How To Survive A Semester Of Grad School

…Phew. I made it.


Philadelphia – one of my de-stress tactics.

Saturday marked the final set of tasks associated with Semester 1 of grad school. Upon successful completion I returned to my flat, brewed up a cup of Lapsang Souchong…and nodded to myself with satisfaction. Having survived one semester I know that I can survive the rest.

At this point I think it’s an ideal time to sit with a cup of tea and digest the past few months.

|The Good|

* I’m going to be in the same town country for more than 12 months. To me that’s an absolutely huge thing: it was something like 2008 when I last had that kind of consistency. Travel and new countries are awesome, but there are limitations that come when you always have an eye on your suitcase. I love the fact that I can invest kitchen gadgets such as a bread machine and rice cooker, knowing that I won’t need to get rid of them in 8 month’s time when I move.

* I’ve got a steady income that is higher than the living wage. Biweekly salary payments have never been so sweet. Of course, grad school salaries aren’t on par with a regular, professional job (one of my previous internships may have been better-paid)…but it still is a lot better than my student loan income and my zero-hour contract situation in Edinburgh earlier this year. So…I’m grateful.

* The American PhD system suits me. When I talk to my British scientist friends, most of them wince when I tell them how long the PhDs take over here and the hours that are expected of me.  However, I personally really enjoy the advantages of this system: the rotations that allow you to try out a research group before you commit to the full PhD; the Masters-level coursework that enables me to really cement knowledge/fill in the gaps; the increased responsibility that comes with TAing over here. I like the fact that there’s more to my PhD than conducting research.

* I managed better than I first thought I would. With a workload that was heavier I could have imagined. Really, I can’t complain.


|The Bad|

* The hours. “You’ll be expected to work 12 hours per day.” I was told. Walking from the Chemistry building to the Library somewhere to close to midnight I could be heard cackling to myself: “Twelve hours per day?! Hahaha! If only I was working twelve hours!” Once all my TA work and coursework is factored in, it seemed as if I was “working” far, far longer than that. This 24-hour education culture seems to be typical of American universities – undergraduates have monthly exams scheduled at 9.40pm during the week and 5pm on a Sunday, with the implication that this is to be expected. Likewise, graduate students are expected to proctor these exams and take evening classes until 9pm.

* Campus life. For the most part it was a sensible choice. Taking university accommodation on the campus where I studied was safe & convenient. No commutes, no risk of dodgy landlords or neighbourhoods, no stress (I filled out an online application from the comfort of a British coffeeshop…that was all the work required). However, I don’t really like being stuck on a university campus for weeks on end. There aren’t any nearby supermarkets, coffeeshops or retail areas. As a self-confessed fan of people-watching, there is very little of the world to watch go by out here. Fortunately there’s next year to find better accommodation.

* The stress. Physiologically, this semester was a bitey one. While I stayed mostly intact, I still felt as if I was under a lot of pressure. Was I good enough? How did I know if I was good enough or not? At least now I know what it takes to survive…the second term is surely going to be a lot calmer.


|How To Survive|

* Work out what relaxes you…and do it repeatedly. Stress is ok if you’re able to disconnect from it. In my case this involved exploring the various saunas of NYC, catching up with Philadelphian friends, going out for nice meals, burning incense and drinking green tea. Even if it was only 1 day out of 14 that I switched off my grad school concerns…that’s enough.

* Expand your horizons – any horizons will do. Armed with a bread machine, rice cooker and decent salary I retreated into the kitchen to try some more sophisticated cookery. Baking lasagne and macaroni cheese for the first time was quite an impressive achievement – I felt proud of myself.

* Minimise jealousy. There are a lot of people in my graduate program who are much smarter than I will ever be, or who have natural skills I will never have. That’s fine. Part of grad school is figuring out what my own unique skill set is and cultivating that.

* Self-maintenance and self-respect. This TED Talk by Amy Cuddy highlighted to me the importance of feigning what you think you lack, essentially to trick yourself. If you want other people to respect you, you’ve firstly got to respect yourself (diet, dress, appearance, attitude, etc).


The semester has wound down and I’m enjoying a very sunny, warm Christmas. Already I’m looking forward to Semester 2 and starting the necessary coursework and teaching preparation. It will go well, I’m sure of it.


2 thoughts on “How To Survive A Semester Of Grad School

If you've made it this far down the post I bet you've got something to say. Go on, say it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s