Some Graduate School Survival Tips

  • Know that the early years are the hardest. In the beginning, you must juggle coursework, assistantship duties, comprehensive examinations, and your own research, while learning the administrative hoops and mastering the organizational culture of the program, all while being kind of an idiot. In a few years many of these responsibilities will recede and you will also suck less as a person.
  • Find a way to accept and benefit from criticism. Many people who get into grad school are academic perfectionists, and are thus unaccustomed to blowing at something. Conscientious former valedictorians, check your ego at the door. Fucking up is part of the pedagogy.
  • Save your pennies. Live in a studio apartment, shop at Aldi 50% of the time, learn to darn socks, relearn the art of pre-gaming before going to the bar.
  • But don’t buy meat at Aldi. Trust.
  • Do not take on responsibilities that do not pay off in some way. Acceptable payments include: money, internship credit, and future letters of recommendation.
  • You should not have to pay for graduate school if you are doing it right. Apply to PhD programs, even if you only want a Master’s. Apply for research and teaching assistantships prior to enrollment. If you are already accepted, seek these immediately.
  • Do not read for class. Class is your bottom priority, ranking even lower than social life/sanity.
  • Though you are not paid at the rate of a real job, treat your academic work like one. Report to your office ever day. Work on duties and professional goals for 6–8 hours. Then go home. No one else will force you to succeed but you.
  • Compare yourself to no one. We all come to this environment with different experiences and limitations.
  • Your relationship with your adviser is everything. Choose someone amenable to both your research interests and your work style. If the relationship is not working, work on it, or get out of it.
  • Follow your adviser’s way of doing things to a T, but never become convinced it is the best way.
  • Once you start teaching, contact text book companies to request sample copies of text books. Request as many samples as you can. Sell them.
  • Find open-source, online textbooks to give to your students for free. Or give them pdfs of various readings and don’t use a text. You remember what paying for books was like.
  • Find a way to apply your work to something outside of academia. Consult, educate, volunteer. Any discipline worth its salt has an applied subfield.
  • Practice explaining your research and your knowledge base to your non-grad friends, your grandmother, your neighbor, or that weird dude trying to buy you a drink at the bar. Become an advocate for what you do. See the widespread appeal and application of your skills.
  • Banish impostor syndrome. You are here because you have skills and aptitude. Over time, you will develop valuable competencies, and still you will feel like kind of an idiot. This feeling is wrong.
  • Cultivate an identity outside of school.
  • Don’t bring your work home with you every night and weekend. Because there are no set hours, the temptation to work constantly will seep into you. You’ll start feeling guilty about enjoying your time. Banish this thought, too. Do your work diligently when you are doing it, then let it go for the day.
  • Senior grad students know the most efficient, current, and jaded ways of doing things. Listen to them but be wary of their shitty attitudes.
  • Be aware: there comes a time, perhaps more than one, when you will want to quit. The road will seem impossibly long. A real job will beckon. You’ll want to run away, join Teach for America, or the Peace Corps. Everyone experiences this moment. Only you can decide whether to listen to those feelings or to let them pass through you. Either choice is okay.

Originally published at

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