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Three reminders to help you thrive—not merely survive—in grad school

Bart: Look at me, I’m a grad student. I’m 30 years old and I made $600 last year.
Marge: Bart, don’t make fun of grad students. They’ve just made a terrible life choice.

The Simpsons


Grad school does not have the best reputation. The stereotype is that it is a time of so much despair that it seems, as Marge Simpson noted, like a terrible life choice. This idea is not entirely unfounded: Ph.D. and master’s students around the world report rates of depression and anxiety that are six times higher than the general public. When asked how things are going, grad students often respond, “I’m surviving.” And we as an academic community seem to have accepted this as par for the course.

My fellow Letters to Young Scientists authors and I think it is time to change that. And what better time is there to start tackling this problem than the beginning of a new academic year, when new students may be wondering where to begin and more veteran students may be striving to make this year better than the last?

This single article can’t address all of the issues—there is, after all, a word limit. And some of the challenges associated with grad school are systemic and require large-scale changes of policy and culture, which will of course take time. But while those changes are being developed, you still have to continue with your studies. Given that, our goal in these columns is to provide actionable strategies that you can implement to put yourself in the best possible position. Today, I will focus on three things to remember that may help you on your way toward thriving, not just surviving, in grad school.

Remember your reason for pursuing this path—and write it down

Graduate school takes a lot of hard work—work that frequently offers little immediate gratification, pays very little money in the present, and doesn’t always pay that much in the immediate future. Despite knowing all of that—at least I hope someone told you that—you decided to go anyway. Why?

There are many things you could have done instead. What was the question or topic that motivated you to pursue this path? Taking the time to reflect on that and jotting the answer down someplace where you can see it regularly throughout your journey can be invaluable for maintaining your focus and motivation as you make your way through the challenges of grad school, and research throughout your career.

When I was a grad student, that reminder was the name of an elementary school written inside the front cover of the research notebook I always carried with me. As an undergrad, I spent a year working with three students at that school. They were from disadvantaged backgrounds, and some of the challenges associated with that affected their experiences in school. Every week, I drove to their school and worked with them individually. It was rewarding to see their progress over the course of the year. At the same time, it was frustrating to see the many other students in that school who needed help but didn’t get it—there simply weren’t enough of us to work with every child. Because of that experience, and others like it, I decided to focus much of my graduate work on figuring out what it might take to develop scalable interventions to address educational disparities. I wanted to figure out ways to help not just three kids at a time, but hundreds or thousands. Those kids and others like them are why I went to grad school. Having a daily reminder of that helped me get through the challenges and frustrations that are inevitably part of research.

Write down your reasons, whatever they are. You might find that they evolve, and that’s OK, too—the important thing is to keep them in mind. This will help you make sure that you are staying true to yourself and pursuing the questions that are most meaningful to you. That’s important because when you are working on things that matter to you, you will have the motivation you need to face the mean reviewer commentsto spend hours battling R to get your code to run, and to more generally get back up when the day-to-day hassles of being a scientist get you down.

If you don’t remember your reasons, you can easily fall into a trap of chasing (ill-fated) metrics of success instead of working on projects of purpose. That can lead to existential crises like those faced by prominent scientists who realize after decades that the papers and grants they produced are of little meaning. As professor Elliot Berkman wrote last year, “[Y]ou don’t want to be facing down emeritus status and asking whether any of it mattered for anything.”

Remember the people who sustain you—and stay connected

Scientists are often depicted as self-made, self-taught, lone geniuses in their laboratories who have “eureka!” moments that lead to grand discoveries. The reality, though, is that most of us got here with a lot of luck and, as The Beatles sang, a little help from our friends. We got here with the help of advisers and mentors who took the time to provide feedback on multiple drafts of our work, with the help of friends who were our cheerleaders when we had doubts about whether we could succeed, and with the help of family members who supported us in our decision to do this weird thing that they may not fully understand.

Yet when you are in the throes of your graduate program, it can be tempting to think that you don’t have time to catch up with old friends or to hang out with the new ones that you will make. That is a mistake. Just as you make time to do your research, to go to class, to teach and grade papers, so should you make time for the people who sustain you. Stay in touch. Schedule time for phone calls and Skype sessions to catch up.

Odds are, the people who helped you get here, and some new ones you will meet, are the people who will be there for you to celebrate the high points and get you through the low ones. They are the people who, when you find yourself in what one blogger dubbed “the valley of shit” (as you probably will at some point), will be there to help you get out and find your bearings to get back on track.

That brings me to the final point for this piece:

Remember to give yourself a break—in two ways

Day-to-day life as a scientist often involves, as postdoc Dana Miller-Cotto tweeted, “struggling, banging your head against the desk for a little, having an aha moment, and then doing that all over again.” For those of you who are just starting grad school, that is in part because what you are doing is so different than everything you’ve trained for up until this point. From kindergarten through college, you probably sat in classrooms where people talked at you and gave you assignments that had clear correct answers—you just had to figure them out to get your sticker or your grade.

Grad school is different. There often isn’t a clear answer to your question … yet. That’s why you are here! It is your job to find it. This process is hard, and you will likely make many errors along the way. When you do, give yourself a break. You are human, and we make mistakes. When they happen, don’t beat yourself up; learn from them and move forward.

The second way that I mean to “give yourself a break” is literally: Take breaks from your work when you need them. The “Busy Trap” is prevalent in academia and can lead to burnout. Avoid that trap. Take the breaks and get the help you need to be healthy and happy. Those breaks, whether they be turning off the computer and going home early or going out of town to hang out with friends and clear your head for a few days, can be just the restoration you need to re-engage with your work.

Graduate school does not have to be a “terrible life choice.” It can be, and should be, an opportunity for curious and hardworking people to thrive.

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