How to Survive Graduate School

How to Survive Graduate School September 9, 2014

As a new semester begins, it is a good time to reflect on the practices that students – particularly graduate students – need to survive and even thrive. Graduate programs are designed to make you part of a guild of professional experts, and require an enormous amount of reading and writing in order to prepare you for those professional credentials. The rigors of a graduate program are tough – their relationships and mental and physical health often suffer. Many students never really adjust to the proper mentality of a graduate student – they’re still in the cycles of procrastination and all-nighters that they adopted as undergrads. This will not cut it any more.

Though I took some bumps and bruises, I did manage to survive graduate school. Partly this was because I had a wonderful doctoral advisor who cared about his students as people. Partly it was because I was part of a supportive cohort of students. I also had helpful, understanding parents, and Notre Dame offered financial support on which I could reasonably live and eat. Prospective students will want to gauge such factors when they’re making decisions about where to go – or even IF to go, given the dismal state of the job market.

There are three key practices that will help graduate students survive their programs and end up as healthy as possible on the other end.  First is learning to read like a graduate student. I once estimated that during coursework at Notre Dame, I needed to be reading about seven books a week. A book a week for each of my classes, plus books I needed to read for research papers or other responsibilities, added up to about seven a week. “Reading” in this context cannot mean reading each book word-for-word.

You need to think about why you are reading the book, for what class and for what professor, and tailor your speed of reading accordingly. You need to grasp the thesis of the book, its methods and its significance. Book reviews are indispensable aids for this kind of reading. I recommend that you read two or three book reviews before reading the book itself, to get a feel for others’ reactions and assessments of the book’s argument and significance. You should highlight and take notes with thesis, methods, and significance in mind, and not get bogged down in the details.

The second practice is making sleep and exercise part of your work routine. Again, many graduate students take the “I’ll sleep when I am dead” approach, especially in the last month of the semester. But this invariably damages the quality of the reading and writing you’re doing. Sleep and exercise (if nothing else, daily walks of 20-30 minutes) are essential components for productivity and mental acumen. Sometimes the best thing you can do for that research paper is to stop writing and go to sleep.

Of course, making room for sleep means diligence early in the semester, so that you are not pulling all-nighters. It also means working in the morning when you’re not in class. My best days of dissertation writing began at about 6 am. Often fueled by nothing but coffee, I would read and write until about lunchtime. If you do that everyday (or at least your non-teaching days), you’ll definitely have time to sleep.

The final practice you need to cultivate is faithful church attendance (and here I am obviously thinking of Christian students). It is so easy to think of this as optional when deadlines are looming, but you need consistent church involvement more than ever as a graduate student. Good fellowship and edifying worship and teaching will give you much needed perspective on your challenges as a student, and offer sources of prayer support, which you will definitely need during these years. If you are new to the area, go immediately to a church that’s part of your denominational tradition, or ask around to see where other Christian students attend. You may want to visit a few churches, but try your best to be done with church shopping by about a month into the program. Settle down, get connected, and invest in the life of the church. Not only is this obligatory for Christians, it is life-giving.

What other areas might you identify as must-do practices for graduate students, or anyone involved in the academic life?

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  • Todd M. Brenneman

    My experience at Florida State was similar. I don’t know that I was reading as much (might have only been 4 or 5 books a week), but it definitely requires a lot of discipline to get all of the requirements done. I would especially like to echo the part about church attendance and involvement. Even though sometimes a grad student might think that her or his time could be “better” spent with getting something done, I know that had I not given devotion to worship and being involved in my local church, my faith would have disappeared. I was also blessed with having a nurse for a wife so that helped with the financial challenges of grad school :-). But this brings up an important point as well. If you have a spouse or someone you are seriously committed to, grad school will take its toll on you. Fortunately for my wife and me, we had been married a few years when I went to grad school. You have to be prepared for the strain it will put on your relationship which means talking to people in the situation and setting up a plan for regular times to strengthen your relationship. Grad school is not more important than your faith or your marriage.

  • Thomas Kidd

    I totally agree, Todd.

  • John Turner

    Thanks — your points about sleep, exercise, and church are all essential. Well, I mostly substituted coffee for sleep. It’s still good advice, though.

    My first week of graduate school I faced the task of reading The Social History of Truth by Steven Shapin. It’s a great book, I later realized. But at the time, I spent twenty hours carefully reading it, underlining lots of passages and so forth. I probably stayed up late doing so as well. By the time I was finished, I had no idea what I had read.

  • Thomas Kidd

    Yes, reading word-for-word supplies a different kind of comprehension – in a way, we may actually retain more of the big picture when we read quickly.

  • Hillary Spragg