8 Tips for Surviving Graduate School
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8 Tips for Surviving Graduate School

Recently, I was reading an article from a
few years ago by CBS News – the link’s in the description – and it was talking about
the 12 reasons not to get a PhD. And I gotta say, for somebody who has a PhD those 12 reasons were pretty on point. But if, like me, you’re crazy enough to go for it,
I’ve got a few tips that I learned along the way to help survive and thrive in
graduate school. First and foremost, go to graduate school because you know that
you’ll like what you’re going to be studying at least a little bit, otherwise
it will be pointless and excruciating. So when I decided to apply for a PhD
program, I was a senior in college. I had just recently come off a summer of a
research experience for undergraduates program here at the University of
Minnesota, where I worked with a professor who would eventually become my graduate student mentor. I remember just really liking the process of research. I
grooved on the excitement of discovery, and learning new things, and I think if I
had gone to graduate school without knowing beforehand that I really liked
research, that it might not have gone as well for me. Go when it makes sense for
you. I didn’t take any time off between college and graduate school which has
its positives and negatives. If I had it to do over again, I probably would have
at least paused to consider what options I would have had, had I decided to take a
year off in between. But as it was, graduate school was the next logical
step, and so to graduate school I would go. I also had the benefit of getting
into a program that pays their students to attend graduate school and to work
for research labs. I know a lot of people don’t have this opportunity and money is
a really important thing when you’re thinking about whether or not to go to
graduate school. And as much as I wish that going to graduate school meant that
you were gonna automatically be able to make it rain with money…yeah it’s not
how it works… You will feel dumb sometimes, and that’s okay,
so does everybody else. Throughout my graduate career, I felt really dumb a lot.
And it’s impossible not to compare yourself to the others around, you no
matter how unreasonable that may be. And it really sucks feeling less competent,
or intelligent than the other students in your program. And then there are the
professors who rip apart your writing, in fairness, with good reason, and then they
ask you to rerun eight statistical models with slightly different variables
and look at you the whole time like you’re a complete fool for not thinking
of this in the first place…that really sucks too. But it’s also good to remember
that the students around you also feel dumb sometimes and have to rewrite their papers too. It’s just a fact of graduate student life. Bond over that. It
helps. So does wine. The tunnel is the worst part but believe that you will get
through. I like to refer to years 2 and 3 as the deep dark tunnel years basically
at this point you’re so far into your program that you can’t see the light
behind you, and you also can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel either.
You’re questioning everything about yourself and your decision to embark on
this crazy journey in the first place. You’re being constantly edited, and
changed, and corrected, and pushed, and pulled, and pressured in so many
different directions. You don’t feel good at much of anything anymore, and you
wonder if you’re ever going to get out or if you should just jump ship. And I
cannot stress this enough: This is normal. Don’t feel like you’re not smart enough
or talented enough or committed enough. If you start to question whether or not
you should continue your graduate career, listen to that feeling, and sit in that
uncertainty, and then talk to all the people around you from different walks
of life about what they recommend that you do. Weigh your options and then make your decision and know that it will be okay, no matter what decision you make.
One way or the other if you make a decision, and then keep moving, you’ll
start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Find and do the things that
fulfill you. I learned pretty quickly in graduate school that I didn’t want to
pursue the traditional researcher or professor track, and so as a result I
began seeking out other opportunities to become involved in projects outside of
academia. I got connected with a really cool project in partnership with the
Science Museum of Minnesota they were working with the university to create an
exhibit that was all about the science of early childhood, so I got to see what
I was studying everyday come to life in a museum exhibition. How cool is that?!
That experience pulled me out of my graduate school confines, and allowed me to explore new options and experiences and learn about new careers outside of
academia. That experience changed things in a really powerful way for me, and
helped me get where I am today. Find the people who will support you no matter
what you decide to do. Now making your interest in a non-traditional career
path known to your professors can have its drawbacks when the expectation is
clearly to become researchers, or professors ,or at the very least teach at
a liberal arts school, and you’re the one person who doesn’t want that traditional
career path it can become kind of isolating. Luckily, I was able to connect
with others including my advisor who was really supportive. And regardless of
which direction you decide to go, surround yourself with people who get it,
and with people who don’t. Hang out with other graduate students,
and also not with other graduate students. Allow yourself to be pulled out
of graduate school mode from time to time, and do something completely
different. It can help put some perspective on your struggles and remind
you that the world is much much bigger than just academia. I also recommend
watching copious amounts of Doctor Who, Stargate SG-1, The Office, and anything
else you can get your hands on, but be sure to properly cite these sources of
survival in your acknowledgment section of your dissertation. Yes, I did that. Get
‘er done. I finished my grad program in five years,
which is what we’re supposed to do for our program. There are lots of valid
reasons to stay in graduate school for longer than that, and I have a lot of
friends and colleagues who’ve done that successfully. But I knew that for me I
needed to get out and move on. And I know that the academic job market is really
tight right now, and in non academic careers, some times graduate students
don’t have the requisite work experience in order to get a job, and that really
sucks. But this is where networking comes in. Reach out to anyone that you know for
informational interviews, cups of coffee, happy hours, whatever. You’d be surprised
how much inspiration and new leads come from just a brief coffee conversation.
There are also several really great online communities that talk about
career paths after graduate school, and if you want to talk with somebody who
gets it, contact me. I’m always happy to answer questions and talk options. Own
your worth. Getting your degree is a really cool and exciting experience. You
should embrace that. But for me at least, the few months after I graduated were
times of really important and powerful self-reflection and discovery for me.
Let’s get real for a second: Graduate school can be really tough. It’s a
process of breaking you down to build you back up again, and it can leave you
feeling pretty incompetent and like you’re never going to measure up to the
professors that you work with every day. For me, I had really internalized that I
would never measure up, that I wasn’t smart enough, or talented enough, or
skilled enough, that I was never going to be the best at anything. So in the months
following graduation, when I got out into the real world, I had to learn how to
accept and embrace my own competency and knowledge again. I had to relearn that my
knowledge and experiences and expertise had value and could better the world in
some way. Because really what a doctorate gives you is the ability to learn new
information and synthesize it, and analyze it, and then communicate about it
knowledgeably. And these are really important and valuable job skills. And
once I had that realization, the whole experience really became worth it for me.
Now are there other ways to get these kinds of skills more cost-effectively?
Yes. Would I recommend graduate school for
everyone? No. Do I think that the things we expect of graduate students are more
than just a little bit unreasonable? [bobblehead nods] I’ve come to recognize that for me at
least the purgatory of graduate school was really worth it in the end. What
about you? Are you contemplating graduate school? In the midst of it? A newly minted
graduate school survivor? Share your thoughts on the whole Graduate School
thing in comments and give your tips and strategies for how to survive. For any
new visitors out there, hi! I’d love it if you came back. And for those of you who
watched my last video, I know I said I would talk about trees and contexts but
I decided to do something different so sue me.
But don’t actually sue me – the two of you who are dying to see that video
it’ll be coming out in a few weeks…promise

About James Carlton

Read All Posts By James Carlton

64 thoughts on “8 Tips for Surviving Graduate School

  1. I love that you cited your sources of support like Dr. Who! Great blog!
    The relearning after grad school is so important! It took me at least a year to recover and to feel of worth.

  2. I'm definitely in the breaking down stage of grad school.. it's comforting knowing that it has a purpose and will build me back up eventually.. hopefully… lol I do feel incompetent at times but this too shall pass!

  3. Thank you for your video! BTW do u think that I should get a decent grade (above 3.5) to go to grad school? Since I want to have a lot of extracurricular experience, I was kind of concerned about my GPA and it bothers me to do something that enjoys me to feel college life. I want to hear your opinion. (my current gpa is 3.6 in Iowa state)

  4. I'm contemplating graduate school. I'm thinking of earning a masters of library science. what scares me the most is the difference in teaching compared to undergraduate. my senior year of college I was told by a grad student that in grad school, a professor will assign a paper and provide no instruction leaving it up to the student. If you could provide some insight into this I would apciate it.

  5. I'm having anxiety about how behind from the proffessors I am, now on my graduation. It's not about the grades, to become an intellectual looks like a bad joke , "who do you think you are to…" . This was a awesome video for me, there is not only me freaking out over this kind of thing.

  6. I sooo feel like I'm not smart enough lately. I'm just not great at reading an article, and then coming up with things to say in a discussion about what the researcher did right and wrong, especially in an area that's not my focus. I have a professor who constantly calls me out asking things like "so what do you notice different about these two measures?" and I just freak out and freeze. 🙁 I'm in my third year with two more to go. Calling them "tunnel" years really resonated with me. LOL anyways thanks for this video and letting me vent in the comments section lol… back to my allnighter now :/

  7. Great tips! I was recently accepted to UCI to pursue a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree, and I know this path is the most sensible and viable choice for me given my love for Environmental Planning and Sustainability. I'm sure a positive attitude and a dedicated focus go a long way in defining one's success at this level.

  8. Thank you for this Video. I'm currently in my Final year of M.S in Engineering and as the thesis deadline is approaching i'm getting nervous day by day.I too have the same feelings as mentioned in the video that i really fell i'm the most stupid person not just in my lab but in my entire department and everyone around me is really smart. So this constantly scares me and i feel like i may not be able to graduate.
    So thank you once again for making this video. Hopefully everything goes well and i'm able to graduate !!

  9. As someone who is swallowed up in the middle of the "tunnel," I really appreciate your tips. It's such a comfort to hear that feeling totally inadequate is not unusual – thank you!

  10. Quick question! So you mentioned that you went directly from a senior in college to phd. How was that transition for you? Compared to, lets say, somebody who went to get their masters degree before phd? Did you feel as if you missed something or did you felt "smarter" in a way because you didn't have to go trough masters?

  11. Hard to remember there are other routes than the traditional ones set in your field. I also want to do something different with my MA so thanks for reminding me of that. I have a great support system and I know I'm not alone. Just need to keep remembering that. Thanks! Much love!

  12. Love this video! I'm working on my MS currently, the parts about feeling like you won't measure up totally mesh with some of my experiences. Doing research is sometimes challenging, but always get excited when my advisor hands me something even more difficult because "I can handle it" ha! Grad school is full of ups and downs and you've defiantly captured that with this video. Great work!

  13. start my PhD program tomorrow so as my anxiety suggests, I am here watching all YouTube videos from people who have been there. Thank you for your honest advice.

  14. Thank you for making this video! It helped quiet some of my anxieties for now. I just started my PhD in cognitive psychology. Some days I'm super motivated and excited and other days I'm negative and pessimistic. But, I know I made the right decision because I love what I'm studying/researching. I just need to focus on that 🙂

  15. I just started an M.Ed. Program in Nutrition Education this month. Do you have any tips on applying to a Ph.D. Program after the Master's Degree? I want to put my best foot forward starting now.

  16. Thank you for making this video! I am currently working on my M.A. thesis and also contemplating to apply for a PhD programme abroad. It is really hard to make up my mind about all these stuff when I should be at least able to explain 'what anthropology is' …

  17. I am in year 5 of grad school but I have just transferred to a new school with my research group. In some ways it feels like I am starting over. I don't know when I'm going to finish so the tunnel feels really long. Also, I feel dumb all the time! BUT I know that I'll get through and it will be worth it. Great video – thanks for your inspiration!

  18. I am starting my MLIS in January. This is me trying as much as possible to be prepared. I haven't been in school for 20 years, so I am struggling to remember how to school. That part about internalizing your own incompetency is me already. I can't even believe I got in to this top-ranked program. How will I ever finish it? Thanks for your video.

  19. I just found this video and I really love it – your advice, your personality, and the happy familiarity of a vlogbrothers-esque style of presentation.

    I'm currently struggling through my 2nd year of grad school (very, very deeply in the tunnel. I literally just told someone I don't even know where to look for the light at the end of it anymore). I appreciate your advice and am also so happy to find someone else in the field of child development and learning!

    Happy to be a new subscriber!

  20. Hey, I just saw this video and your channel for the first time. First of all, I really love the video! Made me smile even when I'm worried about the future.
    I'm currently starting my second semester of Junior year as an undergraduate. This is the time I have to start taking the GRE, thinking about grad school, all that stuff. I work in a research lab right now and I know that while I enjoy research and enjoy my job, I don't want to be in academia for the rest of my life. My bachelors will be in microbiology, and my graduate probably immunology if I go that path. What other sorts of things can I do with my life with a masters besides academia? Thanks!

  21. Thanks for your honest and inspiring videos!!!
    I'll start my grad school this fall in a totally new and challenging environment.
    I feel nervous even thinking about how I could cope with academic stress plus learning a new language since a few of my courses are not taught in English.
    However, watching your videos really alleviate my anxiety and nervousness. Thanks a lot!

  22. Hi, am starting a PHD in project management at fall in Canada.Thanks for your tips,a little bit scary at first but more motivated now

  23. Great video..Thanks 🙂
    I have a doubt…..that I am getting a scholarship for studying in a masters program with 67%,whereas below 68% in masters program is considered fail :-0 ..I am really confused.Can anyone help.BTW i am talking about canadian universities.

  24. how do you deal with not being perfect. ie not cleaning your apartment or not registering for insurance etc. I feel like I have no time for anything even though I procrastinate.

  25. Thank you for this. I just got accepted into a PhD program in Ecology and just finished my Bachelors. I plan to study disease ecology and infectious disease modeling.

  26. I came for the SG1 novel and tardis mug.. also because I finished my first year of graduate school and I'm contemplating my life choices. I am working full time and by pure luck managed a 3.5 GPA this year. I'm unsure of my ability to repeat this miracle.

  27. So you're talking about PhD programs? I thought that is "post grad." I thought grad school = master's degree .

  28. Thanks a lot, this is really helpful.. from a poor physic PhD student struggling on the way… I hope one day I can look back the whole journey without regrets..

  29. This was really helpful and comforting, thank you. I'm in the last 6 months of my PhD. I really like the tunnel metaphor. I feel like I can see the light, but that the task of my thesis is just too big so the light also feels unreachable. But, it's got to be done!

  30. This meant a lot. Seriously thank you, your advice gave me great relief, and have been internalizing how I was not as smart or felt not worthy. This made me realize I am good enough.

  31. Needed this. Currently stumbled upon your channel while studying Bio Bases of Psychotherapy in my own graduate program. IT'S TOUGH!!! But this was an extra push to keep the faith.

  32. Thank you, Dr. Enthusiast, for making this video. I"m much older than most "college students", in my senior year and about to obtain my B.S. in Rehabilitation Services and accepted into the M.S. in Counseling with an Option in Rehabilitation Counseling. Low and behold, I truly enjoyed my last three years in college, compared to my jr. college years bouncing around from community college throughout the local district. In any case, no that I'm in my senior year, I realized that my B.S. was not going to allow me to move further ahead in my career path, which I came to consider and apply to graduate school (at my current campus) and recently came to find out that I was accepted!…Yes, this was very exciting when I received this email at 4:00 am about two weeks ago. As I get closer to graduation date and coming to realize that I'll begin graduate school this Fall 2018, this is making me think if I'm "really smart enough" to be in the program. Just being honest, I'm having second thoughts and getting worried about being in that mix of students who are smarter than I am. As I get closer to "Final Exams", I'm getting very anxious and nervous. Actually, beginning the program in the fall than graduating itself. I began to google a few key words about being "ready for graduate school" and found your video. And I simply want to say; Thank you. Thank you for being honest and humble about sharing your thoughts and experience. Two or three years from now, I'll look back and this moment to reflect on my thoughts as to how I felt during this moment. 04/21/2018!

  33. Thank you for this. I was just feeling down because I have been having the same exact feelings this semester.

  34. damn so many PhD students here o_o I feel little and pathetic with my stupid BA degree that won't even get me any decent job…

  35. I’m about to embark on a doctoral degree program in Psychology (yay!) and I’m trying to figure out what to expect and how to establish a routine. Your videos have been informative and morale boosting. Thank you for posting them!

  36. I'm a second year masters student in what is supposed to be a two and a half year program….without any class flexibility, electives, or ability to graduate on time without taking a full course load every semester. You could say I'm in that tunnel, and I'm claustrophobic. Watching your video however helps some to remind me there is a light somewhere, and once I get through this year I'm sure I'll see it again.

  37. Thank you for sharing. This help me a lottt.
    I am new at graduate student,right now.
    I feel so dumb and feel bad about myself.
    But now i feel relief.
    ❤️ 🙏

  38. Thank you so much for this video! I am currently applying to Social Psychology PhD Programs and there are a very limited number of youtubers who discuss graduate school!

  39. Thank you for bringing up the point about feeling dumb. I just got into a grad program and I already feel the beginnings of imposter syndrome.

  40. I just accepted admission to a 2 year masters program. This made me both excited and less nervous (also thankful that my program is only 2 years) Thank you!

  41. I'm in a master degree. I identify with the part of the tunnel part and also feel more dumb that my others students.

  42. Thank you for reminding me about why I wanted to go to grad school: to be able to learn new information, and analyse it, and synthesis it, and to communicate about it knowledgeably.
    I failed grad school three years ago, but I'm coming back next month!

  43. Hi Sara! I am starting Grad school for my masters in Social Work. I am about 2 weeks out from the start of the semester and sort of freaking out. The self doubt, question why I'm spending all this money and so many other negative feelings are spiraling through my head. Thanks for this video, although I am still Freaking out- I feel a little better and had a laugh, (I must get a funny mug.) Anyway on to more freaking out

  44. 3.5 years into it and I feel lost so this actually helped. I hope this understanding of myself as a normal phd student will actually last….

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