The Grad School Experience: Surviving and Succeeding

Grad students share how they have managed to survive and thrive in a challenging academic world.
scientists working in lab
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You’ve probably heard that graduate school is stressful… mostly because it is. While it is intellectually stimulating and exciting, it can also be challenging to be a student expected to produce professional-level results. You have tons to learn, you are under constant pressure for results, and, despite your best efforts, there are some theoretical ideas that just don’t work. It’s the nature of research.

So, how do you keep your sanity in this pressure cooker? The answer is different for everybody. That’s why we’ve asked current graduate students for their perspectives. In this part of our new series, The Graduate School Experience, grad students answer this question: What advice do you have for succeeding in grad school, taking care of yourself, and dealing with challenges?

Maintain perspective

Bilal Hoblos

Bilal Hoblos, Organic Chemistry Ph.D. program, fourth year, Temple University
One of the most important lessons I learned in graduate school was to focus on my own growth as a professional and to stop comparing myself to others. It's important to set realistic goals and expectations for yourself based on a number of components including your field of chemistry, your equipment, your advisor, etc.

Syeda Tajin Ahmed

Syeda Tajin Ahmed, Chemical Engineering Ph.D. program, fourth year, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
To succeed in grad school, it is important to remember that it is like a marathon not a sprint. There will be times when experiments fail, plans don’t work, and you will need to take the project in a different direction. Therefore, frustrations, anxiety, and depression will find you. 

Isaiah Speight

Isaiah Speight, Inorganic & Organic Chemistry Ph.D. program, fourth year, Vanderbilt University
The key is finding a groove or a system that works for you. What you find best for you may not be best for your lab mates/cohort and that’s okay. So long as you are making progress and meeting your advisor’s expectations. Personally, updating my CV is my favorite pick-me-up when I feel like things are slowing down because it’s a reminder of all that I’ve done and accomplished or a way to show where I may need to ramp it up. It also shows you where you may want to build yourself up in hopes of getting into the career field of interest.

Jason Kuszynski

Jason Kuszynski, Materials Chemistry Ph.D. program, first year, Florida State UniversityD
Droughts lacking in any real, substantive data unfortunately exist. Everything is about the time and effort you put into your work. So long as you can look yourself in the mirror and say, “I did my best today,” then that’s all you can ask of yourself.

Seize Opportunities

Scott Crawford

Scott Crawford, postoctoral researcher, National Energy Technology Laboratory
Apply to as many opportunities as you can, whether it’s a fellowship program, a conference, an internship, proposal writing, or organizing a symposium—just make sure you get approval from your research advisor first! All of these are great opportunities to network, build your resumé, gain experience, and learn more about your field.

Mayukh Bhadra

Mayukh Bhadra, Inorganic Chemistry Ph.D. program, sixth year, Johns Hopkins University

First and foremost, you should be able to reach out to your mentor for any type of problem: from project failures to lab safety issues, from post-Ph.D. plans to breakups in relationships. Select a core group of friends and befriend people in your neighborhood. It is very important to know and mix with people outside of your department. You can reach out to senior members of your lab or past students of the department if you know of a specific problem they overcame, and talking to them will keep you at ease.

Take Personal Breaks

Syeda Tajin Ahmed

Syeda Tajin Ahmed
It is important to find time for what you like to do, like a hobby, and do it religiously for coping with stress and anxiety. Take advantage of recreational facilities like gyms, registered students organizations, etc. There are counseling centers, meditation groups that provide help and professional advice… I am involved with a registered student organization (RSO) to participate in, plan, and organize fun projects like cultural nights, fundraising activities, food sales, etc. Since I don’t get to see my family often, my friends have become my family here, and it is my biggest support system.

Jason Kuszynski

Jason Kuszynski
Take the time to enjoy life outside of grad school. If your identity is only science, then a failed result can make you feel like a failure. Schedule the time to enjoy hobbies and socialize with friends when you can. Go swing dancing. Try rock climbing! By following other interests to supplement your education, your pursuits will provide a source of happiness in times when science proves elusive.

Jennifer Miller, Physical & Materials Chemistry Ph.D. program, third year, Johns Hopkins University

Jennifer Miller, Physical & Materials Chemistry Ph.D. program, third year,  Pennsylvania State University
Don’t be scared to take breaks. Take weekends off. Take vacations. Go to the gym. Take a walk and go get coffee or chat with a coworker. You won’t fall behind – most likely you’ll do better and avoid burnout because you give yourself breaks and mental space to relax.


And finally...

Radhika Thanvi

Radhika Thanvi, Organic Chemistry Ph.D. program, second year, University of Toledo
Be focused, learn to prioritize, manage your time, understand your limits but try pushing them too, take criticism well, don’t hesitate to ask questions, be well aware of advances in chemistry, and read as much as you can. 

Jennifer Miller

Jennifer Miller, Physical & Materials Chemistry Ph.D. program, third year,  Pennsylvania State University
Recognize grad school has seasons, and some are harder than others. For me, the first two years of my program were the hardest. First year is a lot of adjusting/balancing/learning, and second year is when we take our candidacy exam (I studied about 70 hours per week for two months to prepare). Now life has a more balanced feel though. I generally work about 40 hours per week, and don’t usually work weekends.

Hyeonji Park

Hyeonji Park, Forest Biomaterials Ph.D. program, second year, North Carolina State University
Focus on one strong reason for you to enter grad school! It will help you keep studying there. You can enjoy it! Welcome!