So you’ve made it into a PhD program (yay!), but perhaps the novelty and sense of accomplishment has worn off. If not, then x out this page and keep on keepin’ on, but if you’re feeling less than awesome during your PhD experience, then read on. You’re not alone. Speaking with friends who are pursuing higher education, I’m continuously surprised by the consistent themes that emerge, regardless of field of study and institution. One of those themes is that grad school sucks.
If you’re feeling that way, please know that:
- This feeling is normal!
- You are not alone, even if you feel isolated
- You should not feel guilty for feeling this way
- It will get better!
How to survive and even thrive in a PhD program:
There are many things I wish I’d known starting grad school, and I hope that my lessons can help you remain happier, healthier, and more productive.
First, working smart pays off way more than working hard.
- Apply productivity principles to your PhD
- Chunk your days as either meetings and experiments. It’s tempting to blend both for “efficiency’s sake”, but multitasking decreases your work quality and IQ. It’s almost always better to stack your meetings and not try to get anything too sciencey done on those days.
- Do the hardest, most thought-intensive things first. Most people are freshest in the morning, full of creative thinking, energy, and willpower. When you get good at labwork, you can write/hit data analysis in the morning and auto-pilot at the bench in the afternoon.
- Before starting a project, outline the manuscript figures and then back-calculate experiments to generate projected data.
- With each experiment, think about the question you’re answering (instead of my frenzied approach of doing as many experiments and treatment groups as possible).
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help on experimental procedures. Don’t outsource everything (it is your PhD work, after all), but I hope you start reaching out to labmates, friends, collaborators, technicians, and other researchers before I did!
- If you do animal work, please spend sufficient time working in vitro before going in vivo. Not only will you sacrifice fewer animals, but you’ll also save a great deal of time, reagents, and emotional bandwidth when you limit your animal experiments to that ‘last figure’ experiment.
- avoid meetings as much as possible, and before going into the meetings you can’t avoid, determine what you want to convey and accomplish.
Pro tip: Scheduling labwork for right after lunch is an effective way for me to keep moving and avoid the food coma, which can lead to massive procrastination…
Take care of yourself. You will maximize research output and happiness levels by actively tending to your mind, body, and spirit.
- don’t skip the basics: eat real food, get enough sleep, move every day, socialize and connect with people, and spend some time in nature.
- capitalize on the flexibility that research allows. Take advantage of going to the gym or grocery store mid-day, running in the mornings, and cashing in mid-week discounts at various places.
- there are few other hubs of intellectual/cultural/spiritual activities that compare to universities. Take advantage and explore the myriad opportunities, events, and people!
- podcasts and TED talks are the best way to learn tons of info quickly. Listen on double speed to really fill your mind and spirit!
- don’t eat your desk (as much as possible). Seriously, getting up and going outside or a quiet corner for 10 minutes will more than compensate for the time it took you to get away.
- SMILE you’re feeling down. Lighten up, take a deep breath. The world isn’t ending all the times it feels like it is.
- pass on the crappy, free food. Just because it’s free and everyone else is eating it doesn’t mean you have to. Remember how good your body and mind feel/work when you nourish yourself properly.
- Remember that the PhD process is a privilege, as you have the space and time to explore yourself and the world.
Pro Tip: Happy people are more productive. Even if it feels indulgent, self-care is a noble act, as it makes you better at your job.
Get out of the lab. Distribute your happiness eggs among many baskets; you are more than just a grad student, you are a whole person! Please, don’t measure your self-worth by on research results.
- cultivate outside interests, hobbies, friendships, relationships, volunteer work, projects, etc, especially those that give you tangible rewards.
- inspiration comes from the most unexpected sources
- sharing your work in an engaging way is valuable on so many fronts
- you become a better teacher/communicator for broad audiences (ie the world outside your tiny academic bubble)
- you understand your work better
- out-of-left-field questions can give you big ideas or perspective
- what seems mundane to you could be mind-blowing to others
- other people’s interest can be reinspiring
- you’ll help reframe stereotypes of researchers (hopefully for the better!)
Remember, your relationship with your PhD advisor is the most important metric to monitor. As long as you keep your advisor happy (or at their maximal happiness level), you will emerge with a shiny degree and an excellent recommendation. Don’t worry about how other people in your environment are approaching the research experience; do what works for you, remembering that you are smart, motivated, and capable of finishing your PhD 🙂