Dear New Grad Student,
I noticed my first gray hairs at 23 years old. Not coincidentally, the same year I started my Master’s degree.
Grad school is touted as a monumental time of self-discovery, pushing your limits, meeting new people, and enriching your mind (for the record, I’ve found all of this to be true). Something people are a little less enthusiastic about celebrating is how much it’s just…crying a lot.
I’m certainly much smarter now, but I feel old in ways I never imagined I would at 24: I realize more than ever that my parents were never lying when they said “you’ll always have to deal with difficult people,” and I finally had the acute experience of impostor syndrome for the first time last week. (Oh boy. That one’s a doozy; I hope you don’t get there.)
So, this is a bummer of a letter, isn’t it? Well, I think it’s clear from the opener here that grad school is the hardest challenge I’ve had in life, so there’s no need to keep beating that horse. It’s not supposed to be easy, and the factors that make it hard are too overwhelming in their quantity to discuss here without wanting to drive a fork into my temple. How the academic model needs to shift in order to make grad school less of a matter of survival is a discussion well worth having, but what what I want to talk to you about today is: what can we grad students do to help ourselves?
If we can put the power in our own hands to promote our own well-being, we’ll be infinitely better off for it. Should it be our responsibility entirely? No. But I think what we don’t realize is that we are not alone. One of the most common complaints I hear from other grad students (and I am guilty of this) is that it is isolating. You feel lost in your project, no one else is having the same experience as you, and there are no established benchmarks to set your progress by. On top of that, validation from authority figures is rare to come by and your supervisor has a “hands-off” (read: absent) approach.
It’s no wonder you feel like you’re an untethered balloon drifting off haphazardly into the atmosphere.
The secret here, though, is that everyone feels this way. Turn to the student next to you in your office, talk to the postdoc from the other lab, chat to professors at conferences. More often than not they know exactly what you mean, and if you’re lucky to find those key mentors, they want to help. Don’t fall into the false trap of isolation!
It feels like an inevitably self-set trap that the majority of us find ourselves in, though – who goes to grad school? Detail-oriented people who like to read and probably have some perfectionist tendencies, AKA, the types of folks who can easily drive themselves into a tizzy after spending 3 days reading articles at home alone. So a second piece of advice: you don’t need to be perfect. What you do need to do is to eat something tonight. More than anything, I have been kept sane by drawing lines between work and home and occasionally treating myself to a $10+ bottle of wine. Believe me: you have the time and you will not regret it.
Keep on fighting the good fight,