Surviving Graduate School: 4 Practical Tips

This blog post has been updated by Megan Elrath, Career Consultant on April 19, 2024 for relevancy, inclusivity, and formatting.

Graduate school is no easy endeavor. As a graduate student, you likely have more on your plate than ever before. You are committing to less sleep, too many (and often competing) priorities, and the pressure to impact your field in a significant way. It is important to enter this process with healthy expectations about what is ahead. Adding these four practical tips to your graduate school survival kit can help:

  1. Clearly Define Your Why: Whether you want to create a vision board or come up with a simple mantra, it is important for you to know and be able to articulate why you’ve chosen to pursue graduate school. The earlier you define this, the better. Why? Because you never know when you will need the reminder as motivation. Graduate school is exhausting, and you will question your decision to pursue it at one time or another. Need inspiration for how to define your why? Pinterest can help. Also, check out this post for more about creating a vision board.

  2. Be Intentional About Self-Care: You’re a graduate student and you know that your “to-do” list is rarely, if ever, short. I think all graduate students can agree that there is always something more you can choose to do with your time, and because of this, it is important for you to be intentional about self-care. We all need to take time to do the things we enjoy and detach from our “to-do” lists. Take the time to plan your self-care. I encourage you to incorporate small self-care rituals into each day, such as exercise, enjoying a hot cup of coffee (distraction-free), or calling family/friends – even if it’s only for five minutes. Practicing self-care daily wards against burn-out and equips you with the mindset and skills that you need to navigate the highs and the lows of graduate studies – plus, it’s healthy!
  3. Focus On the Day: Each day as a graduate student is filled with its own successes as well as its own trials. It can be tough to appreciate the success of the day, or cope with the trials, while also worrying about what is to come – whether it be seemingly endless reading and writing, upcoming presentations/meetings, or your responsibilities outside of school (oh yeah, we have those too!). You can overwhelm yourself quickly if you think about all of these things at once. You may have heard the saying: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. This is true in life, and especially in the life of an overbooked, stressed-out graduate student. It is crucial to focus on the day ahead and leave each day within its bounds. Accomplish what you can by prioritizing what needs to be done and letting go of the things that can wait. Then, be sure to celebrate what you accomplish each day.
  4. Expect The Existential Crisis: Here it comes…that feeling of purposelessness, exhaustion, and unbearable uncertainty. When these feelings hit, you probably are wondering why you’ve chosen graduate school or what will make it worth your time and effort. First, you need to know that it’s natural to question and to have doubts from time to time. Second, you need to learn how to cope with this reality. The following three mini steps can help:
    1. Expect for these feelings to hit
    2. Acknowledge and feel them when they do
    3. Ask yourself – What do I need to gain perspective?

For some, an existential crisis is an indication that they need to reprioritize, which may mean choosing to save graduate school for later, taking a semester off, or creating breathing room in another way. More often, though, it is just a phase or season of doubt. These seasons often come when you feel most exhausted and discouraged. Maybe you are being pulled in too many directions, or perhaps your research project did not go as planned. When experiencing an existential crisis, it is hard to gain perspective. Take the time you need to do this. It can help to recognize that exhaustion, and even failure, is a part of graduate school. Know that your greatest personal growth and professional development often occurs during your most challenging times.  Your job is to learn from these moments, take a step back, and figure out what you need to move forward.

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