How do I learn to survive grad school?
October 15, 2007 8:26 AM   Subscribe

How do I learn to survive as a grad student?

For a number of reasons, this is anonymous, so bear with me as I drench you in information.

I recently started a two-year masters' program in the arts, and I also currently hold a half-time assistantship.

Basically what I'm looking for is advice on managing what has become a fairly quiet, monastic life, and also on making myself do work.

My program allows us a tremendous amount of time to read and write, which means that the amount of actual classwork I have, even when combined with my teaching duties, is less than I had as an undergraduate. However, I have quickly found that I don't know how to best use all of this "free" time, and it is quickly wasted taking naps and reading gossip blogs.

Moreover, I'm having a bit of difficulty adjusting to my new life in general. I live alone, which is optimal but quite lonely; my significant other is far away, which is not new but still difficult; I'm one of the youngest ones in my program, which makes me feel inexperienced and intellectually lightweight; I'm surrounded by PhD candidates and unsure about my work, which adds to the feeling that I'm a lightweight; I moved from a large city to a small town, and now winter is closing in; I have lots of new friends and colleagues who I enjoy spending time with at work but who have little free time outside of school and family life; and, oh yeah, there's the shock of realizing that hey! academia is just like any other workplace, and even brilliant people are jerks and have personal problems and get involved in low-stakes academic politics.

So, MeFites who've survived grad school, how did you organize your life and deal with any, or all, of these problems?

I'm not thinking about quitting (yet), but I also don't want to find myself thinking every day that it's only two more years until I can leave here/move in with S.O./work in my field/etc.
posted by anonymous to Education (15 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
"Free" time is both the best and worst thing about being an academic. A few tips to deal with it:

1. Get out of the house and work somewhere else -- a museum, library, coffee shop, anywhere that's not home. Think of it as your office and do your work there. Then you can actually relax and not feel guilty at home.

2. If you don't have enough structure in terms of deadlines imposed on you from your program, impose them yourself. And this only works for me if I involve others. Make regular appointments with your advisor where you give updates on your progress (even if the advisor doesn't require this it is a good motivator as you don't want to go into the appointment without anything to report). Form a group with some classmates where you meet periodically and update each other on progress since the last meeting. Anything that involves potential embarrassment if you haven't been working is good (at least this works for me).

3. Know that everyone is pretending to be confident to some extent -- it's not unusual to feel like you're an impostor, or a lightweight, it's just that some people hide this better than others.

4. Realize that academia is somewhat like any other workplace, but it's better in that the goal of the institution is not to produce widgets but to teach people. Your job is not to shuffle papers or write lines of code or whatever, it is simply to learn. Whenever I recall this it makes me really happy.
posted by tractorfeed at 8:51 AM on October 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

- Join clubs and stuff on campus. Most undergrad-oriented clubs have at least a couple grad student members.
- Keep current on concerts and lectures on campus and attend the interesting ones. (Every school I've gone to, from a state school in the South to a wannabe Ivy in California, has done a lousy job of publicizing their events, so you may have to do some research.)
- If you have a tuition cap (a point at which you don't have to pay extra for more hours), take an unrelated class that you're interested in, just for fun.
- Google imposter syndrome if you start to get really freaked out.
- Find a place to study. If you tend to nap, then you may need to do your work in a stimulating cafe or something.
- Join your professional association(s) at the local and national/international levels. Work with a classmate to submit a proposal; start with a small regional conference if you haven't done this before (it's actually tons of fun and in a lot of fields the bar for grad student presentations and poster sessions is pretty darned low). Get involved in the association by joining committees and interest groups--usually they're desperate for participants, and you can get CV entries and mentoring and so forth from your participation.
- Start a research project on campus.
- Take up a new hobby that will both make use of your time and benefit you, such as cooking, sewing, yoga, etc.
- Go ahead and invite your busy colleagues over for dinner and stuff; just give them plenty of warning, or coordinate going out for coffee after a department meeting or something. Give them more leeway in the number of times they refuse compared to the point at which you'd feel rejected by non-academics, because academics' schedules tend to be weird.
- Find fun ways to be in touch with your S. O., whether it's online Scrabble, watching a TV series on DVD together, going to an event/museum and sending him/her images from your cell phone, getting hooked on Twitter, mailing a journal back and forth, etc.

loveandacademia on is a good place to meet other people in the same situation.

Good luck! Feel free to e-mail me (check profile) if you want. I just finished my MA, mostly in one piece. ;)
posted by wintersweet at 8:56 AM on October 15, 2007

Reading Getting What You Came for First. Also read the forums on PhinisheD.

And take a look at the PhD people - do they seem happy? I know that most people in my PhD program aren't "happy" in the traditional definition. But I'd much rather being doing a PhD program than working. I am intellectually stimulated all day long! But part of getting an MA is deciding if you want to keep being in academia.

So, back to your real question. And know that what you're experiencing is completely normal.

If you can nap and read gossip blogs and still get your work done than YAY!!! During my MA program (6 hours of class a week also with SO far away), I lived a similar life, except I also worked a lot and did internships that boosted my CV and gave me some exposure to the outside world. I also made new friends, joined a trivia team...

What I have done to keep myself organized, now that I am doing a PhD? Well, I get up every single day at 7ish and try to get to campus by 8 or 9. I allow myself ONLY 1 HOUR of internet screwing around in the morning. Then I spend the morning hours either reading or writing, whatever is required for the time (more reading at the beginning of the term, obvs). Then I usually have a class in the middle of the day, get a nice lunch and return to my desk. THEN I DO ONLY 1 HOUR MAX OF screwing around on the internet. I spend the afternoon hours reading or writing again. Then low and behold, it is 5pm and I leave. Obviously some days I have office hours or paper grading too. Then I go home, cook dinner, maybe watch 1 hour of TV or do one more hour of internet screwing around. Then I read something slightly enjoyable or rest. I suppose that would be a good time to exercise too.

Of the reading and writing time I utilize 10 + 2 * 5. For internet time, I do use a little timer.

I also overload on classes. Are there classes outside of your department that you can take? That'll help! And like I mentioned before - internships? Job?

Some of this depends on what you're trying to get out of it. Otherwise, I hope that this helps! Email is in the profile if you're looking for more emotional support.
posted by k8t at 8:59 AM on October 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I just finished two years in graduate school for a Master's (Computer Science) and my biggest problem was not having enough time.

One thing that will probably help, both socially and in terms of time-management, is find more things to do. It may sound a little counter-intuitive, but I've found that I slack less when I really have to buckle down and get things done. I'm not sure how large your university is, but there's likely all kinds of thing to do, both within the department and without.

Getting involved in your department's colloquium series, a reading group, grad students association, etc., will not only help you engage with more people in the department, but will help fill out your time in an academic and "productive" way. I'm sure there are some other clubs/organizations/groups on campus that pander to interests of yours, either related to your field of study or extracurricular.

Basically, find a way to fill a bit more of your time with something more productive. It will help cut down on the slack, you'll meet some new people and hopefully feel like less of a hermit.

In general, however, I've never really found a way to avoid slacking completely. Hell, right now I should be working, but I'm reading AskMeFi instead. =)
posted by Nelsormensch at 9:05 AM on October 15, 2007

Just seconding (nthing?) the suggestion to treat your studies as your job. Go to campus 5 (or more) days a week, for x hours a day. The structure helps a lot.

And, as others are also saying, do not make your entire life be about your academics. You have to have down time. You have to find some hobbies or something for your off-hours. You will drive yourself crazy if you do not give some time to other pursuits, and the quality of your work will suffer as well. Heck, if nothing else, take up knitting.
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:24 AM on October 15, 2007

Come up with a driving force. What are you going to do with your degree, if you could have it your way?

I'd suggest personalizing your endeavors. If you have assignments that bore you, find a way to turn them towards things that interest you. Once you figure it out, you should have a lack of free time, because you'll easily lose hours delving into books, information, studies, articles, projects or events that interest you. If you have to do a thesis, making it about something you have almost boundless interest in, is key, I think.

Even the subjects on the far margins have interesting people doing interesting things. Find these folks. If you're doing less work than in undergrad....well wow. On the other hand, that gives you a lot of time to go dig deep into something that you think about when you lie awake, that you talked about when you applied for the program, that you keep finding yourself coming back to. Good luck!
posted by sociolibrarian at 10:16 AM on October 15, 2007

I have two suggestions.

1) Exercise. Feels great, helps you sleep, it's a better use of your time than reading gossip blogs, goofing off, etc. If you don't like exercising by yourself, join a class at your school gym.

2) Seconding the advice to get out of the house to do your work. I don't know if you need a computer to do your work or not, but I find that going to a coffeeshop without my laptop is the greatest way to get things done. Just remove the sources of distraction.

Also, working away from home helps to create a sort of psychological separation between your work time and your play time. Then, when you go home, you can goof off a bit without feeling guilty about it.

One other point: I know exactly how you feel about your department-mates. I think the best thing you can do about that is to try to make some friends outside your department. This can be hard to do. What I did was move into a large (60 people) grad student co-op. I know you said that living alone is optimal, I'm just providing a data-point. My house is full of interesting people that do different things than I do, which is very refreshing. And I have the added benefit of having meals prepared for me, bathrooms cleaned, etc.

Good luck. Grad work can be a lonely endeavour. I hope it gets better for you.
posted by number9dream at 10:47 AM on October 15, 2007

posted by gregoreo at 11:12 AM on October 15, 2007

Seconding the statement that learning is your job. I always admired a grad school colleague who turned studying into a 9-5 job, literally. He'd show up at the library with his laptop, work hard, and go home to relax. Several of us worked at the music library often, so we had a little community. Having other people around was helpful: the atmosphere was studious and focused; we could ask each other questions; and we could take coffee breaks together.

I always kept to-do lists on little scraps of paper. The more detailed, the better. So, "study" wasn't really a helpful entry, but "get books for Assignment X" and "write intro to Paper Y" were helpful. Times are essential. If it says to go to school at 10, that's far more effective than thinking, "I should go to school sometime tomorrow." If I was really out of it, I'd schedule my whole day, from shower and breakfast to the library to dinner with a friend and writing a little at home.
posted by bassjump at 11:13 AM on October 15, 2007

-Exercise routine.

-Get out of the house to work. If you can get in the habit of getting up to campus by 9 every day, and coming home at 5, that's a beautiful thing.

-Find a local cafe or something where you can hang out in those times when you're not on campus but still should be out of the house.

-Don't read gossip blogs for more than 15 minutes a day. Read novels or do something else worthwhile so that at the end of 6 months you can think to yourself 'that book I read last fall was great' rather than 'I sure know a lot about Hollywood starlets'. If you're really seriously wasting time, you will eventually regret it. If you have real spare time, put it toward something you won't regret (books, hobby, exercise, volunteering, whatever).

-Do keep going to campus even when the weather gets bad. The more you're on campus, the more your head is in the game, and the more you're likely to be moving forward on your degree. Even if you're just browsing in the library in a relevant section, or reading journals in your field, it keeps your head where it's supposed to be.

-Everyone feels like they're not smart enough - don't worry about that. If you got in, you can get a Master's. If this kind of thought keeps bothering you, get in touch with a campus counselor who specializes in grad students.

-Part of what you're feeling is just moving to a new place without any support network in place. Invite friendly people from your department to go to the movies. Become a regular at a coffeeshop. Join a yoga class or intramural sport, so you start making connections outside the department. It will just take some time for you to build a network.

-There are a lot of previous threads on here about grad school and academia (how to organize your files, etc).
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:05 PM on October 15, 2007

I'll try not to repeat the previous answers except to emphasize that you should regard your academic pursuits as a job and impose some structure on your schedule. I think the suggestions that have been put forward so far are all good, but only you know what works for you. Exercise is good, separating work and home is another good suggestion. It also helps to set aside time where you do things that give you a break from academics. I don't see anything wrong with reading gossip blogs, unless you find that you can't stay away from them even when you have a deadline looming. Also, no one's mentioned food, but be sure to eat a balanced diet while in grad school.

I took way too long to get through my program, mainly because I didn't want to go through exams until I absolutely had to. It always seemed like other students had it so much more together than I did. After a time, however, it became clear that everyone is struggling in the same way. If you can find other students or friendly faculty who are willing to read your work and offer constructive criticism, that's a great help. Building community with other grad students (a thesis reading group, say) will provide you with a support structure that's missing from your life now.

Perhaps this isn't a problem for you, but one thing I noticed in grad school, in myself and in other people I knew, was a tendency for students to take on topics that were too ambitious in papers and in their theses. Grad students put way too much pressure on themselves to tackle large issues in their writing and to heap work on themselves unnecessarily. My advice is to keep your work focused and to discipline yourself to limit the scope of papers and your thesis.
posted by Dead Man at 1:00 PM on October 15, 2007

You and I are like the same person. I just started an MFA, moved from a big city to a small town, winter is coming, the PhDs are something else, I'm pretty young, and I waste time online.

You're not at Cornell, by any chance, are you? I guess you can't tell me because you posted anonymously.

Well, maybe take comfort in the fact that I think a lot of people feel the same way you do!
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 1:10 PM on October 15, 2007

I'm an ABD drop-out. What I recommend is: meet regularly with your advisor and give them a semi-formal update on your progress.

Establish a work schedule every day. Get regular exercise. Socialize after work. Stay happy and healthy, but work every weekday and sync up with your advisor regularly.
posted by zippy at 1:41 PM on October 15, 2007

I used my exercise schedule to drive getting out of the house. It was an extra bonus that the pool I swam in closed for lapswim at 9am, but was open year round with only a few regularly scheduled downtimes. I *had* to get up on time to catch the bus to campus to swim, and my workout partner heaped scorn upon me whenever I failed to show up. This was helpful even if I didn't actually go to my office after swimming.

It was a common observation among my grad student friends that many people acted very confident, but nearly all of us felt self-doubt and anxiety about where we stood w/r/t our classmates or the general expectations of our field. So: apparent confidence was uncorrelated with actual skill/understanding.

Socially, try to limit the shopttalk, even when you are out with coworkers. I took unrelated classes (not enough of them, in retrospect) to give me something else to think about during the school year and to put more scheduled time on my calendar. Meeting normal people was a bonus too.
posted by janell at 1:46 PM on October 15, 2007

Tobasco sauce makes all your cheap food taste better. When you can't eat good, eat spicy!!!
posted by Crotalus at 3:14 PM on October 15, 2007

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