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How to survive grad school (and do other stuff good too)


A friend asked me for tips on how to survive grad school. Rather than send her a response I decided to commodify my experience into a blog post. Enjoy!

  • Get good at the standard self-care package: eat healthy, exercise at least a little bit every day, go out into nature often, learn how to fast, sleep well1, and practice gratitude.
  • Meditate. I’m not sure I would have survived grad school without a good meditation practice. Start at five minutes a day. Sit somewhere quiet with your eyes closed and focus on your breath. When you get distracted notice this and return to your breath. That’s all. When you’re ready to move on to more you may find some of these books useful. Try to go on a meditation retreat as soon as possible.2
  • Find hobbies that give you frequent and consistent positive feedback. This is so important because often in grad school you will work on projects that go for months or even years without giving you positive results. Having some other aspect of your life that does give you regular positive feedback can go a long way towards making up for this. For me these were rock-climbing, working out, training for endurance races with friends (race camaraderie!), and taking singing lessons.
  • Find other hobbies that just allow you to relax completely and not think about work.
  • Read this: Richard Hamming: You and Your Research.
  • And this: Upgrade your cargo cult for the win.
  • Blogs and twitter feeds can be an invaluable source for the informal sort of knowledge about your field that you’ll never get from journal articles or textbooks. Spend some time finding good ones. RSS is your friend!
  • Hard work is a skill. Learn how to put in a 16 hour day if you really need to, but be very deliberate about not succumbing to the standard masochistic “more hours is more better” mindset. Tasks expand to fill the time you allot them. Slack is important. Plan carefully and don’t forget Hofstadter’s Law.
  • From time to time do a “compression day” where you give yourself a strict six hour or less limit to get all your work done. Observe how much you still get done.
  • Make silly groups with friends in your program. At one point I was part of yogurt club, fiber club, lifting club, suffer club, bird club, and club club (among others). Have a slack channel or messenger group for your club and send each other dumb gifs at least once a day.
  • Do things that scare you.3 This might be your last chance to take many worthwhile risks before you get into the “real world”.
  • If you’re not getting any work done learn how to just drop what you are doing and go have some guilt-free fun.
  • Start a blog. Write about what you’re doing on it even if you don’t think anyone will ever read it. It will make you smarter.
  • It feels really good to be curious and productive and creative. If you can learn how to associate this feeling with the hard work, drudgery, or anxiety that sometimes precedes it you will only rarely need to use willpower.
  • It’s ok to feel like shit sometimes. Your reaction to feeling bad will often be worse than the feeling itself (because it results in a self-perpetuating cycle). If you feel like shit all the time though, go talk to your mental health counselors. They’re there to help, they’re nice people, and they’ve seen it all.
  • You’ll probably get impostor syndrome at some point. Try to reframe it positively as “the feeling you get when you are learning a ton of things”. Practice being comfortable with the feeling of being overwhelmed by simply trying to accept it and not react to it. Eventually you will learn that if you can just sit with this discomfort for long enough, and not let it distract you from plugging along with your reading, researching, thinking, and questioning, you will suddenly start to feel like you know what the hell is going on.
  • Grit is vastly more important than speed.
  • S P A C E D  R E P I T I T I O N.
  • Be a giver (the right way). Be on the lookout for people to help or befriend always, not just with work but with their lives4 too. All of this will be more worth it than you think.
  • Realize that the most important meta-lesson you are there to learn is how to efficiently manage yourself. Figure out a good productivity system. Get a good to-do list and calendar app. Use them religiously. Start a journal and practice writing a little in it each day. Perform a self-audit on yourself from time to time. Write about areas you could improve in and figure out a way to track your progress.5
  • https://xkcd.com/1205/.
  • Practice having good ideas.6 Write them down in your notebook immediately whenever you do. Revisit them from time to time. Have a group of friends that you text wacky or interesting ones to.
  • Remember that you are on the forefront of some area of human knowledge and that that’s a pretty dang cool place to be :)


Notes

  1. Keep your room as dark, quiet, and cold as you can get it. Use good earplugs if you need them. Don’t drink caffeine in the afternoon. Don’t eat before going to sleep. You get the point. 

  2. One of my biggest regrets is that I waited until my last week of grad school to go on a meditation retreat

  3. “Panic at the thought of doing a thing is a challenge to do it.” -Henry S. Haskins 

  4. Depression and anxiety have skyrocketed in the graduate student population. You may not realize how badly someone is struggling until it’s too late

  5. I use Wunderlist, Fantastical, and Evernote, respectively, for these. They are wonderful but YMMV. 

  6. “The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” -Linus Pauling. I’ve also found this Paul Graham article useful; it’s about startup ideas but I think it generalizes pretty well.