You will learn many things by word of mouth – learn to connect with experienced colleagues.
- For example, knowing where and how to get funding for your graduate program, which conferences to attend, how to conduct yourself at conferences, parsing through your hypotheses and perspectives, and learning to improve your oral and written communication can all be things you accomplish simply by having relationships with people in your department. Of course, since graduate school is a highly competitive and high-pressure environment, it is important to choose wisely.
As a species, we humans run our mouths a lot. Much of what comes out of them is bullshit, especially when you’re in a high pressure, competitive environment like graduate school.
- Learn to discern bullshit from the real and try to stop comparing yourself to the things they say. Learn to be self-motivated. Gauge your performance in graduate school by your individual benchmarks and your progress towards them. There will be times when you’re ahead and times when you’re behind, and that’s NORMAL. Develop a plan for getting to the finish line and always re-evaluate your progress and adjust accordingly to stay on track.
Make friends with people who reach out to mentor you.
- These are typically people who understand the process, know a lot more about the resources available to you, and see something in you that compels them to support you on your journey. Set your pride aside and be open to their feedback. These people are on your team. Ask for help with school, life, navigating difficult circumstances, etc. To this day, these people are still friends and mentors of mine who have helped me navigate new and tough situations in work and in life. I’ve learned that graduate school and life are a lot easier when you are able to set your pride aside and ask for help. Your mentors are typically ready and willing to give advice.
Life doesn’t begin after you graduate. Life is happening now and as far as we know, you only get one. What are the implications of this?
- You don’t have to wait for graduation to become the “you” that you want to be. Contrary to popular belief, you can be a good graduate student and have hobbies outside of graduate school. In fact, I’ve found that my work performance is improved when I partake in fulfilling hobbies outside of work. Most recently, this has been powerlifting and body building with a close friend of mine (shoutout to my SWOLEMate!) who is also “part of my tribe”, as Jessica Gibbs put it.
- That said, you don’t have to do everything NOW. Pick and choose carefully what you decide to involve yourself in. You only have so much time, energy, and focus. Choose wisely and take care of yourself.
- Be yourself. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very important to learn institutional norms to succeed in graduate school. That said, once you’ve learned to navigate these norms, I think that the academy is also a place for your individuality to flourish. It is your unique perspective and approach to problem solving that enables you to make novel contributions to your research area. A professor once told me that as I proceeded through my career, I would have insights and inclinations about the systems that I was studying. She told me to hold on to those and to let them guide my work. To accomplish this, I had to stop trying to conform and assimilate and at times let my freak flag fly – with well-thought out logical arguments and defenses, of course 😉.
- Live your life. Work hard. Rest hard. Repeat. Take that trip. Get that tattoo. Start that relationship. End that relationship. Always wanted to learn to play an instrument? Take lessons. Get fit? Learn to paint? Make music? Become a competitive slam poet? Pursue these hobbies. It will give you something to think about other than graduate school and can become an outlet for relieving stress.
Finally, life is about growth in my opinion. During graduate school, you have an opportunity for accelerated growth. Figure out how you work best and become your own manager. This will serve you well whether you continue in academia or go on to do something else.
My mantra: “[Insert some motivational quote that resonates with you here.] Hahaha. But seriously, just BE!”