How to stay sane and enthusiastic: Five things we wish we had known before starting grad school

Our department has recently started a series on academic skills, where grad students and postdocs at Penn can ask panelists about various experiences pertaining to writing a grant, or giving a job talk – things that are often not communicated in a formal way. This month’s session was about “What I would have liked to know before starting grad school”, where advanced grad students and fresh postdocs reflected on things they would have found useful to know or to have reflected on in advance. I thought I’d share some of the excellent points that were made by the panel and audience.

Grad school can be a great thing, but it comes with its own challenges. For me, the flexibility that often comes with being a grad student (unless you work on a project with a very fixed outline where your tasks are clearly defined from the start) is something that makes it especially awesome, but also especially challenging. You can work on what you really care about while managing your work schedule yourself. But you also have a lot of responsibility and need to be intrinsically motivated and reasonably disciplined to pull through. With that in mind, here come five thoughts and pieces of advice that can help you make your way through grad school.


1. Focus and embrace the gap

Once you start grad school, you’ll probably get busier than you’ve been before. Aside from your coursework and your core research project, there might be another interesting little project you agreed to help out with, and a student committee… The key thing every busy person needs to learn is how to focus. Focusing means prioritizing those things that are important, beneficial and meaningful to you. This is not only about selecting topics, but also to organize yourself in a way that makes your work the best it can be. Focusing goes along with embracing the gap, in at least three ways.

  • Un-commit from overcommitments. Lesson 1 for a busy grad student often is that you cannot do everything you thought you could. So you might realize that you have to dump this little side project you promised a professor to work on. You will feel bad about it. But keep in mind the professor has likely forgotten about it even earlier than you have, and that your contribution to the project very probably isn’t going to change the world. Still, do not just drop it, but let the person you un-commit from know, and explain why. Also, let that be a lesson for you to be more careful about committing to something the next time around.
  • Work on what you can work on. Lesson 2 is that you are (most likely) not a well-functioning machine, and there are these days where you just cannot get yourself to work on, e.g., a complicated data analysis. Accept that and move on to something else. One strategy is to make a to-do-list in the morning in descending order of (self-rated) difficulty. Start working on the most difficult thing for say 10 minutes, and if you can’t focus, move on to the next point. If you reach the end of the list without being able to even work on the last point, go home – there will be better days! – Of course, sometimes you’ll have a deadline, but chances are that if there is one, you will be able to focus.
  • Share the imperfect. A bit further down the road, maybe when writing your first abstract or manuscript, Lesson 3 might come in handy: You better share your work with someone else when it’s still in progress. That way, you can get feedback on the general structure or aspects of the argument early on, which gives you room to improve things instead of wasting time elaborating on something you will ultimately throw out. Likewise, having a not-fully-baked research plan can be a great occasion to present at a lab meeting – you will get some more ideas and chances are you’ll change a few things afterwards anyways.


2. Know yourself

When and under which circumstances do you work most productively? In grad school, you can often choose to work when and where you want. You can leverage this to make your work day as productive as possible. In case your lab requires strict attendance times, you could still try to negotiate some exceptions if you feel that’s important – for instance, working from home from time to time.

  • When. If you’re simply not a morning person, but don’t mind working into the night, adjust your work schedule. I am one of these persons. It did take some honesty to admit to myself that I am just not one of these uber-productive people that turn up at work at 8.30 and have already finished a manuscript and a healthy snack of carrots and hummus by lunch time. But ever since I’ve just surrendered to this fact of life, I wake up late, take time to decide what I’ll wear and to have a quiet breakfast, and get to work at 11. Of course, if I have meetings or experiments scheduled at 9, I am there at 9. But it’s painful. That’s why I’m also very honest with my colleagues, and whenever they suggest an early meeting, I politely ask whether it would be an inconvenience to schedule it a bit later.
  • Where. If you know you can best focus on writing a manuscript when you’re at home, or in a café, then by all means do that. You should make sure that’s ok with your advisor and your colleagues, and, if you feel that makes sense, either let them know each time you decide to spend home, or fix a regular day where they know you won’t be coming in.


3. Define your advisor’s role

This is a tricky one, since it is not really under your control. Each advisor is different, and it is impossible to say whether the one that meets you on a daily basis to go over every detail with you is better than the one that schedules a one-hour-a-month meeting with you to ponder overarching questions. But one definition that came up and that spoke to me was “Your advisor’s responsibility is to help you being successful”. This is very broad, but at the same time I think it touches the core of what you can absolutely except from an advisor.


4. Reach out and socialize (aka, “networking”)

We academics do not like fancy business buzz words, but what is entailed in the term “networking” can be important both for improving your work (by reaching out and listening to new perspectives) and staying sane (by talking to others that share experiences with you). I will list a few points below, but at the same time am putting a disclaimer – I know there are many among us that do not particularly like talking to strangers, or being in groups. And I do by no means think that being a star networker is essential to being a good researcher.

  • Reach out and talk about your research. Hopefully your lab – your advisor and your peers – are there for you to discuss your work, from ideas to outcomes. Nevertheless, it is invaluable to get a fresh pair of eyes looking at your manuscript, or another perspective on your idea. General consensus was that talking to other people in your department, to people you meet at conferences, to colleagues you know from your former lab, can almost never hurt, but very often give you new ideas and insights. Now, this might seem easier to say as to do – so read the next point for
  • Make it an exchange. So talking to other people is good, but not always easy. Especially approaching more senior researchers might require some courage. But consensus was that, in general, people are very generous with their advice once the setting is right. So of course you should not consider it as granted that someone takes time for you, and if it’s not happening, try to not take it personally – it’s more likely the person is very busy than she is specifically not interested in talking to you. Once you are talking to someone, keep in mind that people usually love talking about themselves, or their ideas. So showing interest in their work and commenting on it, as well as listening to their ideas on your work, will likely make the conversation a real exchange and as such enjoyable for both parties.
  • Socialize with your peers. Your peers, by virtue of sharing your experiences, can provide you with something different from your friends outside of grad school. Almost everyone runs into the trap of not proceeding with an idea, having technical issues, not getting they data they want, experiencing a lot of pressure, and thinking that everyone else is doing fine. But that is never the case! Having a friendly group of peers you can talk to after work, be it at happy hour or at the gym, is in the opinion of many a good way to stay sane during grad school.


5. Stay enthusiastic

Every grad student hits a low at some point. Your data don’t work out, your advisor is not available, your friends from undergrad earn three times as much as you and still have time to go out. Now, if that gets too bad and it’s more than a temporary low, then there is little reason to stay in grad school. But before you throw the towel (as we Germans say), there are some strategies to remind you of why you got into grad school in the first place – and they will hopefully refuel your enthusiasm.

  • Find a conference you feel at home at. There are usually several relevant (bi)annual conferences for your topic. Find one you feel good at and look forward to go back to each time – to discuss ideas with like-minded people in an atmosphere you like, and to get inspired by the presentations you attend.
  • Write up your enthusiasm. This one seems to me a great preventive measure. Whenever you feel super enthusiastic about what you’re doing, write it up and save it somewhere accessible! Write what you’re excited about and why, and try to conserve as much of your present feeling for future-unenthusiastic-me.


And with that – happy grad schooling!


Baby image courtesy


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