By Paul Q. Sims
Being a graduate student is very difficult and there are generally no clear cut rules to success (though see Stearns  and Huey  for a discussion of this). The path to the finish line is very much an individual process that depends on many factors, some of which are out of your control. It’s also easy to get intimidated (e.g. imposter syndrome) by your peers and think that they graduated without any road bumps. However, in reality for most students, getting to graduation is a struggle and often reached in a much different manner than originally anticipated. It’s important to remember that you are working on the extremely difficult task of a Doctoral degree, which is a 4-5 year process minimum, and a distinction only a small percentage of the population can claim: so give yourself some props!
My own journey has been a struggle throughout, but I persevered and am nearing the finish line. At this point, I’m able to look back and reflect on my experiences, particularly on things I would have liked to consider from the start and in regards to self-care. Taking care of yourself is probably one of the most important aspects of graduate school and the one that ultimately made the most difference for me because if you are not caring for yourself, the rest of your work will suffer. The details can mean different things for different people but it’s important to take a holistic perspective, incorporating both your physical and mental health. Here, I’ve tried to focus on a few areas that I personally found important, particularly, time management, mental health, and negative environments.
It’s easy to get into a hardcore work mindset in academia as this is what is often encouraged, implied, or even show cased as a golden standard in academic work culture, both within labs and in the university. However, it’s important to stand your ground and NOT work all the time. In fact, some research indicates that people work more efficiently with fewer hours per week, e.g. less than the typical 40 hr/wk in North America. It’s also important to ask yourself how much of your time is spent really working rather than being inefficient or procrastinating. While not easy, I find it better to work efficiently with fewer hours than long hours with less efficient work. Use that extra time to relax and rest up so that your brain is ready for the next day. How much time you work is up to you and sometimes you will need to work more than other times, but ultimately you should strive to find a healthy balance.
I find it helpful to set work limits each day. This motivates me to get my work done before then because I don’t allow myself (most of the time) to work after that time point. I also suggest planning your free time wisely so you make the most of it and pursue fun activities or hobbies that you enjoy. When you have focused free or down time, you’re less likely to feel guilty about not working because you’re doing something purposefully and not just aimlessly sitting there browsing on youtube or reading random articles. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with vegging out if that’s what you want to do and makes you feel better, but you should make sure it’s a conscious choice and a good use of your time.
Graduate school can be mentally draining and it’s not uncommon to question your abilities and right to be there (the imposter syndrome). Furthermore, we all come from different backgrounds and everyone goes through different struggles. It’s important to exercise self-compassion throughout this process and seek out support from friends and family when you need it. Fellow graduate students can also be sympathetic as many of them probably share similar feelings.
Sometimes, however, you may need additional support, which is not uncommon (Levecque et al. 2017). Many universities offer counseling and support services as part of your tuition and fees where you can get professional help. There is no shame is seeking out help if you need it and ultimately, it’s in your best interest. Graduate studies are extremely difficult for people of all backgrounds and given the nature of the degree and how most programs are structured, it’s perhaps unsurprising that mental health is a common issue. There are a variety of reasons to see a counselor, including ones completely unrelated to being in graduate school, and you do not have to be in an extreme mental state to want to see one, you can meet simply to have someone to talk to.
Toxic and negative environments
You might have negative and unprofessional encounters with fellow graduate students, post-docs, or professors, and in many cases, be ill equipped to deal with these situations or powerless to stand up for yourself. Academia can be a cut-throat environment and people can and do abuse their power, steal ideas, time, and your skills without acknowledgement, make ridiculous and unethical demands, and treat others poorly. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon that some lab environments are particularly toxic to be in where there is little support and a generally negative atmosphere. While it’s important to consider the role you play in these environments, it’s equally important to remember that your advisor has the responsibility for maintaining and ensuring a good work atmosphere for everyone. Many advisors do not take this role seriously (and many are simply unaware or ignorant), but you cannot blame yourself either if you find yourself in a negative environment, particularly when considering that the lab and office dynamic is largely dictated by your supervisor and more senior members. However, you are not completely powerless either and you can try to improve the situation.
These environments are all unfortunate realities that you will encounter at some point but there are some potential solutions. People are not always aware of how their behavior can come across to others, so you might consider a gentle chat with them about how things might be rephrased and attempt to clarify how certain behaviors and wordings can come across. You can also try speaking to a person in authority, e.g. your advisor, for advice or help, though it depends on their role in the situation and their keenness to create an inclusive environment. Another possibility is to lead by example, though this works best as being complementary to having already discussed the issues at hand. For instance, if the environment is such that not everyone’s viewpoint is respected or discussed, you can make a point of focusing on people that get interrupted and asking them directly what they wanted to say, ensuring that their voice is heard.
In some of the worst case scenarios, and depending on your situation, you can approach the university or graduate ombudsman who is supposed to act as an official objective liaison in situations of conflict. Depending on your department, there may also be a graduate student liaison or advisor. However, tread carefully, and if you can, ask for advice in an anonymous discussion of the situation with other people in authority until you feel ready to disclose further details. You must always guard yourself and when/if possible, keep or procure official records such as emails in case you need clear evidence at some point. A conversation is a case of your word against theirs and if they’re senior to you, you will likely be ignored. While not specific to academia, it’s helpful to remember that people can and will lie to vindicate themselves. Unfortunately, people can be vindictive at being held accountable so while you want to stand up for yourself, sometimes it’s better to let things go. It’s a personal decision what you choose to pursue and let go but it’s important to consider possible career repercussions as well.
Graduate study is no easy task and there is no one right way to go about it, but it’s also a lot of fun and an incredible learning and growth experience. Ultimately, you’ll need to experiment and find what works for you. Remember that you’re not alone (everyone else is struggling too) and that half the battle is simply perseverance and slowly but surely working through things. Graduate school is just a temporary stop on the train of life and if your institution is not the place you want to spend the rest of your life, you will be able to move elsewhere.
Huey, R.B. 1987. Reply to Stearns: some acynical advice for graduate students. Bull. Ecol. Soc. Am. 68: 150–153.
Levecque, K., Anseel, F., Beuckelaer, A. De, Heyden, J. Van Der, & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868–879. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2017.02.008
Stearns, S.C. 1987. Some modest advice for graduate students. Bull. Ecol. Soc. Am. 68: 145– 150.
Paul is a Ph.D. student in Simon Reader’s laboratory at McGill University. He studies the causes and consequences of individual variation in innovative and cognitive behaviors using Trinidadian guppies and Eastern chipmunks. You can read more about his work at his website and research gate profile.