Fall semester is quickly approaching. This month, we reached out to PhD students in the SPSP community who shared their personal experiences and words of advice to incoming graduate students. Twenty five respondents participated in a survey in which they recounted challenges they faced during their first two years in grad school and shared what they would do differently if they could do it all over again.
Time Management: A sudden change in your schedule can be very stressful. As a grad student, balancing research, teaching, coursework, and your personal life can be difficult at first but can become easier with practice. It might take you some time to get into the groove of things and that’s completely okay. Time management might include prioritizing or saying no to some requests. Ignoring your capacity and time commitments can potentially lead to negative consequences for you. One student reported:
“During my first two years, I had no concept of boundaries. I said yes to everything, I worked 10+ hour days. I often forgot to eat. I felt overwhelmed. I burned out quickly. My mental health and relationships suffered.”
Another student had a similar experience:
“Mistakenly, I started off by trying to be the very best I could. I worked 80+ hours a week, barely slept, tried to start as many studies as I could, joined several collaborations, supervised multiple undergrads, and took advanced courses. I was "making progress" but was exhausted all the time, which led to mistakes, having to drop studies, or re-do work.”
Relationship with your advisor and others in your lab: During your PhD, your advisor is your main point of contact and you often rely on them for support. Navigating this relationship effectively while also being aware of ways to tackle conflict (if it arises) and other sources of support can protect you from future hurt. One student emphasized how adjusting to a new work environment might be difficult at first:
“Adjusting to the specific lab culture. Regardless of "good" or "bad" ways of doing things, every lab is different in terms of general practices and views and habits. Figuring out what's "normal" in a lab is one thing, but adjusting to it (by conforming or by suggesting your opinion despite being a 1st year student) may not always be easy.”
Impostor syndrome can be very real: Many students experience the impostor syndrome during their years in grad school — to put it simply, it denotes the feeling of not deserving to be in a PhD program, being self-doubting, and worrying that you will be exposed as an impostor. One student describes this feeling perfectly:
“I felt like an impostor for much of the first two years of graduate school, which led to much overcompensation and anxiety for the first two years of my PhD program. I was always worried about failing that I did not try for much of the first two years of the program.”
Or “…thinking my advisor would realize what a mistake they made in accepting me.”
Two students shared astute perspectives on working through feeling like an impostor:
“*Everybody* around you is insecure about being good enough for academia. Whenever you experience an episode of the notorious impostor syndrome - share it with someone. You will find out that they sometimes feel the same.”
“I know a lot of you got accepted into your program because you've excelled academically, and you might have this expectation that hard things to others are supposed to be easy for you since that's probably how it's been your whole life thus far. But you are entering a different realm, where hard things to others are going to be hard for you as well. This might take some getting-used-to [sic.], but it's normal, and it's doesn't mean you are failing…”
Teaching undergraduate students: Teaching and being in leadership positions can be new experiences for many students joining grad school and it can be quite daunting to dive into head-first.
“Teaching was extremely difficult for me. In my program, starting with year two we teach lab class, and third year onwards we teach lecture classes. Interacting with students was very hard, because it tests a different set of workplace and leadership skills that were not taught or given to me through training. I attended training sessions that focused on how to report academic disintegrity or things to watch out for on Zoom because of COVID but setting up reasonable boundaries with students or more interpersonal things to be mindful of were expected of me without any preparation.”
Research expectations: With research, there’s an ever-looming threat of uncertainty and rejection. One student felt a lot of pressure to show results for their experiments and another reported ending up with a lot of unfinished projects.
Addressing Potential Problems
Know before you go: One PhD student suggested that as an incoming student, you should take time to understand the inner workings of the research lab you plan to work in. Understanding your advisor’s working style and clearing up misunderstandings can go a long way in developing mutually respectful relationships with others. For example, one student shared the following experience and piece of advice:
“Your advisor is extremely busy. Many times, they won't remember the details about your project, or won't find the time to go over lots of details, but it doesn't mean they do not care! If you remember this, your communication with them will be more effective and less frustrating. Whenever you're sending an e-mail - let it be super concise (sometimes a single sentence describing the most interesting finding + an informative figure would do). On your meetings, start with a quick reminder about the project and the decisions from your last meeting.”
Your journey is unique: You’ve probably heard this before, but each PhD student’s journey is unique. Comparing yourself to others can be demoralizing and futile if you’re trying to be successful in grad school. One student shared:
“I had a hard time with comparing myself with my cohort (other incoming graduate students) such as how many hours we studied, our grades on exams, and how many research projects we were working on. It’s important to remember that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, interests, and experiences that make them an effective, productive person.”
Facing rejection during grad school is not uncommon and is actually bound to happen with your research papers or grant proposals.
Maintaining a healthy balance: Many students suggested that scheduling time so that you can indulge in a hobby, have friends both inside and outside academia, and taking breaks is better for your growth in the long run than burning yourself out quickly.
Be your own advocate and reach out for help: Don’t hesitate to seek help from people you feel comfortable with - whether it’s your advisor, a more experienced grad student, or another faculty or staff member. One student reported that if you are immensely dissatisfied with your advisor and other means of resolving issues have failed then:
“…notify your program advisor as soon as possible to work out a different arrangement. Don't be like me and wait until it's too late, or you, too, will likely have a miserable and unfulfilling experience in grad school.”
Some students reported that by going for psychotherapy they were able to learn and apply some communication and other coping skills that greatly benefited them during grad school.
Acknowledgements: I would like to extend a special thanks to grad students from the SPSP community who participated in this survey including Tzipporah Dang, Charlene Wu (Florida State University), J.Y.S, Anjelica Martinez (University of Houston), Jeff Ramdass (Claremont Graduate University), Emily P. Courtney (University of South Florida), and Julie Prosser. I’m also very grateful to Martha Berg and other SPSP student committee members for participating in the survey and helping me reach out to other SPSP student members.
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