Grad School: What I've Learned (so far at least)

PUBLISHED ON SEP 4, 2019 — COMPUTING

While the end of summer doesn’t always guarantee cooler weather it does always mean the start of a fresh and new school year.

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I’ve been enrolled in full time school of some sort for 23 straight years now including pre-k and grad school. As a fifth year PhD student, I’m starting to get nostalgic that this is likely (and hopefully) my last year in school.

In reflecting on my time in grad school I’ve compiled a list of some of the most difficult and important lessons I’ve learned. Of course, this list is not exclusive but rather what I feel like was hardest to learn or accept.

1. Imposter syndrome is real.

My first two years in grad school I was waiting for faculty to discover that I wasn’t as special as they thought and ask me to leave. I didn’t know that these feelings are so wide spread across graduate students it is named imposter syndrome. These thoughts were obviously not great for my mental health. There was no aha-moment where suddenly I felt this was what and where I was supposed to be. For me, it wasn’t until I read a blog post of a friend that I learned you need to compare yourself to the right distribution. It is difficult but avoid comparing yourself to others in general. If you feel this way, turn to the internet to read about others experiences, talk to faculty and older students about their failures (trust me they have them), or seek out mental health services.

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  1. Schedule your free time.

One of the harder lessons I had to learn while in grad school was to schedule free time even when I was busy. My undergraduate studies left me with a lot of independence and free time. I could finish all the items on my to do list and then relax and enjoy time with friends. Grad school seemed to present itself with an infinite to do list and so I started working what seemed like infinite hours. I had to learn that there will always be items on your to do list and sometimes it is more productive to take a break and enjoy than it is to spend hours struggling on work. Of course, this is easier said than done especially when you’re dealing with a deadline on homework but try to give yourself at least a small amount of scheduled time off.

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I’m a night owl and like to work longer weekdays so I can enjoy my weekends. I personally try to always take at least Sunday completely off even when I am busy and feel the never ending to do list. I know others prefer to work shorter hours during the week and work a bit on the weekend. Find what time is important to you and works best for your productivity and schedule yourself some free time. Breaks are good for productivity. Buy the concert tickets, go for that run, relax, watch Netflix.

  1. Get to know intimidating people.

You will meet a number of brilliant and intimidating people throughout your grad school career. Maybe it is invited faculty giving talks from other universities. Perhaps your own faculty. I even remember being intimidated by some older students. Of course they were friendly but I was in awe of how much they knew.

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If someone intimidates you get to know them better. In getting to know them you’ll realize of course they are bright but they are also a normal human being. Ask to meet them about their research. See if they’ll get coffee with you and describe their journey. Sign up for opportunities to get to know them better.

  1. Always keep tupperware at your desk.

Hopefully this point is self explantory. Being a grad student is a financial struggle and on college campuses there seems to be a plethora of opportunities to get a free meal. Most likely it is pizza but as a busy and poor student beggars can’t be choosers.

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  1. Always ask the question.

We learned when we were little that no question is a stupid question. Over time we seem to forget this but you are a grad student. The reason you are in higher education rather than out in the working world is to continue learning. Inevitably while learning you will make mistakes. Don’t be so hard on yourself. What you’re doing is admirable and really difficult. If you have a question likely someone else does too so ask it. This advice of course comes in handy during required coursework but I found it just as useful when I was done with classes. The worst that happens when you extend the question is you get an answer that you don’t like. So ask the question and advocate for yourself and your education.

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  1. Get involved.

In academic departments administrative staff and faculty can always use student volunteers. Put yourself out there and ask how you can get involved. This is a great opportunity to meet other students and faculty and sometimes even tailor your own education. Whether you are an introvert or extrovert working and knowing people outside of coursework is a useful experience. Force yourself to get involved. I believe in karma and what goes around comes around so you never know when those people you helped will come in handy.

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If you just started grad school. Good luck and godspeed.

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