Monday, September 5, 2011

How to Survive Your First Year of Grad School

At the football tailgate and student government picnic this weekend I met so many new first year students. Just last year I was starting my first year in grad school, and while it's been a lot of work, it's been so much fun. Graduate school is different from undergraduate work, but requires a lot more balancing to stay sane. Here's how:
Rule 1: Work hard, play hard
There's no doubt that you will be working your ass off in grad school. Between classes, research and instructing or otherwise being a grad assistant, you will be busy. Even though it's hard work, the fact that you are now pursuing your ultimate passion in life will propel you through most of the work. After you've finished working for the day, take some time to play, too. Go for a beer, watch a movie, wander around your local arboretum or enjoy some local sports with friends. Just be ready to crash in bed and do it all over again the next day :)
Rule 2: Eat like a grown-up
Now that you're out of undergrad, people are going to start expecting you to actually act your age. This means: eating plants, preparing meals and having friends over for dinner. Nearly every grad student I know is strapped for cash, so make it work by buying frozen veg (just as healthy as fresh!), avoiding pricy takeout by packing your lunch and having granola bars and dried fruit in your desk at work. Your body will thank you, and people will be impressed at your love of prunes. (maybe that's just me...)

Rule 3: Make time for exercise + sleep
Part two of taking care of yourself in grad school means taking care of your physical health. Engage in daily exercise to give your brain a break, for stress relief and to get outdoors. Join a rec sports team with your department, train for a half marathon, or sign up for a group fitness class. Pack running shoes and clothes in your backpack for quick 45 minute breaks between classes or experiments to get in a run or a weight session. And please, get some damn sleep after your day. No one likes a cranky grad student.
Rule 4: Schedule the hell out of yourself
Between class, work, research and exercise, you're going to need a way to keep track of it all. Last year I had a paper planner and several to-do lists, but quickly realized Google Calendar is the way to go. Set up a color coded system for classes, work, experiments, bar nights and especially schedule your exercise and fit it all in. Use to-do lists and text message alerts to keep yourself on task, and check your calendar the night before to see what you need for the next day. Stay organized, stay sane.

Rule 5: Mentoring matters 
Being a new grad student, you're going to have so many questions. Finding a mentor is crucial for maintaining a clear understanding of your expectations and for having someone to vent to when it all seems like it's piling up. Seek out an older grad student and take them out for a beer. Share stories of struggles and get advice on good mentors, classes to avoid and what really rocks at your university. I was lucky enough to find my awesome 5th year grad student friend Dave and he's taught me and helped me navigate the first year of grad school. You can't go it alone!
Rule 6: Just be YOU
Finally, the most important part of grad school is to not lose sight of yourself. In the first weeks, you'll be meeting so many people and it's hard not to compare yourself to them. Remember that everyone got into your program because they deserved to, and for the most part, everyone is entering on the same level. Try to keep sane by avoiding the comparison trap, walking away from situations where people are being overly cocky or negative, and finding a solid group of chill people to hang out with. You were admitted to the school for a reason: the department has faith in YOU.
 If you're a first year, congrats on your admission and good luck for the coming months! If you're not a first year, what other advice do you have for first year grad students?


  1. This is excellent advice! I just started a graduate program and even though I know all of this rationally, I forget it and slip into bad habits easily. Thanks for the timely reminder.

    Oh, and I especially agree about Google Calendar. I would be totally lost without it!

  2. Rule 7: Have perspective. We are conditioned to believe that every assignment is "the most important thing ever." Keep in touch with your friends from undergrad, your parents and your family. Weekly phone calls can help you stay in touch with reality.

    Rule 8: Be flexible. Your first year will probably not go as you planned. That is ok! In fact, graduate school has curves and roadblocks much like every other career. It will all work out in the end.

  3. I just had my first big ol' 12 hour day in my department, complete with 7.5 hours of class and 1 hour of traveling in the rain, and I'm about to explode and definitely freaking out about the next few months of my life.

    THANK YOU for this post. It is true, I know it is true, it speaks to me, and I will try to live by your wisdom!


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