Grad School Hindsight: What I wish I Knew in my First Year
Updated: Jun 1, 2019
They say hindsight is 20-20. Now that grad school is over its time to share what I wish I knew in my first year.
May 28, 2019 By Destenie Nock
Now that the feeling of graduation has settled and I am looking at the road before me, I have been taking some time to reflect on the lessons I learned in graduate school. I realize now that there is a hidden curriculum that some students know, and others have to learn on the go. This post is dedicated to those who are looking to uncover more of the hidden graduate school curriculum. Specifically, I am going to focus on this I wish I knew when I was in my first year of graduate school.
People always look smarter and more confident towards the end of their PhD. I spent way too much time comparing myself to others while I was at the beginning of my PhD. Everyone has a different project and one person’s research style will not necessarily be the best in terms of your progress. I used to have an office-mate who would work from 7:30 am – 6 pm. I was killing myself trying to be like her because I viewed her as the most successful graduate student I knew. The problem for me was I cannot stand staying in the same room for more than 2-3 hours at a time. Once I accepted this about myself, I started working from home, talking walks, breaking up my work day by going to the gym, and working at a coffee shop or the library in the evenings. This allowed me to be way more productive because I was not trying to fit the research style of someone else.
It’s not rocket science…if you write 10 times as much, you will write 10 times faster. I read a report detailing the study of writing strategies. In the study, one group of academics wrote whenever they felt like it, and the other group wrote on a writing schedule where they wrote for a few hours a day. The result…. The scheduled group wrote 10 times as many papers as the group without the schedule. So my advice for those in their first year is to make sure you try to write every day during your work week, even if it is just for 10-15 minutes a day. When you are wrapping up your day, it is a good idea to write notes of what you need to write next. This way you will know exactly where to start when you come back to writing. The more you write, the better and faster you become. You should come up with a schedule that fits when you write best, and protect this time. I put this time in my Google calendar so that I would make sure I was prioritizing my writing.
It is okay to ask for help when you need it. This applies to going to your teacher’s office hours, asking your colleagues for help thinking through a research idea, and taking advantage of resources to relieve financial stress. One of the biggest resources I used towards the end of graduate school was the local food bank, and graduate student supply pantry. Here, I was able to supplement my food by getting bread, cans of vegetables, beans, eggs, and even toothpaste. I really thank the Amherst Survival Center for my peace of mind during my last year of graduate school when the stress of my dissertation was looming over me, and finances became tight due to traveling for interviews, conferences, and preparing to move. A tool for a food bank finder can be found at this website.
Put down the social media and treat work like you are working at a company. When I started my PhD, I was on Facebook, and SnapChat way too much during what I considered to be working hours. I define working hours as anytime I am in my office. This led to a huge decline in my productivity. To remedy this, I decided that anytime I wanted to check my social media accounts I would need to leave the office and go for a walk. I actually ended up putting a poster right behind my desk, that way if I went to take a selfie for SnapChat Albert Einstein would be in the back of my picture reminding me that I should actually be working. This helped me be more productive, because my office became a place of work, and by walking I got more exercise than I had previously.
You only have 24 hours in a day. The only difference between the productive and unproductive graduate students is how they use their time. You have to have realistic expectations for yourself. I used to think I would be able to read 10 papers, finish a homework assignment, and work on my research code all in one day. This list of activities would take me all week if not a month. I used these tips from a previous blog post to get more efficient at reading papers. Your first years in graduate school can be a time management nightmare because on top of your PhD projects you have meetings and classes. If you need help managing your time, I suggest downloading Google calendar. I would block out time to do homework, write my papers, work on my code, and meet with people. At one point, I even starting blocking off time to hang out with my friends because I noticed they were getting upset when I would cancel last minute because I forgot about a homework assignment due the next morning. By scheduling everything I was able to let people know in advance if I could go to lunch or meet after work. I would properly prepare for a meeting the day before instead of 30 minutes before when I got a reminder e-mail.
You only have 24 hours in a day. The only difference between productive and unproductive grad students is how they use their time.
Download a citation manager to keep track of your references. I like to use RefWorks, but I heard Mendeley is also good. These citation managers have Microsoft Word add-ons, which allow you to import your citations to your dissertation and papers. The citation managers were life savers for finding papers I read previously and keeping track of which papers went with which project.
It’s a marathon not a sprint. If you burn yourself out at the beginning it will be a much longer road ahead, so while it is important for you to be productive at work, you also need to take care of yourself. The pathway of a successful graduate school career is paved with hard work, eating right, exercise, and happy times (aka investing in yourself). Many people say “Oh I will do ____(insert thing they love here)______ after I finish writing this research paper/qualification exam/homework/etc.” If you don’t take care of yourself no one else will.
Write down why you started graduate school in the first place, and put it in a place where you will see it every day. Many of us lose our way in the middle of graduate school. It’s tough to keep going when the qualification exam is looming over you, the research project seems to be at a standstill, and everyone seems to be moving on without you. That is when you need to remember why you are here, and keep pushing. Your adviser and department would not have admitted you to the program if they did not think you would finish.
Hindsight is 2020, so please remember while I am giving all of these suggestions for your graduate school career, I do not expect you to be able to do this right away. It took me 4 years of graduate school to get it right, and even then, I still had moments where it was a struggle to get up and go to the office. The key is to remember “Progress over Perfection.” You don’t have to be the perfect graduate student, you just got to be the one that gets their work done and makes progress in their research. In your first year I think it is the perfect time to start making habits that will carry you through the rest of your career. If you are beyond your first year, it’s never too late to pick up better habits. Good luck out there!
Progress over Perfection
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Note about the author: Destenie Nock graduated with a PhD in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research in May 2019. Her research was focused on sustainability and energy policy in New England and Liberia. In the future she will be an Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon in the Civil & Environmental Engineering and Engineering & Public Policy departments. In her free time she likes to play tennis, paint, travel, and cook.