One of my colleagues described the experience of being in a graduate program as a group of adults who all know that they’re right sitting in a room trying to convince everyone else that they’re wrong. It is and can be a time of great academic growth and a huge launching point for your career, but it can also be a lot. Professors often assign a book a week, you’re expected to work at a level that you might not be used to, and honestly one of the hardest parts is that you rarely receive encouragement from faculty members. It’s easy to get caught up in how difficult grad school is and to use that difficulty as an excuse to slack off on taking care of yourself, but the skills you build now will follow you into your career. It’s more important than ever to really make time and space for YOU, and I don’t just mean bubble baths. Here are nine tips to keep you at your sharpest, featuring over-the-top stock imagery.
Make your faculty work for you
Grad school doesn’t always feel like the best place to be confused, wrong, or unsure, but it’s better to feel those things now instead of when you’re a junior faculty member. When you don’t know something, ask your faculty for help; whether it’s figuring out what exactly a comprehensive exam is, or a concept in your discipline that you can’t quite figure out. Ask for help. Do it often, because your faculty members are there to teach you! It’s so easy to feel dumb when you don’t know something, but you are still a student, regardless of your other responsibilities, and students need to learn.
Find your grad school crew and lean on them
Whether it’s your cohort or another group of graduate students you organically get to know, it’s so important to have a group of people in school that you love and trust. These are the folks who will cheer you on when you don’t think you can read another three books in a week, who will help you strategize if/when you face discrimination, and will graduate and enter the workforce with you. These are people who can become lifetime friends and resources, and will offer you endless support (and hopefully laughs) during these tough years.
Find your non-school related thing
Just like it matters that you have people who intimately know what grad school is like for you, it’s important to have a thing that reminds you that grad school is not all there is. Maybe you go running a few times a week or find a queer dance night that you always go to, or learn how to bake or knit. Just find something that has nothing to do with your graduate school work, and fall in love with it. I started running last year — 30 minutes to an hour, a few times a week — I can honestly say that while I’m running, I don’t think about graduate school at all. And by not having school on my mind 24/7, I have a chance to look forward to getting back to work. I’m more excited about my classes, writing, and teaching when I feel like I’m a real person with interests, and not just some slave to research.
Take one day off each week
Not to get too religious on you, but even G-d didn’t work seven days a week, you know? You need time off. Yes, you need to work hard and challenge yourself and try new things, but you also need to rest. You’ll burn out so quickly if you spend every day workin. Take one day each week and do something fun to remind yourself that everything is not and cannot be about school.
Especially as a queer student of color, I’ve found that I am a hot commodity on campus. People want to collaborate with me on projects, I look good on committees, and it’s all too easy for me to pull a week of 9 a.m. – 10 p.m. days. I have to set boundaries. For instance, I give myself 45 minutes a day to look at and respond to emails, period. I don’t do any work on Sunday mornings. I don’t take more than three evening meetings a week. My time and my presence matter, and so do yours. By setting boundaries, you’re making the best use of your time and making sure that you can be present for whatever you do commit to. It’s okay to say no sometimes, I promise you’ll still be able to get tenure if that’s what you want.
Use the university’s resources
I’m not just talking inter-library loan here (although inter-library loan is the greatest thing on earth; you should use it). I held office hours at my school’s outdoor pool patio for the first two years of undergrad because it was a resource I otherwise wouldn’t have frequented. I’m also able to get massages for far under market value (I get a 2-hour massage before finals each semester). Universities are designed to have almost everything a student living on campus might need, and just because you don’t live there doesn’t mean you can’t use the resources. Use the therapists, gynecologists, pharmacies, and anything else that your university has to offer. In some way, I bet you’re paying for them, so you might as well use them.
Make and remake your schedule
Yes, of course, you need a schedule. But you can’t have such a strict schedule that you don’t give it room to change. I have a base schedule of things I have to go to, like my GA position and classes, but some weeks I need to spend 10 hours studying and some weeks it’s closer to 20. Some days I leave class and the only thing I want to do is watch three hours of TV. Your schedule should be solid, but flexible enough that you can take into account how your feeling or a lecture that comes up, or a lunch your advisor sets up for you at the last minute. Grad school is about taking advantage of neat things, not sticking to a rigid schedule. Be open to change.
Y’all, my first year in grad school, I stayed inside and sat on my ass so much that I had dangerously low vitamin D levels and also got this really weird tailbone injury. Grad students do so much work sitting alone inside a library, but human beings cannot do that. You’ve got to go outside. Take a walk around the block every few hours, get off the bus a stop early, or park a little further than you need to. You’ll feel better just by breathing in air that hasn’t been recycled through an old HVAC system. When you feel better you do better work.
Find an online community
There are tons of groups on Facebook for queer people, trans people, women, and people of color in academia. If you’re at a school somewhere where you’re missing those perspectives, these groups are a great place to be. They can offer a lot of different things, from a place to vent, to fellowship information, to a job. It’s also helpful to learn about the grad school experience from folks who’ve done it and share similar identities with you.
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