Advice for Surviving Graduate School

While I’m not completely finished with graduate school, I am on the “downhill” side of doctoral coursework and comprehensive exams, so I thought I’d provide some thoughts on surviving graduate school for some of my junior colleagues. In a world spent mostly looking toward what’s next in my career, it seems appropriate to take a look backward for a moment. books

  1. You can’t read everything, so read strategically. There are some graduate advisors cringing at this right now because they read so adamantly, they’re even reading my blog. They won’t skip point two because it might be the point that unlocks the piece. But the bottom line is that you can’t possibly read everything, especially when a syllabus has “extra readings” for the week. On top of the two books required, the professor suggests you read three of these others. Really, professor? Five books for one class? Yes, seriously. This will be asked of you. So you have to read strategically. Learn to grasp the nuts and bolts of an argument quickly and efficiently. It’s an acquired skill, but it’s best to acquire it early in the process.
  2. Stay balanced. One of the biggest mistakes people make in grad school is selling out to their program of study. You have to go to the gym. You have to sleep. You should stay plugged into a church. Even though none of us are studying science, we need to know enough about how the human body works to give it food and workouts and rest. Your brain will not allow higher level thinking if you don’t take care of your body. Aside from that, research shows that creativity (and higher level processing) happens when we shift our focus away from what we’re working on. It’s why places like Google and 3M allow their employees to play pingpong and take walks. Because when those workers return to productivity, they have better ideas.
  3. Make and cultivate relationships with colleagues. Graduate school is, by definition, an alienating experience. You are becoming one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet in your niche of specialization. So in that, there are very few others who can relate to what you’re enduring. Your significant other may not “get” what you do. You friends may not understand the time commitment and may drive you nuts with the “so when will you be done?” question, as if grad school is just a jog around the block. That’s why connecting with colleagues, beyond just someone to complain about that “stupid paper we had to write this week” is important; they can commiserate on the life of the mind.
  4. Protect your intellectual vitality. This is not an excuse to be lazy. In fact, what I mean is not that you read more but that you stay connected to the important influences that directed you to graduate school. Don’t get so sidetracked by the theory-heavy reading lists of courses that you forget to read theology and life-giving ideas about the profession that motivates you. Read pedagogy when you’re frustrated with disengaged students. Read a biography of your all time favorite pitcher if it breathes life into your historical intellectual curiosity. Don’t get bogged in the mire of grad reading lists.
  5. Vary your studying atmosphere. Some of my colleagues have their spot. For some it’s at home, others a coffee shop, and some (shockingly) can get work done in the office. But wherever it is, you will eventually hit a wall. When that happens and the words won’t flow or your eyeballs seem to cross, find a new place. Universities are full of places to study. Switch it up. Study in a different building on campus. Go to a different part of town. Sometimes studying at a friend’s house can result in minimal actual “study” work, but I’ve gotten more done in 15 minute chunks in intellectually-stimulating places than I have for hours in the institutional confines of various places. Find what makes your lightbulb glow, but don’t stay plugged into the same outlet. Explore and illumine other places.
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