I still remember finishing my first semester of graduate school. It was December 1997. I had plunged directly from my undergraduate degree into a Medieval History doctoral program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I had no idea what I was doing. I had never encountered so much reading in my life. I had no idea how to find a thesis topic (which I had been tasked to do before the end of the year). Instead of increasing my knowledge, I felt like my first year of graduate school had simply exposed how ignorant I was about everything–from Foucault to Medieval England (my supposed primary field of expertise). I did survive. But after I turned in that final paper, driving to my professor’s office at Duke University and slipping it under his door before the drop-dead-deadline of noon, I was exhausted. I needed to shop for Christmas presents (I had put everything off until then) and figure out plans for the holiday. I needed to clean my house and do laundry. I didn’t do any of these things. I just collapsed.
I didn’t finish my first year, much less my first semester, well. Yes, I finished all my course work with (mostly) high marks. Yes, I found a thesis topic which eventually led me to my dissertation topic. Yes, I survived. But I was physically worn out. I was emotionally exhausted. I was mentally burned out. I spent so much of the break just recovering from the first year that, when the new semester began to loom on the horizon, I wasn’t ready. Instead of beginning refreshed and prepared, I began frazzled and already behind. It really wasn’t until my third year that I finally figured things out.
So to help you not be like me, I have some advice.
- Sleep. I still remember a member of my cohort named Reggie. He would arrive at our early morning GA meetings alert, organized, and calm, while the rest of us were swigging diet coke and coffee (no monster energy drinks yet….) trying to keep our eyes open because we had stayed up most of the night. “Oh no,” he would say. “I always go to bed at 10. It is the only way I can function.” I remember being so shocked the first time I heard him say this. I had so much to do, all the time!, how could I sleep? Larissa Barber found in a 2010 sleep study at Northern Illinois University that regular sleep patters really do help us function better (just like Reggie said). Sleep helps our brain “override urges, initiate behavior, and persist.” Sleep helps us “get out of bed and get to class on time, to start working on that thesis/dissertation, and to keep trudging through that dense journal article, despite the impulse to incessantly check e-mail and Facebook.” Sleep helps us regulate our behaviors, as the study shows–a critical aspect of functioning well as a graduate student. Want to finally make that research breakthrough, or figure out your thesis topic? Then get some sleep, regular sleep, so that your brain can function at its best.
- Talk to your advisor. It wasn’t until my third year that I finally begin to really talk to my advisor. It wasn’t her fault; it was my fear of asking for help. I was afraid that if I admitted I needed her help, she would think I couldn’t cut it. I laugh about this now. Advisors are here to help you and mentor you into the profession. So let them! I recommend, that no matter how well or poorly your year has gone, you should always make an appointment with your advisor before the break. Sit down with her and talk about the good things and the not-so-good things that happened during the year. Make a plan, and figure out what you need to do before the new semester. I checked in with my advisor on the 15th of every month. I would send her a quick note updating what I had done, what problems I was having, and/or send her new chapters. It worked brilliantly for us. We had regular communication and I never felt like I had to hide from her. I think it also helped me to fight imposture syndrome, as I was never more than three weeks past hearing what one of the most brilliant figures in my field thought about my work. She treated me like a scholar, and that helped me think and act like the scholar I wanted to be.
- Know when you need help. Graduate school is hard. It is harder than most of us ever expected or were prepared for. Did you know that graduate students are six times more likely than the general population to experience anxiety and severe depression? At Baylor, we want you to have the help you need. If you just need to talk to someone, the Counseling Center is ready and waiting for you. Your visit can just be walking through the doors and asking to talk with someone. Don’t wait for it to get worse.
- Take a Break. You cannot work all the time. Take a walk; get some sunshine (ever plentiful in Texas); grab the students in your lab and get off campus for a few hours. You will work better when you are less exhausted and more relaxed. Go to the SLC and exercise–it can help relieve stress and put you in a better frame of mind to actually finish the paper rather than stare at an empty screen for several more hours. Plus it is really fun to climb the rock wall and play racket ball (that’s my daughter almost to the top of the wall)!
- Check out our blog every week. We are writing this for you, to help you better navigate graduate school. Every week we will post a new blog with advice from your faculty and colleagues–everything from presenting at conferences to finding external funding to living in Waco. And, if there is something you want us to write about, tell us in the comment section. This is for you, so tell us what you need.
Graduate school is hard, but it is also worth it. So hang in there! And know that, at Baylor, you are not alone.