Graduate school is a unique and amazing experience. Where else do you have the intellectual freedom to choose what you learn, the independence to make your own work schedule, the “requirement” to live and play in the wilderness for months (maybe a bit unique to my situation), and the joy of being surrounded by passionate, like-minded people? For these reasons, grad school has been a rewarding and life-changing experience, and has motivated me to pursue a career in wildlife biology and research.
Despite the benefits, grad school has also been the most challenging journey of my life. Most of these challenges are “positive” ones, forcing me out of my comfort zone; whether it is learning a completely new skill, speaking to an intimidating audience, or moving across the country, these challenges have forced me to learn and grow as a person. But, there are also “challenges” of grad school that can be quite debilitating and harmful, like the insane levels of stress and anxiety, feelings of inadequacy and of being an “imposter”, a lack of deadlines or tangible metrics of success, or the isolation that comes with being an independent researcher. I have come across a plethora of articles discussing the rampant issues with mental health and attrition in graduate students (example 1, 2, 3, etc.), suggesting that these challenges are terribly common. Unfortunately, these aspects of grad school are rarely talked about, so we aren’t adequately prepared for what’s coming when we start our programs. Or, more importantly, they aren’t perceived as genuine, widespread challenges of grad school even though, in my opinion, they are the biggest threat to productivity and long-term success of graduate students. The “hard skills” (e.g., experimental design, scientific writing, public speaking) are obviously important and necessary for success, but we enter graduate school expecting these things to be challenging and are, subsequently, trained to be good at them (that’s the hope anyway).
In my opinion, the issue that needs to be discussed, and revisited over and over and over again throughout our graduate school experience, is how to maintain mental and emotional well-being in order to face our daily challenges with confidence and vigour. So, the rest of this post is an attempt at articulating some of the advice and insight I have gained after many, many years of being a graduate student.
1) Treat graduate school like a job. Try to treat it like a “normal” workweek; schedule time for work and time for a break. You might work a bit more or a bit less some weeks, but try to remain accountable to a schedule. Try to set realistic goals and stick to them, then reward yourself for achieving these goals. If you can, set (physical) boundaries between work and home life (i.e., go into the office to work, or have a designated space at home for work). There will always be work to do so take care of yourself first because the work will still be there tomorrow.
2) Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As a PhD student, I found this to be the hardest – when I started I thought I had to know everything because I wasn’t “just an undergrad” or “just a masters student” anymore. But, I quickly learned that trying to figure everything out on my own was just a massive waste of time. Your supervisor, lab mates, classmates, departmental staff, etc. all have a set of knowledge and skills that they are, most often, willing to share. The ability to gather information from other sources (either from the literature or directly from another person) will be useful throughout your entire career, so don’t be afraid to do it.
3) Separate your sense of self from your thesis. Students are notoriously terrible at separating their project from their own sense of “worth” and their confidence. However, supervisors are (often) good at seeing a student’s project separate from the person. This is an important thing to realize because, only then, can you come to understand that criticism about your project is not criticism about you or your intelligence. This will help you respond to criticism and advice in a constructive manner, as opposed to becoming defensive and self-conscious.
4) Internalize your success. Stop making excuses for your success and believe that it is a result of your hard work and unique skill set (not because of luck or anyone else’s doing). You are responsible for every decision, every opportunity, and every success, so OWN IT! (Of course, while being conscious of the fact that there IS such a thing as being over-confident and obnoxious to your peers…)
5) Do not compare yourself to anyone else. This is also a colossal waste of time. You will be very different from any of your colleagues. It is guaranteed that people will be better than you at certain things, but you will definitely be better than them at others. Although it is important to figure out where your strengths and weaknesses lie, do not use your colleagues as a bar that you have to measure up to. Often we only see the positive aspects of others and none of their shortcomings or internal anxieties, so this bar can be unrealistic. Even more, diverse perspectives and skill sets will only improve academia and science; so, instead of trying to fit in, hold on to what makes you unique and succeed in your own way.
6) Find sources of confidence and enjoyment outside of school. Surround yourself by people and activities that make you feel good and confident. Find time to step away from grad school and being a scientist. It is too easy to think about research all the time, especially when things aren’t working out the way you would like. So, find a sport, a hobby, a good book, a TV show on Netflix, or a favourite bar/coffee shop that allows you to escape from your project for a brief period in time.
7) Take care of each other. Support from my peers has been, without a doubt, the most important thing to maintaining my sanity throughout grad school. So, please, try to support and encourage those around you and, hopefully, others will do the same. Not everyone has the support system necessary to make it through stressful times, so try to create one for each other. Shift the grad school environment away from one of isolation and competition towards an environment defined by camaraderie and celebration of each other’s accomplishments.
All of these tips are easier said than done. Admittedly, this post has served as a therapeutic exercise for myself, reminding me of important things I so easily forget. If we all keep these points in mind, while remembering to have fun and take care of ourselves, it will be easier to focus on the positives of grad school and get the most out of our experiences.
Thank you for reading.
Allyson Menzies is a guest blogger for GradLife McGill. She is a 4th-year Ph.D. student in Natural Resource Sciences (at Macdonald Campus) interested in animal ecology and physiology. Her project focuses on the causes and ecological consequences of individual variation in metabolism, energy use, and behaviour of wolverine, lynx, snowshoe hares, and red squirrels in the northern boreal forest. When Ally is not in the field, or working on her thesis, she enjoys making science accessible to the public through a variety of public outreach activities and getting involved with student advocacy on campus or elsewhere. Check out her website: http://allysonmenzies.weebly.com/
All Photos by Allyson Menzies.