Two lovely people I know are in their fifth and sixth years of doctoral programs — one in theology, one in genetics. They are roommates and both named Amy W. (which may make for complicated labeling systems inside the fridge), but they are also women who have figured out how to thrive while also managing to complete their work. I asked if they would share their advice with us. Here is Amy Whisenand’s. Stay tuned for Amy Webster’s on Thursday. — Andrea Bridges
Dear First-Year Graduate Student,
Welcome to graduate school! You’ve worked hard to get to this point, and others have recognized that. Congrats on a job well done! At this point in the summer, you’re probably finishing your unpacking and anticipating the start of classes. I remember feeling excited and nervous five years ago as I was preparing to begin the Doctorate of Theology program at Duke Divinity School — after having finished a Master of Divinity program! During my time in graduate school, I’ve learned a few things about flourishing in this season of life. I hope they can benefit you.
First, take care of your body. Graduate school has taught me about taking care of my health as an integral component of cultivating the life of the mind. When I arrived at college as an eighteen-year-old, I showed up with exuberance for learning, mastering material, and developing my mind. In my drive for academic perfection, I would exchange sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise for long hours in the library studying, reading, and writing papers. I brought this attitude to graduate school. After all, I had been rewarded with academic awards and admission into graduate schools. My strategies had led to success, so I had no plan to change.
In my first year of graduate school, my next-door neighbor (another doctoral student a few years ahead of me) would come knocking on my door, “Want to go for a walk? Want to do Pilates? Want to eat lunch with me?” I liked her and wanted to be her friend; since she exercised and made healthy meals, I would join her to develop our friendship. But still, I would often decline her invitations in order to read, write, and study.
I lived that way — and pressed myself even harder — until preliminary exams. After exams, an all-encompassing exhaustion slowed me down for several months. The recovery months taught me that my neighbor had approached graduate school in healthier ways. I realized that if I wanted to sustain this life of the mind, I needed to take care of myself as a whole person, including my body.
So, a slow process of learning a holistic approach to the intellectual life began. Taking care of yourself and recognizing your limits as a creature is hard to learn, especially in graduate school. You have research to complete. You have stacks of grading to do. You have a demanding project to finish in a limited amount of time. Learning to turn off the lights and go to sleep, learning to take a break and make a healthy dinner, and learning to stop and go for a walk takes practice and discipline.
After prelims, my neighbor continued to ask me to exercise with her and continued to offer me healthy food. Her friendship helped me (re)learn holistic ways of approaching learning and life.
That friendship brings me to my second piece of advice…
Find friends. It’s easy to isolate yourself in graduate school, particularly in a field like mine. Unlike my friends in the sciences, I have no lab setting for regular interaction with people. I need to make an effort to connect with others socially-academically and socially-personally. A wide variety of kinds of friends — collegial friends, hanging out friends, mentors, close friends — greatly increases the quality of the graduate school experience.
For instance, you need collegial friends who will support you in your work. In my third year, a classmate suggested that three of us start a writing group. We’ve met for two years now, and the friendships developed over analyzing each other’s work have increased the quality of my (and I think their!) work.
You also need friends who will hang out with you, make you laugh, pray with you in a small group, etc. They keep you real.
You need good mentors, too —your advisor, your committee members, and others whose advice you respect. They will shape and form you both academically and personally. Choose them wisely.
You also need “deep friends.” The kind who come over, stand in your kitchen for thirty minutes, and tell you all your great qualities when you have a rough day. I’ve had the good fortune to have friends like that. Their encouragement didn’t grade the papers or solve the existential problems, but it did make me laugh, smile, and return to work with renewed energy. You need those kinds of friends who will cheer for you no matter what and who will remind you how amazing you are — especially on the days when you feel like the opposite of amazing.
On the topic of bad days, practice letting go. Graduate school is a good time to learn and practice that art. Let go of the less-than-brilliant comment you made in class, the poor paper, the less-than-stellar research idea, the rejection letter. Graduate school is like a long psychological game — so much of your work depends on thinking clearly and well. You have no time to hang onto the imperfections or the things outside your control. They cloud your thinking. Make excellence your goal, not perfection. Also, learn to disconnect merit and success. You will certainly not succeed without hard work, but hard work does not guarantee success. Life’s not fair. Let go.
Fourth, pray—a lot. You’ll need to pray — start practicing now. You will be in graduate school for a significant portion of your life, both in numbers of years (these projects take a long time!) and time of your life (you are likely on the younger side, and these years are formative). Practice yielding to God now. You will experience obstacles, frustrations, broken relationships, political disasters, and personal crises as well as joys and opportunities for abundant gratitude. And that will remain the same after graduate school — the challenges and joys will differ, but there will still be challenges and joys to yield to God in prayer.
Some very good advice I received came out of a conversation I had with a committee member after a friend of mine in the program received a great opportunity and I did not. My committee member asked me how I was doing. I answered honestly and said, “Praying.” He nodded, “You know this sort of situation will come around again and again. Even as a senior faculty member, someone will always get a grant and someone else won’t.” Practice taking it to God in prayer now.
Fifth, find a healthy church community. Find a community where you can learn to pray and where people will support you in prayer. I have two different churches on two different coasts praying for me through graduate school. On discouraging days, the memory of their faithful prayers motivates me to continue writing.
Having a church community also brings me people to pray for — they prevent a narcissistic focus on my own problems. But make sure to join a healthy church — one that can respect your “no” in times of stress. While I’ve said yes to singing in the choir, writing devotionals, and teaching Sunday school, I’ve also had to turn down the Altar Guild and more regular opportunities to teach Sunday School. At the end of the day, my responsibility right now is to write a dissertation. But don’t be stingy with time and prayers either. Live robustly.
That brings me to my last piece of advice: practice celebration: Early in my graduate school years, my Sunday school class read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. Foster includes celebration as one of the spiritual disciplines. The idea of “celebration” as “discipline” surprised me — that was the first time I’d thought of “celebration” as an important part of my spiritual life and not as mere entertainment or pleasure. Throughout graduate school, I’ve realized over and over that celebration truly is a discipline and a necessary one for the Christian life. Celebration can be hard work — the work you must do and the limited time you have to do it is a constant reality. But celebration reminds us to give thanks for the opportunities we have. Find little milestones to celebrate in your life and work — the paper acceptance, the conference paper given, the interview received. Learn to celebrate with others too. Celebrating others can also be hard work — you may feel sorrow at your own lack, and you may even feel envy at times. But celebration reminds us that others exist in the world; it’s a call out of our own worlds of joy and pain to experience another’s joy ... and sometimes pain. (Also, if someone shares their disappointment and pain, treasure their brave vulnerability and cry with them.) Celebration can draw us into joyful thanksgiving to God for the chance we have to research, think, write, and pursue knowledge.
On that note, congrats again on your achievements and accomplishments! May you begin this new academic year with excitement and joy. You have years of study, research, and thought ahead of you. Godspeed.