In a previous post, Sarah outlined some excellent advice for graduate students (read it here). This is a continuation of that post with additional advice for surviving graduate school and growing into a successful, happy, independent scientist.
Guard your time. There’s a saying I’ve heard that I really love: your MS degree is a sprint, but your PhD is a marathon. This is the best metaphor for graduate school I’ve heard, mostly because of the truth it holds. My MS degree was only 18 months long, so I had to be very careful of how I spent my time. I am funded for 4 years for my PhD, which is quite a bit of time, but I also have more responsibilities and obligations. Research should be your second priority during your degree, with extracurricular activities (including but not limited to teaching assistantship responsibilities and outreach and mentoring events) coming in third. But wait, you might be saying, what is your first responsibility during grad school?!? That’s next:
Take care of yourself. Undoubtedly, your first and most important responsibility during grad school is to take care of your mental and physical health. There are piles of studies that show increased mental health is linked to physical health and activity, and vice versa (e.g., Bize et al., 2007). There will be times when you feel like you won’t have time to exercise, go to the doctor and dentist, or even have time to plan and shop for healthy meals. You should prioritize these tasks, and don’t feel bad or guilty for doing so.
Eat well. When I was doing my MS degree at Ohio University, I made sure that I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. There were often times I felt I had no time to cook, so I came up with some ways to meal plan. For breakfast, I made breakfast burritos, and would pre-cook the rice, black beans, and scramble eggs twice a week and keep them in containers. This way, I could throw all of the ingredients in a bowl, heat it up in the microwave, and have a wholesome breakfast ready in less than 5 minutes. For dinner, I would pick one afternoon a week to cook a crock-pot meal. I would then split the food into Mason jars and freeze them for later. In this way, I could come home late and heat up dinner (I would often have at least 4 different dinners frozen at any given time for variety).
While we’re on the subject, another piece of food-related advice: Beer/alcoholic drinks and coffee ARE NOT your best friends in graduate school. Alcohol is especially hard on your body, and can severely affect your energy and ability to function at your best. Studies have shown that students are particularly susceptible to abusing alcohol in college (e.g., Weitzman, 2004), especially students that are women, people of color, and/or from low socioeconomic statuses. When graduate school gets stressful, several people turn to drinking to cope. Instead, schedule time for yoga, running, or some other physical activity that is stress-reducing and healthy for you. Coffee and other caffeinated drinks are fine in moderation, but too much can cause your body to feel jittery, increase feelings of stress and anxiety, and cause you to crash after the effects wear off. When in graduate school, there is a culture of coffee-drinking that is rampant; walk down any hall at any time of the day and you’re almost guaranteed to smell a fresh pot being brewed. But coffee doesn’t work for everyone’s body, as it can be hard on your digestive system and cause upset stomach. Instead, try tea, some of which has lower amounts of caffeine per cup and doesn’t cause a huge crash like coffee can. Personally, tea works better for me, as I am especially prone to blood sugar crashes after a coffee caffeine spike and feelings of increased anxiety and stress.
Get plenty of sleep every night. You might have heard of your friends in undergrad or even in grad school pulling all-nighters and working at weird times of the day. Chances are you’ve even done this yourself. STOP IT. While in grad school, you will need your brain to work at maximum efficiency everyday (some days that’s not possible and that’s okay). But one way to make sure your brain is functional is to get a good night’s sleep, whatever that means for you and your body. Some people operate well on 6 hours of sleep, others on 8 hours, etc.
You might feel like you don’t have time to sleep while doing your degree, but this is absolute BS. You will thank yourself at the end of your degree for sleeping, and realize that it is a crucial component of your success as a scientist. Of my cohort of grad students that I started my degree with in Ohio, I was the only one to finish my MS degree on time. I also published two papers from my thesis, one during my first year as an MS student. I’m quite certain I was also the only one who made sure I got at least 7 hours of sleep every night. Don’t underestimate the power of a well-rested brain.
Don’t ignore stress. There are several ways to reduce stress in graduate school, with several students opting to swim, run, or do yoga. These are all good options, as physical activity is linked to reduced stress and increased mental health (e.g., Penedo and Dahn, 2005). I would often run in the afternoons, especially when I was writing my thesis. Running helped me clear my mind, and I would often have awesome ideas regarding how to write my thesis or how to make figures while I was running (showers are also great places to come up with great research ideas). There are also non-physical ways in which to reduce stress. Netflix was my best friend in grad school (and it’s still a guilty pleasure during my PhD), as I enjoyed nothing more than coming home from a day in the lab and tuning out to a favorite movie or episode in a series. I also read fiction novels voraciously when I’m writing up my science, which helps me clear my mind and zone out when my brain is too tired to keep writing any given day. This brings me to my third piece of advice:
READ. As a graduate student, you can’t read enough. Specifically, you should be reading studies from the published literature that relate to your thesis or dissertation. When I was in Ohio, I read at least 6 papers a week. I’ve slowed down reading this much during the later phase of my PhD, but will probably start reading more as I begin writing more dissertation chapters. The point is, there are times in your degree where you’ll need to commit more time to reading, and times when you may need to dedicate more time to analyses, field work, etc. Regardless, never stop reading. Also read studies that interest you but may not be directly related to your project. Reading publications for fun is a great way to expand your knowledge and relate to other students in your department and their research.
When I began my MS degree in Ohio, I also didn’t know the correct way to read publications. It’s okay to ask your advisor and colleagues how they read and interpret papers. When I go through a publication, I always have a highlighter and pen at hand. Important points get highlighted, and I almost always write a quick comment beside what I highlight so I can quickly know its significance when I look back at the paper a year later. When I’m finished reading a paper, I write at least 3 main points or the most important information related to my studies on the front page of the paper. I’m also old-fashioned in the sense that I can only read printed papers. But there are some good programs that allow you to comment and highlight PDFs on your laptop or desktop computer (I am particularly fond of Adobe Acrobat DC).
Another way I keep myself motivated was to form a reading club this past summer. The club is composed of myself and five other graduate students (MS and PhD) who meet once a week for about an hour. We focus on newer studies related to Antarctica and the Miocene, but we have also focused on paleoclimate concepts (such as the effect of shifting Westerlies on upwelling around Antarctica and current strength) and phenomenon that we don’t quite understand. Forming a group where you feel comfortable to ask questions and admit that you don’t understand something, then finding papers to better your understanding, is a great way to tackle the published literature. Meeting with friends once a week is also a great way to bond, form friendships, and commiserate with other graduate students.
Write. Like reading, writing is another crucial part of your survival as a graduate student. Writing is hard, and often boring, but the more you do it, the better you will become at it! When you first get to graduate school, likely some of the first documents you’ll have to write are grants. Your first draft will be absolute garbage, just accept that. But also understand that your advisor’s job is to help you recycle garbage into a shiny, awesome document. It’s also a good idea to reach out to friends and colleagues to ask for writing help, tips, and edits. I often reach out to Sarah and Jen for advice on writing and to ask them to edit my documents. I have also begun to apply for jobs this year, and I’ve reached out to other professors in my department as well as my MS thesis advisor at Ohio for advice on writing job application documents. These same people have also edited my documents, which has improved them tenfold at least.
Writing grants isn’t the only writing practice you should be getting. While taking classes, it may help you to re-type your notes, or even re-word written notes to make more sense. If you have a blog, practice your science communication writing there! As soon as you begin reading publications related to your thesis or dissertation, begin writing down the major concepts and ideas that you come across. Later, this text can be reworked into a grant or your thesis. Likewise, as soon as you begin doing research, begin writing your methods section! It’s much easier to write your methods as you do them rather than trying to remember what you did a year later (trust me, I know this one from personal experience).
Get outside of your comfort zone. This should be obvious, but graduate school is a time for your to grow as a researcher, scientist, and teacher. You will do things that make you nervous, anxious, or just plain scared, such as giving a presentation at a conference, attending an overseas conference, doing field work for the first time, or teaching a class. These feelings are totally normal, and for me, they usually mean I’m outside of my comfort zone and learning to navigate new spaces and experiences.
I have two main examples of times I’ve been completely shoved out of my comfort zone (by my own doing and choices), but grew as a scientist and teacher. The first is when I was given the opportunity by my department to build and teach my own upper-level undergraduate course. I was scared to death, but ended up loving my class and had a great time! And, I now have more teaching experience than most, something that will give me an edge when applying for jobs. I have no doubt that I’ll be able to build and teach any class I want in the future, and this feeling is priceless.
The second time I went way outside of my comfort zone is when I sailed on a two-month long expedition in the Tasman Sea. I was selected as on of the shipboard paleontologists, and thus it was part of my responsibility to let the other scientists know where we were in time as we drilled through seafloor sediments. This was a huge responsibility, and I had never been away from home for two months with people I didn’t even know. But the experience was awesome, I learned a ton, and I’m a much stronger researcher and scientist because I participated in the expedition. And I also have several new colleagues and collaborators all over the world!
I would like to add a cautionary note to this section. You shouldn’t participate in anything in graduate school that can cause you physical or mental harm, and don’t let yourself be bullied into doing something you’re not comfortable doing by your peers, advisor, or others. Remember that your physical and mental health should always come first, and that you need to guard your time. So don’t partake in activities that put these factors in jeopardy (although teaching my own course and sailing did take up huge amounts of my time, I felt those activities would benefit me in the long-term).
I hope this advice is helpful to some, as some of these tips were never told to me but rather learned through experience. If you have additional tips for surviving grad school, leave a comment below!
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