Tips to Survive Your First Year of Grad School!


Hey! Hey! Guys, guess what?

…Did you guess yet?

I’m a second year grad student!!! *internally screams*

I know! I know! I don’t believe it either! Despite this crazy ride, I somehow managed to get through my first year and live to tell the tale! I can hardly believe it myself. There were definitely times I was tempted to quit…but, alas, here I am…ready to power through all the things that year two will bring (read: candidacy…*shudders*).

Like I said, it was definitely a crazy year, but since when is grad school ever easy? However,  as hindsight is 20/20, I decided today I would talk about a couple of lessons I wish I had known going in–lessons that probably would have saved me a lot of anxiety and stress…

And no, this post won’t talk about the typical advice you’d usually find such as how to apply for fellowships or how to choose a research group. I’ve covered all that and other related things which you can find in my grad advice category. Instead, this post is going to take a different turn. I’d like to dub it as my First Year Survival Guide: Five tips that will help you survive your first year and hopefully save yourself from some added stress and anxiety.

So here we go~!

Get a hobby!

I cannot stress this enough. If you let it, grad school can very quickly take over your entire life. Your work doesn’t stay in the office. It can follow you everywhere, creating little to no separation between work, school and home. Not to mention, there is also the added mentality that breaks are deserved rather than required causing that infamous grad school guilt the moment you want to stop working. Therefore, having something–anything— that can give your mind a little break for just a couple of hours will be your saving grace. It will allow you to find at least some resemblance of a work-life balance and hopefully prevent an early burnout. And, yes, like I said, you will probably feel guilty about it. And, yes, you will probably try and find excuses of why you should be working instead. But do yourself a favor and push all those thoughts aside. Having a hobby will keep you sane! And if you can manage to keep your sanity in grad school, well, you’ve accomplished more than most.

Get to know yourself!

This seems like a really vague piece of advice and you might be thinking, “But…of course I know myself…?” However, you have to remember that not only are you starting a new phase of your life in terms of grad school, but you’re also entering that weird 20-something phase of adulthood: a phase where you are constantly changing, maturing and adapting to all the new experiences you’ll be having. I mean, think about it. You’ll most likely have to move away from home. You’ll have to start paying bills. You’ll have to manage your finances. And while adjusting to all these new “adulting” things, you’ll also have the added bonus of dealing with the responsibilities, work and stress that grad school brings along with it. Lucky you! Therefore, knowing how you work, how you deal with stress, how you deal with failure and how you deal with change are all going to play an important role in determining how the next few years will turns out. And if you’re going to figure this out anyway, first year is as good a year as any as early bumps in the road will prevent a possible crash in the future.

Don’t rush to join a research group!

STOP! BEING! IN! SUCH! A! RUSH! I get it, you feel like you’ve just joined this giant race and your degree is sitting on the finish line. The sooner you start research, the sooner you’ll get through candidacy, the sooner you’ll publish a paper and the sooner you’ll get your PhD. But, honestly, joining a lab as soon as you can is not going to get you to that finish line any faster. In fact, I’ve seen that more often than not, when you rush to join a lab, you’ll find yourself doubting if you made the right decision…Because it takes time to get to know how the inner workings of a lab. And if suddenly you find out you’re not compatible with your lab environment after you’ve committed, you’ll either try to bear through it unhappily, or decide to switching groups. And then what? Nothing was gained except for a lot of emotions and self-doubt. My recommendation is to take advantage of your rotations. Or, if your department doesn’t do rotations, request unofficial ones and try out two or three labs for a few weeks each. This way you can get a taste of the work environment a research group provides and discover the important things before you make your final decision.

Stop comparing yourself to others!

They’re not you. They don’t think like you. They don’t have the same personality as you. They didn’t grow up under the same circumstances you did. As such, they will probably handle the stress and workload of grad school a lot differently than you will. So stop comparing yourself! And yes, I know this is easier said than done, but you were accepted into your program because the admission’s committee saw something worthy in your application. It wasn’t a mistake. You can even print out the admission’s letter as proof and read it over and over until you start to believe it (I certainly did). They decided that you deserve to be there instead of the hundreds of other applicants that never received that application letter. Yes, that person over there may seem like they have their life together. They might always get those straight As and seem to always know what they’re talking about. But you are just as capable as they are. After all, if you weren’t, you wouldn’t have gotten this far. Trust me.

Remember, you’re just starting out!

I remember after my first day, I came home crying because I just felt so stupid. I didn’t understand anything in my classes. I didn’t understand much about the research in my field. All the other grad students I met just seemed so much smarter than I was! But guess what? What I was feeling was totally normal. There comes a point in grad school where you suddenly realize you haven’t even scratched the surface of things you’re about to learn. And this can be a very scary and discouraging thing, especially when it seems like everyone else seems to know so much more! But you’re just a first year! Everyone you come across was once in your shoes and even that super smart grad student in your lab had to start somewhere! Hell, I still have no idea what I’m doing, but I found that the key to survival is to ask the right questions and utilize all the resources you have around you. You’ll get the confidence you need eventually. It just takes a little time.

So there are my five tips for surviving your first year of grad school! Any older students out there have any other tips? Feel free to share them in the comments below!

Also, I am currently taking requests for blog post ideas! Want me to write about something? Be sure to let me know!

Good luck with school, everyone! Until next week!



One thought on “Tips to Survive Your First Year of Grad School!”

  1. +1 on getting a hobby. Sooooo important.

    My department made us choose research groups immediately, which was stupid and didn’t work out well for me. We all told the powers that be that it was stupid and now new students have a (still very small but non-zero) amount of time before they have to decide.

    Liked by 1 person

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