Work Hard, Play Harder, and Be Gentle with Yourself: Advice for the Beginning of Grad School and Beyond

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I have a lot of thoughts on my mind as I wrap up my prosem on graduate education. I have spent a semester talking to young, hopeful, bright first-year graduate students about how to be successful in graduate school. I have also been supporting several students this semester who are currently on the job market and are having a mixed experience. I am also prepping for my PhD Job Market class for next semester and planning a series of posts here related to that course. Finally, I have read some books about productivity and academia the past few months, all of which emphasize well-being, though from vastly different perspectives. Here are some tips for new graduate students to keep in mind as they move through grad school. And some points that all of us would do well to remember.

Don’t let your self-worth get tied up in your graduate school performance

Let's all migrate here! photo credit: chuck4x5 Happy via photopin (license)

Let’s all migrate here!
photo credit: chuck4x5 Happy via photopin (license)

This is so hard to avoid. But graduate school performance is determined by many factors, a lot of them that are outside of your control. Perhaps you don’t realize going in to graduate school that your advisor rarely publishes, or no one told you to look and see if they do. Maybe you and your advisor just don’t mesh. Maybe you realize you really don’t like your research topic. Maybe a professor holds some kind of implicit bias against you. Maybe you just don’t like research and writing. Maybe you are feeling inadequate and experiencing imposter syndrome. All of these things can lead to you being less successful as a graduate student. And, going into graduate school, you may not realize many of them. Thus, just because graduate school doesn’t go well for you, or just because your CV has no publications on it, or just because you have no motivation to get research done, it doesn’t mean that you are not an awesome, smart, capable person. You are. But, maybe this is not the right environment for you. If it isn’t, I officially give you permission to quit and move on with your life. Maybe it is, but you need to make some changes. I officially give you permission to switch advisors, departments, or institutions. Make sure you remember that your self-worth is much more than your academic performance.

Work hard, play harder.

As part of the effort to remember that your self-worth is more than your academic performance, work hard in graduate school, but play harder. I think sometimes graduate students forget to stop working. And, often, their advisors work all the time, and do not model appropriate boundaries. Thus, you may not even have examples of balancing work and life. But, there are many models and books out there that aim to help you do that. And, playing can make you better at all aspects of your life. People who engage in more leisure are happier and less stressed. Life is more fun when you are having fun! Thus, make some boundaries between your graduate career and your life.  My graduate student makes sure she does no work at least one day every weekend. Ideally, she would go the whole weekend without working, but at least having one day helps her to prioritize herself. And, don’t fill that day with errands and grocery shopping. Fill it with stuff that fills you up! Read a novel, relax, go to a movie or concert, have a potluck with some friends, take a hike or a bike ride, binge watch a TV show, in short, do whatever makes you happy. Make sure you are filling up your tank each week since you are definitely emptying it each week.

Figure out what matters, and create structures that support you spending time it.

I will tell you what matters when it comes to graduate school. Writing. There, you don’t even have to figure it out. Writing is what matters. Improving writing. Editing writing. Actually getting pen to paper. Writing is the most important thing, and for many students, the one thing that no one is bugging you about. Thus, you need to find ways to get better at it and get it done. I have several structures I like – one is writing group – and another is write-on-site. But, most importantly, find some strategies that work for you and get your writing done.

Don’t wait until it is too late. And, if it gets to be too late, that’s ok.

One hard thing about teaching the job market course is that sometimes advanced graduate students are realizing, for the first time, that they do not have a CV that is going to get them a tenure-track job. We bring graduate students into our graduate program with the promise that they can become like us – professors. We encourage promising undergraduate students to apply to graduate school for the same reason. But, academia is not easy, and the requirements to get a job continue to rise all of the time. I personally believe that it is extremely difficult to get a tenure-track job in Human Development and Family Science, or Psychology, at a research-intensive university, without a post-doc at an institute other than your PhD institution. Thus, to get a tenure-track job, we are talking about 5 to 6 years spent in your graduate program, followed by 1 to 4 years spent as a post-doc. Several of these years might be spent on the job market, and you have no idea where you are going to end up living. And, by the end of all of this, there is no guarantee that you are going to get a tenure-track job.

Thus, if you are struggling, and you let it go on for a semester or a year without some kind of intervention, it can wind up derailing you from your ultimate goal if that goal is to be a tenure-track professor. Even at teaching institutions, tenure-track positions go to scholars with research experience. Students who are avoiding writing for whatever reason may find that they have a hard time recovering from that and amassing enough publications to be competitive for tenure track jobs. It is much better to check in regularly, and if you feel like you are getting behind, talk to someone. I like my Passion Planner for checking in – it has a yearly and monthly check-in exercise that is personal and professional goal-focused. The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity has several webinars related to writing strategies and time management. You can hire a coach who can help you create accountability and writing strategies that will work for you. Talk to your advisor or a trusted mentor about how you are feeling. Maybe you really don’t want to be an academic (that is ok!) or maybe you do want to be an academic, but you were going through some things (that is ok too!). There are always options, and brainstorming with your advisor, a grad studies chair, a coach, or another trusted mentor or friend might help you find pathways forward that you are not seeing now.

There are lots of ways to be happy and fulfilled in life.

Getting a PhD and becoming a tenure-track professor is not the only pathway to a happy and fulfilled life. In fact, it may be a horrible pathway to a happy and fulfilled life for many people. So, you might decide along the way that you really don’t want to get a PhD or you really don’t like academic life. You also might find yourself avoiding your academic work or feeling stuck or unable to do it. For some reason, once students are in graduate school, they feel like they have to finish it. For some of you, that may be a waste of time because you really just don’t like academic life and research, writing, and teaching. For others of you, that may be a waste of time because you like teaching, but not research and writing, and it is hard to get a full-time, secure position without some research, plus you still have to finish a dissertation. Maybe you are ok with academic life, but you have not amassed the publications or other intangibles needed to get a tenure-track job. If any of these things happen to you, remember, there are lots of ways to be happy and fulfilled, and virtually every one of them does not involve a PhD. There are awesome non-academic jobs you can do that would involve teaching, if that is what you love. There are exciting non-academic jobs that involves outreach, or research, or data analysis. In fact, there is a non-academic job for just about any passion you have. The problem is that your advisors probably don’t know about them because they are rewarded when you get a tenure-track job, and they are not rewarded for knowing anything about non-academic life. So, go out and find out about non-academic life for yourself. There are books on finding non-academic jobs, the Versatile PhD helps grad students navigate the non-academic job market. There is even a Twitter hashtag: #altac Don’t let anyone pressure you or tell you that you have to do this, or that you cannot do this. But, give yourself permission to find the best way to happiness and fulfillment for you, whether that involves a tenure-track job or not.

So, the bottom line is: work hard, play hard, and be gentle with yourself. Enjoy graduate school. It is a time of self-development for many, and lifelong friendships or partnerships may be formed. Try to live in the moment and enjoy it. Good luck!

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