How To Avoid A Distressing Grad School Experience

Higher education… what a glorious thing. When you finally get accepted into a graduate program that is supposed to propel you into your chosen career, it feels like you are on top of the world! For those of you who are in Med school, Law school, or a PhD program, you know that the “on top of the world” feeling quickly turns into feeling like you were pushed off that mountain top and now you’re free falling. Okay, that was an exaggeration but only slightly. Let’s be honest people, graduate school is tough! It drains your time, energy, and resources and if you’re in a program like mine, it will take up most of your 20’s. With all of those factors in mind, I made a promise to myself before I started my program that I would make the most of my life in graduate school. I promised myself that I would have fun, take trips, maintain friendships, and be open to marriage and children all while pursuing my PhD. I had to make this promise to myself because my program takes about 5 to 6 years to complete. I knew that I did not want to look up in 5 to 6 years, not having lived my life just because I was pursuing my PhD. I have to say, it is not always easy to keep the promise I made to myself nearly 2 years ago but it is definitely worth it to try. It took time for me to understand what was required of me, to determine the time and effort it would take for me to accomplish those requirements, and then to figure out where I could fit in “living my life” but I have managed to do it, by the grace of God. For anyone who is currently in graduate school or considering Med school, Law school, PhD programs, or other graduate programs, this is for you. Here are a few tips that have helped me stay sane and, dare I say, enjoy my graduate school experience so far.

Humble Yourself

Something you have to learn to do early on in graduate school is to humble yourself. Usually it is the case that if you got accepted into graduate school, you are used to being at the top and you probably are used to succeeding fairly effortlessly. However, when you start graduate school, you quickly realize that you are a small fish in a big pond. You are at the bottom of the hierarchy, you don’t always know what’s going on, and everyone seems like they are more qualified than you. When you enter a situation like this, you can either cling tight to your ego or you can let go and be humble. Humility has really helped me endure harsh critiques and feeling like I don’t belong. Several times throughout the beginning of my program I had to say to myself “I am here to learn, I’m just getting started, I haven’t done this level of work before with all of these responsibilities and that’s okay”. I had to say those things, just to remind myself that I’m new at this and I should not expect myself to be perfect. Now I expect critiques, I look forward to growing and learning, and I know that things will be hard at first but they will get easier as time goes on. It is such a rewarding feeling to know you are developing in the field you love. If you humbly accept that you may not know everything and that you can benefit from learning more in certain areas, then you will be able to take the feedback you get and turn it into positive areas where you have improved.

Take Advantage of Opportunities to Grow

Grad school is made for you to learn and grow. There are always opportunities for you to develop in your field. This is perfect the time to utilize all of the wonderful opportunities available to you. Does your program include an internship or externship? If so, choose wisely and try to get experience that will either deepen your understanding of your specific area of interest or that will broaden your experiences so that you are more marketable to future employers. On summer breaks how are you spending your time? Try to incorporate travel, fun, and professional development into your breaks. The best opportunities are the ones that help you accomplish several goals through one event or activity. For instance, those of you who are pursuing a PhD will need to conduct research throughout your program. Since that is a requirement, why not present your research at conferences in places around the country or even around the world? That way you accomplish something that looks good on your resume, you get to travel to new places, you can take extra time there to have fun in the city you visit, you can network with professionals in the field, and you may be able to get the travel expenses paid for by your department. As a graduate student you are also afforded scholarships and lower prices to attend workshops and training in your field. You can also take additional courses and seminars offered at your institution. I would definitely suggest taking advantage of as many of these opportunities as possible before you leave your program. Once you graduate, you will not be able to do most of these things at the ease and the cost that you have it right now.

Determine Your Priorities

In my program, we are expected to teach undergraduate classes, conduct research, take classes, and see clients for therapy. It is a lot of work! Which makes it nearly impossible to give 100% effort to everything. I had to determine my priorities so that I could decide how to divvy up my time and energy, in a way that made the most sense for my life. This can be difficult because others might try to impose their goals and priorities on you but ultimately it is up to you to determine what is important. Not your advisor, not your professor, not your boss, you. Your priorities may range from your tasks in graduate school to things that are important to you in your personal life. If you have other things going on outside of grad school, it does not mean that they are any less important than grad school. Believe it or not, my PhD program is not my whole life. It is one important part of my life but it is not my everything. I often have to remind myself of that fact because it requires so much of my time and effort that it seems like it would come above everything else but it doesn’t for me. In my case, God comes first in my life. While others may give me a hard time for that, it’s fine with me because my relationship with God is way too important to neglect. That means that if God calls me to do something, I do it, whether it takes away from my program or not. For instance, I serve at my church, I help lead a small group for my church once a week, I study God’s word everyday and I do countless other things that God calls me to do. Even though those things may take away from time I could be accomplishing tasks for my program, it’s okay with me because I have already determined that God is my priority. Since I know my priorities, everything falls into its rightful place and it all works out in the end. I do what I need to do for my PhD program and I still maintain the other important areas of my life. Don’t forget that the you are the only one who can determine what is most important in your life. Be honest with yourself and establish your priorities, even if grad school does not come first.

Enjoy the Present

It is so easy to get caught up in how great the future will be once you’re done but the present could be great too, if you let it. There’s no rule that says you have to be miserable in grad school. We just tell ourselves that. You can choose to appreciate the present. The first way to do that is to stop imagining graduate school as this barrier you have to get over in order to get to your “perfect future”. First of all, there is no “perfect future” and secondly, graduate school is your current destination. In other words, this is your purpose for this season of your life. The process of graduate school is not always easy but you can make the most of it by shaping your experience to fit your interests and goals. If you sign up for interesting classes, research something you care about, and get experience practicing skills that you have always wanted to learn, then it is easier to find the joy in the process. Your perception can be shaped by your choices. If you chose to see graduate school as one last learning adventure before you are out “in the real world”, it will be a fun and exciting experience for you. Another way to enjoy your life while in grad school, is to carve out time for enjoyable and fulfilling activities. I promise, taking a few hours per week for pure fun or relaxation will not deter you from your path to greatness. If anything, it will help you persevere through the graduate school process and it will make a huge difference on your overall sense of well-being. Graduate school can produce the perfect recipe for depression, anxiety, and other serious disorders, if you are not careful. One way to protect yourself from wearing down your mind and body is to infuse fun, relaxation, and meaning into your life. Don’t believe the lie that you can’t or that you shouldn’t have fun in grad school because you certainly can and you definitely should!

Embrace the Struggle

Graduate school is supposed to be difficult because it is typically the last formal training you will get before being a practicing professional. If it’s not difficult, that would be concerning because you are supposed to be learning and growing in a profession that not everyone can do. Once you let go of the idea that it should be easy then you can embrace the reality that you will most likely struggle at some point in graduate school. It may be a lot of work but our jobs following graduate school will also be demanding, so we might as well get used to it. What has helped me embrace the struggle is to know that I am being pushed to be the best version of myself and an even better professional in my field. The struggle is a sign that I need more development in whatever area I find difficult. So I don’t see it as a negative thing or a weakness, it just indicates  where I can improve. I’m fine with that because I want to improve. I decided that I would not get stuck feeling sorry for myself because I’m in the midst of a difficult program. Instead, I choose to embrace the the fact that I will most likely go through the process of struggle that leads to growth, for the rest of my life. I’m pretty sure that I will struggle at some point on internship, while getting a post-doc, and on my first job. In life, you will continue to encounter difficult situations that you will have to overcome but that’s what will help mold you into the competent, knowledgeable, professional that we all desire to be.

Action Steps: If you are currently pursuing a graduate degree or if you plan to in the future, remember that you can choose the type of experience you want to have. Grad school can go from distressing to exciting just by adjusting your perception and making the most out of your circumstances. Think about the life you want to have and the things that you value. Ask yourself how you can incorporate those things in your life while you are in graduate school, so that it is less of a sacrifice and more of a gain.

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