This past spring I received my admission letter to my first-choice grad school. I cried, I called my mom, and I celebrated that I was going to get a PhD. Given the timeline, I knew I was going to graduate school before I finished my undergraduate degree. Technically, I did not know if I was capable of earning a college degree. Quickly, I shifted from celebratory, “I’m in!” to “What did I sign up for?” Was I ever going to sleep again? Can I cram enough exercise into summer to make up for sitting 12 hours/day for the next 5 years? Does mass caffeine consumption require training and conditioning? Amidst a wave of impostor syndrome panic, I asked graduate students, mentors, and professors for best practices. I learned that no advice is universal. The experience is unique to the person and context. Nonetheless, as I complete my first semester, I share four key elements I find integral to grad school so far.
The cohort relationship is unique and integral to surviving and thriving in grad school. Like family, you do not get to choose them, but you need them. They are your people during the good, the bad, and the ugly. In my case, I am in a cohort of two. I took a giant sigh of relief when I met him for the first time to learn he is not only normal, he is wonderful. We have spent hours together over the past couple months, and I cannot imagine the process without him. The relating, the venting, the bouncing of ideas, the self-care that happens at the bar, and the overall support we give each other is invaluable. That said, my cohort mate and I have very different goals in the program – likely a healthy trait of our relationship. I find it important to stay tuned to my goals and what success means to me. Frequently, I find myself calibrating back to “why I am here?”. The comparative can be dangerous, and avoiding it saves both my sanity and my relationship with my classmates.
In order to achieve these goals, I find structure and accountability invaluable. The reading load, the work assignment, and the course work are significant. Frankly, I flailed the first few weeks, and I write this as I am just finding my balanced routine. Using my long-term goals, I set short-term goals – for the month, the week, and the day. I have to adjust and remember to be kind to myself when I fall behind, but the structure of the short-term goals keeps me sane. Accountability reinforces my structure. I have joined two writing groups – one on Monday mornings (a great way to start a productive week) and one on Thursday afternoons (a great way to coast into the weekend.) The groups are very different. One is open for free writing. It doesn’t matter what you write; just write. The other is focused on a conference panel and paper a group of us are participating in next summer. Both are committed to holding each other accountable to stay focused and finish some work. They tend to be my most productive hours of the week. I highly recommend joining writing groups.
Finally, state of mind is important is grad school. Yes, it is difficult, but more importantly, it is manageable. And what everyone forgot to tell me (or I just didn’t listen) in my informal polling of how to survive grad school is that it is fun. I spent so much time fretting about workload, schedule, and my competency that I left my celebratory “I’m in!” moment fade too quickly. I get to wake up every day and read, write, and think about what I find meaningful in the world. I am immersed in scholarly work that impassions me. I am training to create knowledge. I am learning how to write a book some day! Spending six months collecting opinions about the challenges and hardships of graduate school kept me from realizing that moving from undergrad to grad school is rewarding. I have made a lifelong friend in my cohort-mate, I’m moving forward toward my goals, I’ve learned new routines that challenge me to be better, and I’m doing it while actively appreciating that this life makes me happy.