Grad School: I don’t think it means what you think it means

I’m not going to lie to you.  Grad school is a pretty freaking rough ride.  When I was toward the end of my undergrad years all of my professors kept telling me that grad school would be “tough but still easier and much better than your undergraduate time because you can focus on what you love!”  And while that may be true to some extent (the working on what you “love” part) it’s really only a half-truth at best.

What’s that you say? I’m not playing up the amazing joy and beautiful sparkly-awesome that you were expecting?  There’s that too.  But there’s also a lot of frustration and irritation at the process of it.  Please, do NOT get me wrong.  I do not for one second regret my decision to pursue a Masters and my experience as a MSc student has only reinforced my desire to continue on for a PhD -YUP, I want to do it all again!.  But that desire has come from a completely different place than my initial desire to enter grad school.  Initially it was just to keep going.  I knew what I wanted to do and I needed graduate school to get there.  In my mind, it was a series of steps that needed to be made in order to reach the end goal.  Yes, this is true, superficially, but it should never be the underlying motivation for pursuing a graduate education.  Which brings me to…

Pro-Tip 1) Get your Masters first!

As you proceed through grad school you will find that things change.  Not just the outside world (economy, etc) but YOU will change.  Except for pennies (and nickles) change is GOOD!  If you are one of those who jump on in with the plan for a PhD you will be in for a shock.  Not only do MSc and PhD students have different academic burdens, they are also expected to be on completely different intellectual levels.  The Masters student is learning how to be whatever it is you’re there to be (scientist, artist, musician, etc).  The Doctoral student is expected to already be that (to a large degree) and had better well be able to live up to that expectation.  Not every advisor and committee is going to interact and expect the same level of ability and comfort from you within your discipline, especially not right out of the gate.  But within a year of your PhD program you had better have the ropes down pat or you’re gonna fall flat.

Pursuing the MSc was the best decision I could have made in this regard.  Not only was I given the opportunity to change fields if I want, but I can also change universities or even get a job if something opens up post Masters.  Those options may be there early/mid PhD, but you have more significant consequences if you do make the change.

Pro Tip 2) Not everything is about your degree.

I have some hobbies and I have found that during certain periods of my MSc program those hobbies have bounced around as far as how much time I devote to them but I have noticed a pattern (documented and statistically evaluated too…because I’m a nerd like that): During periods when I devote my entire mental and physical energy to my graduate education my mental and physical effectiveness shrinks.   In other words, when I have completely abandoned those things that I love (or even mildly enjoy) my academic performance suffered.  You need your “me time”.  If your entire focus is on the work you’re doing and you spend your after hours with those people you work with, you will start to go BSC.

I’d also recommend getting a pet.  Shelter cats and dogs are great.

Okay, and this website helps a lot too.  Just don’t spend too much time there.

Pro Tip 3) Read THIS.

It’s 19 pages.  That’s right.  But you need to read it.  I mean you NEED to read it.  It’s a presentation and rebuttal about advice for graduate students.  Much of what the writers have to say is applicable to all disciplines, not just Ecology, the field of the writers.

Okay, now that you’ve read it, print it out and read it again in another year.  Then read it again in another year after that.  I first encountered it during my second year and now towards the end I came across it again in the back of my desk drawer and decided to read it for a second time.  I’m glad I did.  Upon a second reading it made things many things clear that previously I hadn’t even really noticed.  My perspective on things has changed over these last few years and my goals have changed as well.  For your first reading take note of the more practical tips.  Those will help.  Unfortunately those are the ones I didn’t really take to heart.  Don’t let the stern approach that Sterns has (haha!  I’m the first! </poor sarcasm) get you down.  This second time around his was the section that resonated most with me.  Don’t let him scare you; and don’t let me scare you either.  Let your grad school experience scare you.  You’ll be better for it once you make it through to the other side.

Pro Tip 4) There’s always room for more wine.

No, this tip isn’t an endorsement of alcoholism (though I will admit a not-so-insignificant amount of my thesis has been written in a bar).  This tip is about perspective.  I am not an optimist or a pessimist; but I am at the same time.  I have a habit of always expecting the worst.  Some find that this technique can be a hindrance because it lowers your expectations.  For myself, it’s more a means of creating a built in mechanism of how to address the “worst” when it does happens.  The above article advises both approaches.  But here is my saying, and I hope it helps:

Some people are ‘glass is half full’ type people.  Others are ‘the glass is half empty’ types.  I’m more of a ‘no matter what, there’s always more room for wine’ type person.

There’s always room for more.  There is always room to expand.  There is always another way to approach your project.  When the your entire plate of DNA samples comes back with not a single usable one (true story), have your fit but know that you can figure out what to do.  These sorts of things WILL HAPPEN.  And they will happen again and again.  If they don’t you’re doing it wrong.  This applies to my experience in entomology, anthropology, and music.

You slam that table Snape!

Pro Tip 5)  My issues are _____ and I will deal with them.

We all got issues.  For me, one of my biggest stressors is money.  I get major anxiety when the end of the month rolls around and the bank account is in danger of going negative.  Get a handle on what your financial needs are and include those personal hobbies as a need.  Because they are.  If you are entering a STEM field then you will likely have no problem finding funding for your program.  Entering Chemistry or Biology and the school doesn’t have money for you?  Keep looking.  Seriously.  The ones who have to stress the most about this are those in the Social Sciences and Fine Arts and even then there are options.  Google searches for your field + ‘grant’ can provide a number of helpful hits.  If at any point you need to write a grant ask your advisor or other faculty you know (or will be working with if your program has not yet begun) for copies of successful grants they have written or a book/website that they find useful.

As far as non-financial issues those can and definitely will come up along the way.  Over these last few years I have dealt with two personal trauma’s that have influenced my academic performance significantly.  Early on it was rough enough that I was on academic probation and was finally able to pull myself out of it on the last quarter possible.  I recognized I had an issue and I dealt with it by seeing a counselor.  There is absolutely NO shame in seeing someone to talk about these things.  If you’re a group person there are Graduate/Professional Student support groups on most campuses.  If there isn’t one, start it up.  Never let anyone tell you that you should not seek mental health care.  Being of sound body and mind is essential to being able to complete your program.  We’re all a little nuts to want to go to graduate school.  But that doesn’t mean we should suffer because of it.  Additionally, seeking help gives you some backing if you need to petition your school.

Pro Tip 6) If it works for you, go for it.

Figure out what works for you and go with it.  Does it help writing your essays in the library?  Great.  Wait?  Now the library doesn’t work because xyz has happened!  Okay, try other things.  Be ready to adapt when needed but always have a framework from which to start.  For whatever bizarre reason I don’t do well working at home.  I am far more productive sitting in a bar or restaurant than at my home desk.  It works so I go with it. But always be prepared to adapt.  You never know when *that* waitress will be on duty and you will need to find a new study-spot.

I have seen the question asked “What’s the difference between a Masters and a PhD” so here is my answer.

A Masters program is designed to give you the skills to be a scientist/artist/musician, etc.  A Doctoral program is designed to make you a professional.  You’re already a scientist, now it’s time to prove it.

Graduate school is one of the most stressful, anxiety filled, brilliantly amazing, inspirational experiences of my life.  It has frustrated me; kept me up at night and made me question everything about the whole process.  And I wouldn’t change a minute of it.  You will stare down those demons and come back breathing.  And it will be amazing.


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