The first year of graduate school is a doozie. It feels like someone has picked you up and dropped you smack dab in the middle of a game of MineSweeper. You’ll tread lightly with a foggy idea of where you’re going. Some people will be exceptionally gifted at figuring it out and move swiftly through the minefield. Some will move fearlessly and haphazardly ahead, stepping on mines along the way and accepting their consequences. And then, some of us will tread lightly and carefully just hoping to make it to the other side in one piece. For those of us treading lightly, here are a few tips to help you survive year one of your PhD program.
1) Manage your time wisely
Gone are the days when cramming is a working strategy and tasks are straight-forward and simple to achieve. Gone are the days when procrastinating for hours (read: days) to avoid your anxiety is a good idea. Effectively managing your time now will save you from a lot of tears and anxiety later. Make every minute count by using to-do lists and planners to plan your days. Prioritize tasks and complete high-priority tasks first instead of fretting about all of them and completing none of them. Use a timer app such as Tomighty for breaking down work time into smaller chunks and rewarding yourself with breaks when you complete the time.
Do whatever you have to do to ensure that you use your time as effectively as possible.
2) Be your own best friend
The saying goes, “You are your own worst critic,” and this is never more true than in grad school. In addition to this, there will be many nights when you have to stay late in the lab, study long hours (and if you’re anything like me, studying in groups is a NO), or read a ton of literature. In essence, you will spend a lot of time alone.
Learn to enjoy your own company and to be kind to yourself.
3) Make friends
As an introvert, I am very good at being my own friend. I enjoy my own company and would love nothing more than to spend a quiet evening with myself. What I’m not so good at is making friends. As a shy introvert who’s not always so confident in her own abilities, walking into a new place with new people who seemingly have it all together is daunting. It still gives me anxiety when I think about it. However, making new friends is very important. Being a loner in grad school is one of the easiest ways to fall into that hole of depression and self-pity. So do yourself a favor and be friendly! Try to make conversation and put forth the effort to get to know the people in your lab and your department. You won’t regret it, I promise.
4) Ask questions
While it is possible to figure out many things without help, a better question is,
“Is it efficient or effective?”
Remember, there will be plenty of things for you to figure out on your own – Don’t waste time trying to find an answer that you know someone else has. If you’re not sure of what you’re supposed to be doing in the lab – ask. Don’t know how to operate a piece of equipment? Ask. Definitely be sure to read and be as self-sufficient as possible, but don’t be afraid to ask for what you need especially in your first year when learning the ins and outs of your lab and research is crucial.
5) Check your ego
This is the mother of all tips. Leave. Your. Ego. At. Home. Actually, leave it at someone else’s home. Walking in with your backside on your shoulders is a surefire way to end up a.) with imposter syndrome and b.) hating graduate school.
No one will stroke your ego in graduate school.
You will be pushed beyond your limits. You will encounter plenty of problems that you don’t have the answers to. You won’t always feel intelligent or motivated or like your work matters. And you will have to work hard – harder than you’ve ever worked before. So do yourself a favor now and understand that you’re smart but there’s always more to learn. After all, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Experts don’t go to graduate school.
So there you have it – 5 tips from a girl who has just completed her first year as a PhD student (whoop whoop!). Now, who has tips for how I should go about surviving year two?