First Year of Grad School: A Review

A hike to Pilot Mountain, NC in October 2018.

A hike to Pilot Mountain, NC in October 2018.

It was a cool mid-morning in early October. The ground was soft from the previous night’s rain and the rocks and rubble felt slippery under our feet. After the first few miles into our hike, the path started to thicken – undoubtedly this was where many people turned back. The sweat glistened on the back of our necks as we the shed the layers we had packed on earlier in the chilly Autumn morning. My friend and I were chatting away when we approached a steep hill which seemed to trail on for miles above. The skyline was barely visible and covered by the drooping foliage of the forest’s canopy. It was at that point, my legs tired and weary from the morning activity, that I turned back to my friend and said, “I feel like this mountain is a metaphor for my PhD.” We laughed despite the shortness of our breath and started up the seemingly insurmountable peak.

I find that starting something is the hardest part of anything. Especially as someone as cripplingly perfectionist as me – I need the exact right frame of mind to begin. I thrive from the space and time reserved for planning, envisioning, and dreaming. Perhaps the phrase “sleep on it” was made just for me.

 Entering grad school, however, was less like sticking my toe into a pool as it was like cannon balling into the ocean. And while on paper I had done exactly all the right things to be “ready” for graduate school, I quickly learned – like how quickly I learned climbing up Pilot mountain – that you can never be ready for anything until you just do it. But in the good motto of the American Boy Scouts, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. That’s why I’ve compiled a few lessons I’ve learned from my first year of graduate school in the hopes of preparing the next cohort of first years for their climb.


1.)    Seek motivation inwardly. There just aren’t as many check boxes in grad school as there were in undergrad. I have been conditioned – as well as many other college students – to be motivated by external validation. One is taught to chase the proverbial carrot on a stick: grades, internships, fellowships, awards, and so on. Each benchmark was a pat on the back saying, “you’re doing something right, kid.” But those benchmarks are fewer and far between in grad school, and they require a whole lot more work to achieve them. Relying on check boxes to nurture your self-esteem can be simply destructive to your mental health in graduate school. Instead, try turning your motivation inward for it to become more sustainable: what drives you? How is this work going to contribute to your field? What problem (technological, societal, ethical) are you trying to solve?

2.)    After finding your internal drive, break up your goals into smaller, digestible parts. After all, Rome wasn’t conquered in a day. In graduate school, you become in charge of your own learning. You set your schedule, your classes, and the pace of your research. Enjoy this type of flexibility but also use it to your advantage. One thing that has been helpful for me is setting monthly goals and breaking them up by weeks. I’ll have one “large” goal for the week, and then a few more moderate-to-easy goals on my list. It could be as simple as reading a few papers, or setting up a new experiment, or meeting with your advisor. Having different levels of goals will also help to challenge you throughout the week, but also ensure a consistent and sustainable pace.

3.)    Face your fear of failure head on. For the longest time, I’ve had a fear of coding. Maybe its because the first programming language I learned was Fortran 95, but I used to be incredibly intimidated by coding projects and resented starting them. This past semester, however, I learned that I needed to stop contemplating a task and just dive head-first. Instead of self-assessing my abilities beforehand, I would enter the task with a sense of open mindedness and eagerness to learn. After a while, I discovered that the coding project wasn’t actually all that bad, and my fear of failure was a lot worse than the actual thing. This goes for a lot of other intimidating tasks in grad school – writing reports, presenting in front of others, analyzing difficult data. They seem like scary things until you simply dive head-first, break it up into parts, and stop letting fear hold you back from reaching your potential.

4.)    Be gentle to yourself and others. If you’re pursuing an advanced degree, then chances are you are already a high-achieving individual. You’ve worked hard to get where you are and that wasn’t by simply accepting where you are today. It is critical, however, to be kind to yourself throughout the transformation. A flower will not grow if its constantly being beaten down by storms and a blistering sun. Instead, it needs a nurturing climate with tempered rain and sun to encourage a blossom. Be gentle to others as well; allow them the time they need to grow in their own ways. It takes nothing to be kind, but it can mean everything.

5.)    Give yourself time and space to be successful. Graduate school operates on a different time span than undergrad. Experiments, analysis, learning, and expertise-building happen on a year-to-longer time span. Give yourself time to accept information and think about a problem. Graduate school is a luxury in a sense because it is where you get to think deeply about a (hopefully) interesting problem. Allow yourself the creativity and joy of figuring out a problem; after all, there are no more answers at the back of the book.

6.)    Learn and live sustainably. And I don’t just mean recycling – I mean truly building a life in graduate school that is sustainable for the long-run. Most PhD-level programs can last from four to seven years. That is a considerable chunk of your life and its not worth living it in constant misery. Be present in the moment and work hard. But make time for friends, family, and loved ones as well as activities that better you as a human being: volunteering, exercising, creating art, or anything that feeds your soul.

For me, this has been a year characterized by self-discovery and growth both as a researcher and as a human being. There were plenty of misconceptions I had about myself and graduate life that I quickly began to dismantle my first few months and instead replaced with healthy habits and outlooks. In a lot of ways, the stress of graduate school has forced me to take better care of myself mentally, physically, and emotionally.

 Grad school feels different than undergrad in the sense that the near future is much more uncertain. While in undergrad your path in many ways is already predefined, in grad school there is no clear path until you forge one. And while that by itself is exciting, four or five years will require a steady stream of mental clarity, stamina, and persistence. For me, graduate school feels like the beginning of the rest of my life. And I hope to make it one I’m proud of.