairly easily and not feel forced. Your adviser and mentors bestow their knowledge and experience on you, so if their knowledge and past experiences doesn’t fit with what you want and your goals, then nothing else really matters including your research topic (gasp!).

Tip 2: You cannot base your self-worth on your academic accomplishments (or more importantly, lack thereof). Let me say that one more time: You. Cannot. Base. Your. Self-worth. On. Your. Academic. Accomplishments. As soon as we do that, we allow ourselves to devalue our worth as human beings. There is an epidemic of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues among graduate students (see here and here for more information if interested) and from personal experience, not believing in my worth as a student (and subsequently as a human being) is the first, or sometimes last, step on a slippery slope to anxiety and depression.


Figure 2. Instead of putting so much unneeded mental focus on my academic accomplishment (or lack thereof), I prefer to spend time thinking about the things that really matter, like my beloved pet guinea pigs. Photo courtesy of Peter Muka.

Tip 3: Graduate school might seem like a structured system, but it’s not and it’s a very personal journey. Every research lab, adviser-advisee relationship, and student has their own goals and ways of working. Resist the urge to focus on what others are doing or accomplishing, and put that focus inward.

Tip 4: Focus on personal progress, not whether you meet every single external goal or deadline set by your program, department, or school. Everyone works at their own pace, and tackles tasks in different ways and in different orders. As long as you are trying hard and progressing your knowledge, skills, and personal growth, you are doing great!

Tip 5a: It is OK to fail! What matters is learning from failure. For some of us fear of failure might motivate us to work harder, or try our best. But I’ve noticed with myself, and with others, that there is a threshold between using fear of failure to try our hardest and believing that we aren’t capable of completing a task at all. Fear of failing often becomes fear of trying, and when we don’t try, we can’t learn or ever actually succeed. When we cross that threshold and let our fear of failure take over, we only short change ourselves. Further, because what we do in graduate school is largely based on what we produce; what comes from within our brains and from our research, investigative skills, and ability to cohesively piece together ideas, it’s very hard to not beat yourself up when something you produce isn’t perfect. But just like with any other job, we have to train ourselves on how to best do a task. This applies just as much to learning how to read research articles, analyze results, and complete literature searches as it does to someone learning how to fix a car or do plumbing. I wouldn’t consider someone to be ‘stupid’ because they don’t inherently know how to install a sink and that logic should be applied to skills and products that come from our mental acuity as well.

Tip 5b: It’s ok to fail at learning from failure…sometimes. By this I mean, mistakes happen, life happens, sometimes we let our anxiety & stress take over in the short term. AND THAT’S OK. What matters is long-term growth and not beating yourself up about the little day-to-day things.

Tip 6: Set (attainable) daily goals. Days turn into weeks which turn into months much faster than you would expect! It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day tasks without ever really working towards long term goals (such as finishing your thesis). Identify small tasks, that when added together will help to make a big project easier to finish. Biting off small chunks is a lot easier than trying to eat the whole thing in one bite.

These are just a few things that I try to remind myself of every day, so that I can be a happier, healthier, and more productive me. (Because we all deserve to be happy.) Hopefully, some of these tips also apply to you and can help to improve your life, whether you’re a graduate student or not.

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