By Anita Patrick

One Grad Student's Tips for Thriving in the Academy

I received my PhD last May. While my time as a graduate student was prolific with regard to my academic work and professional experiences, there were many practical lessons that I learned only in the midst of struggle as various professional, personal, and spiritual challenges arose. While I am grateful to have this knowledge now, I hope to be a source of wisdom and encouragement for current graduate students. My field of study is STEM Education with research interests in identity, equity, and student motivation.                

About mid-way through my studies, I started making a running list of things I wish I had known prior to and while in graduate school. I never liked re-inventing the wheel, but I do value insight that can help others succeed.

Before I get into the bullet-by-bullet recap of what I think is useful to know as a prospective and current graduate student, please remember a few things. You are exceptional. You had a purpose before anyone had an opinion. When God formed you in your mother's womb, he had a call on your life. You are not a failure. Fear and anxiety have no place in your heart. You have a sound mind. You are only overwhelmed in the presence of God's love.

On housing.

  • You are spending a lot of time and effort on your degree. Home should be a place of rest and retreat.
  • Consider roommates to cut costs but also make sure you're at peace with your living situation (that also includes location).

On health insurance.

  • It is essential to maintain health insurance as a graduate student.
  • Many institutions tie this to employment with a certain number of hours as a TA, GRA, or combination of both.
  • If you don’t understand how health insurance works, consult your university or do some reading online.
  • Your health is important. Make it a priority.

On savings.

  • There are several costs associated with graduation, namely regalia.
  • Doctoral regalia can cost from several hundreds to $1000 or more.
  • Save a little (~$20) each month and the graduation fund will build itself.

On handling coursework.

  • Teamwork. Utilize study groups. No person is an island.
  • Download a citation software such as EndNote.
  • Read strategically (learn to skim articles and summarize effectively).            
  • Get in the habit of keeping up with exemplar pieces (both in structure and style) — they can serve as templates for when you start writing your own manuscripts.

On hidden curriculum.

  • There are several unspoken and seemingly formal things about grad school that you don’t learn in the classroom.
  • Pay attention to the norms but not explicit rules.                
  • Please ask questions. There is nothing shameful in doing so.

On unpaid participation.

  • Research,reading groups and/or writing groups.
    • Some programs formally build in these types of activities. If not, build among your cohort or department as this is valuable time to develop your writing and share ideas.
  • Practice writing daily.
  • Don't miss out on interesting classes that are outside of your program of work. You can audit, ask to sit in informally or get the syllabus for later exploration.

On campus life.

  • To be active or not? Clearly graduate school is not like undergrad. However, be as engaged or not as you like with sporting events and other activities.
  • You can also consider service in graduate student organizations such as student assemblies.
  • Remember, not everything has to be career-oriented. If you like fiddle club, go fiddle.

On professional activities.

  • You will probably join a few professional organizations. In most instances, student membership is free or much discounted.
  • Get used to networking, especially at conferences.
    • Practice articulating your research interests and current research on a few sentences.
  • Get a business card and keep it updated.             
  • Ask questions of those who are where you would like to go. 
  • Start and maintain a LinkedIn account.

On being a student and a worker.

  • You are student and a working professional. As a student, you are still learning. Give yourself room to grow> Don’t buckle because of failure.
  • Always be yourself.                          
  • The flip-flop between student/novice and professional/expert can be a bit of an identity trip.
  • In reality you are continuously learning.
  • Relax.
  • Attire can be stressful. If there is no dress code at your institution, just be comfortable and presentable.
  • As you advance in your program of work, it is less about learning information and more about critiquing, standing up for your ideas, and pushing your field.

On getting out of your silo.

  • Many a student gets stuck on their side of campus.
  • If you have to opportunity to collaborate outside of your department, please do so.
  • Even if you don’t have those opportunities, just take a walk. Get some air and see another side of campus. You just might make a friend.

On making real connections in school.

  • Building relationships can be hard, especially with the type of work you do. However, everyone needs support.
  • The friends you make can be from your cohort, other colleagues, church, or other groups.
  • Yet, having friends that understand your process (i.e., other grad students) will go a long way.

On life integration (not balance).

  • Be a whole person.
  • Self-care is more than a buzzword.
  • Maintain a hobby in grad school and do it just for fun.
  • You can’t please everyone. Let a no be no and yes be yes.
  • Don’t compare your program to your friend's, even if you are in the same field.
    • Every program is different.
    • The grass isn’t always greener.
  • Be your own advocate and know your boundaries. Monitor and protect your mental health.
  • You may be a novice in your field, but you aren’t a doormat.
  • Get counseling if necessary.
  • Rest regularly, at least one day completely off a week.

On integration and prioritization.   

  • Many times, your work can come home with you physically or more often in your mind (or personal life comes to work).
  • Don’t punish yourself for not being able to keep a perfect schedule. Adapt as you go through your program. For example, you may have night classes. Therefore, the best time to work for you may be late afternoon compared to early morning.
  • Not everyone keeps traditional 9-5 hours.
  • The coursework period is not like the comprehensive exam or qualifying period nor the proposal or dissertating process.
  • Adjust to each new rhythm and stage.


Photo by congerdesign from Pixabay

About the Author

Anita Patrick earned her BS in Bioengineering from Clemson University (2012) and her PhD (2020) in STEM Education through the Department of Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Texas at Austin. At UT Austin, she served in her local Grad InterVarsity chapter as a student leader from 2019-2020. Anita is currently a post-doctoral researcher in Psychology at Spelman College. Her research interests include engineering education, career decision-making, student motivation, and cultural identity. In her free time, Anita enjoys creative writing, drawing, and studying foreign languages (especialmente español). 

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