Having finished grad school, there are so many things I wish I knew or I wished that someone told me when I was going through the rigmarole of it all. These are tips that lean more “personal”, that focus on mental health, physical health, communication, and self-care.
Here are the top 6 personal things I wish I knew when I started my Ph.D.:
1. Everyone’s different; no need to compare yourself to others (even if it’s really hard not to).
It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others, especially when we’re doing something that’s important to us. The first year of grad school was great, but difficult, due to a major learning curve and having to adjust to living alone and being financially independent for the first time. A lot of my cohort and classmates (many of whom were much older than me) seemed to have it all figured out. I couldn’t even decipher a simple research paper for class, but they were participating and coming up with novel comments left and right. They seemed to know about all sorts of experimental techniques, and I had barely mastered pipetting during undergrad, which I had graduated from just a few months back. They had cars, some were married or had long-term partners, and seemed to have a great life outside of grad school.
Meeting a lot of new people at the start of grad school can definitely be intimidating, and may cause you to experience imposter syndrome. I feel like imposter syndrome is not talked about enough in the greater academic community. However, I’ve noticed folks in my generation starting to joke about it, mention it in the context of various struggles, and generally have a more accepting and natural attitude towards the concept.
Just remember that your confidence will grow as you have small successes, and this will happen at a pace that works for you and your skills. You were good enough to be accepted into the program. The chances of you succeeding are very high. We all have different scientific and research training backgrounds, interpersonal skills, personalities, habits, upbringings, struggles, and things we find joy in. It’s totally illogical to compare yourself with anyone else because the comparison isn’t going to ever be sound. Remember: be kind to yourself.
2. Start a budget and stick with it.
I started grad school right out of undergrad with just 3 months of summer break in between. I was suddenly financially independent and fully responsible for my own financial wellbeing. There was a steep, steep learning curve for me when it came to figuring out personal finance.
What worked really well for me was to create an Excel spreadsheet that outlined my financial situation at a quick glance. No fancy pie charts or line graphs that turn green and red like stock prices – just a simple table that had the months in the top row going across, and then in the left column going down, major categories for my expenditures, such as rent, utilities, internet, phone, Ubers/Lyfts, groceries, takeout/restaurant, household supplies and toiletries, fun money, etc. I updated it whenever I spent money. After just a month or two of doing this, I figured out how much money I could save every month as soon as I got paid and how much I needed for monthly expenses. Remember, I’m not a financial advisor; I’m just sharing my personal experience. There are plenty of great resources out there that can help you figure out personal finance in a way that works for you and your financial goals.
3. Meal/food prepping is your best friend.
I meal prep every week now, even after grad school. I’ve been meal prepping for so long that I don’t remember how it feels to cook every day or to have to think of what to eat every day. You can find great recipes that work for a grad student budget on websites like Budget Bytes, where the price of each ingredient and serving is indicated on recipes. I also highly recommend Healthy Meal Plans and their YouTube Channel, The Domestic Geek.
If you don’t want to eat the same thing every day, I completely understand. You can still “food prep”, rather than “meal prep”. Just think of your favorite healthy foods, things that you love as ingredients in dishes, or you know you’d love to have in your fridge. It’s very easy to throw multiple sweet potatoes in the oven to have on hand as a healthy snack or side dish, and sous vide some chicken breast at the same time and then chop them up. While that’s all cooking, you can wash some fruit and chop up bell peppers for snacks, or make a few sandwiches. Having food to immediately reach for that’s filling and healthy is going to help you out so much on those days when you don’t have much motivation to make a whole meal from scratch and are itching to open up Uber Eats.
4. Check in with your advisor often!
Your advisor has the ultimate say in when you advance to candidacy and when you can defend. They have to feel comfortable with, and confident in, your abilities, knowledge, progress, data, etc. It’ll only be possible if you communicate it to them regularly. Different advisors have different personalities and desires for the frequency of these meetings, which can depend on their workload and other hats they wear. Generally, I’ve noticed grad students that I know meet with their advisors 1-on-1 every 1-3 weeks, along with participating in weekly lab meetings. It might take a bit of time, but you’ll figure out a routine that works for you, the advisor, and the pace of your project.
You might be surprised just how much better you feel about your project and the upcoming months when you have that simple discussion with your advisor. Feeling helpless and aimless is really tough on your mental state, so be proactive about check-ins. Even a quick conversation about expectations and goals for the upcoming couple weeks can make all the difference – and they’re usually easier to schedule!
5. Take care of yourself physically and mentally.
A lot of students who start grad school are fresh out of college, and are still taking for granted many advantages of youth: the ability to neglect sleep and feel alright the next day, a relatively high metabolism, and reliable energy levels. However, grad school is a major undertaking, and I notice a lot of folks, particularly those who are younger and haven’t had to balance a job with their personal life, start to lose sight of what’s important in life outside of research. They socialize, then come home and read a paper, sacrifice sleep, head to the lab very early, stay up late stressing out, go to an event on campus and consider the pizza there as dinner, head to the lab later that night and continue to work on a half-empty stomach…you get the gist.
Grad school, especially a Ph.D. program, takes up a significant chunk of your 20’s. I started when I was 22 and I got my Ph.D. at 28! So much happened in those 6 years, and I look back and wish I took care of myself a bit more by eating better and managing my stress more effectively. It’s a long time to be living that way, and chipping away at your mental and physical health for the sake of research is not okay and will lead to some significant damage if you’re not careful. I wasn’t able to manage my stress very well during one of my rotations in my first year, so I developed migraines. Other health issues occurred too, all stress-induced, which I did eventually cure or get a handle on, but I live with some of them to this day.
University campuses offer a lot of amazing services that you can take advantage of during your time as a student. Mine offered free mental health counseling services, workout classes, gym memberships, meditation lessons, healthcare covered by student health insurance, etc. It’ll only behoove you to take some time to familiarize yourself with them. Trust me, it’s so much easier when it’s all consolidated on a university campus, compared to having to seek out services and deal with health insurance after grad school.
6. Grad school is just one aspect of your life; it shouldn’t be your entire life. Have a healthy work-life balance.
I’ve noticed throughout my time as a grad student that folks who have other things going on in their lives that they genuinely care about, like kids, a partner they spend time with, a recreational sport team they’re part of, a dog, or a hobby they enjoy, tend to be able to establish boundaries, manage their time, and control stress effectively.
It makes sense, because if grad school and research is the only thing you have going for you in life, you’re going to have a harder time managing stress and taking your mind off of frustrating troubleshooting situations. That certainly won’t help you feel rested and may negatively influence the work you do, and then it turns into a negative cycle. In addition, you may begin to measure your self-worth by the successes you have in the lab – and we all know that research is hardly ever easy, so this is going to be a detriment to your mental health as well. Imagine doing that to yourself for all the years you’ll be in grad school. You’ll end up a mess.
Regardless of when you’re trying to finish your dissertation research, don’t lose sight of your personal goals and hobbies that have nothing to do with grad school. If you can’t think of any goals or hobbies, it’s okay, we all have to start somewhere. It can be anything: getting better at working out, going to all the art museums in your area, financial literacy, volunteering at a cat shelter, learning how to cook various dishes you enjoy, tending to indoor houseplants, growing a balcony garden or even a singular tomato plant, upgrading your bike, blogging, tutoring algebra or biology for $50 an hour, the list goes on. Give yourself the liberty to try new things.
Remember, these are all just my personal opinions, stemming from my own experiences. It’s also in no particular order. I recognize we’re all different, so some of these tips will resonate with certain people more than others. My only goal is to provide some helpful information and insight as someone who’s completed the process.
Hopefully the tips in this post help you consider things you hadn’t considered before, or help you identify aspects of your life that you could improve on or prioritize a bit more. This is still life, and you only get one of it, so it’s important to keep yourself centered, motivated, and most importantly, happy, during this time.
If you’re interested, I have another post that details the 5 most important lessons I learned in my Ph.D., and I hope it helps you out too. Best of luck to you.