Advice for grad school (from people who’ve been there)

The Well has posted two articles with some advice for those in grad school. They are especially helpful if you’re in a place where you’re wondering about how you might flourish more fully in grad school.

Amy Whisenand challenges us to take care of our bodies, make friends, let go, and celebrate the good. She shares that, while her habit of “exchanging sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise for long hours in the library studying, reading, and writing papers” brought much success in her time as an undergraduate, she realized that if she “wanted to sustain this life of the mind, she needed to take care of herself as a whole person, including her body.” Secondly, her experience has been that that “a wide variety of kinds of friends — collegial friends, hanging out friends, mentors, close friends — greatly increases the quality of the graduate school experience.”

Amy Webster provides similar challenges: make good friends, choose your advisor wisely, bring yourself to your work, and keep the big picture in mind. Keeping the big picture is not only in relation to your work (e.g., “it’s easy to chug along with experiments and analysis without thinking about the big picture”) but also in all of life. She points out that one needs to keep time for non-work things and learn how to

“say no to things that are distracting from your main pursuit. . . Saying no may require a difficult conversation, or it may just be a quick email. (And on that note, learn to write quick, to-the-point emails without over-analyzing them. This is a great life skill.) It is important to prioritize your time for what you consider to be the deep, important work.” 

Both Amy W.s highlight celebrating – celebrating milestones and celebrating all of the good that has happened, both to yourself and others. Practice in celebrating the good also helps you have perspective when you face the difficulties of grad school (e.g., “rejections from jobs or journals, difficult interpersonal dynamics.”) In all of this, “Remember that your worth as a human being is not tied to your graduate school success (a truth even when things are going well).”

The gift of Sabbath

For most folks, graduate school is a time of being busy: there is always something to do or else guilt in not doing it. Practicing Sabbath can be a challenge during this time, especially as it often takes some creativity to make happen.

Yet, Sabbath is a gift, especially of perspective. It challenges our understanding of time, seeing “time not as an enemy to subdue, but as a friend to savor.” (Mary Ann McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs). Furthermore, it challenges how we think about ourselves. We are not as important or as invincible as we sometimes think: the world will continue quite fine without our efforts. As much as God can use us to do good, God is certainly able to do good without us. It also challenges whatever guilt we might ahve picked up in terms of how undeserving we might be of rest:

“Even if you don’t observe Sabbath, a shift in perception is helpful. It doesn’t ever all get done. We need to train our vision. We see failure when we should see alternatives. Better to focus on the good and important things we did do instead of berating ourselves for falling short of an ideal.” McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs, 105.

On top of the obvious challenge of carving out time for Sabbath, it doesn’t help that one of the joys of Sabbath – delighting in one’s friends and family – is made more difficult in that most people move to a new place for grad school. The friends made in the new place tend to be busy working.

Yet, even practicing Sabbath in small doses can be an encouragement. Perhaps one of the following suggestions is something that you could work into your schedule:

  • taking one morning, afternoon, or evening to journal or read an encouraging (or challenging) non-school book;
  • going out into nature somewhere – or explore some other new place;
  • taking a break from technology for a few hours;
  • commuting in silence and/or using the commute time to sing in the car, pray and meditate, or listen to a podcast that rejuvenates you.

Last of all, I encourage you to give yourself the grace and courage to keep trying. Taking Sabbath is a habit one needs to form and, like most habits, it takes time (and often some failure) to figure out how to grow into.

Some helpful quotes and books to keep pondering Sabbath:

  • “What happens when we stop working and controlling nature? When we don’t operate machines or pick flowers? . . . When we cease interfering in the world we are acknowledging that it is God’s world.” Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath, 6-7.
  • “Sabbath puts the focus on God and God’s gracious invitation to rest from one’s work.” Mary Ann McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs, 22.
  • A quote from Sabbath in the Suburbs (89): “It’s not so much how busy you are, but why you are busy. The bee is praised. The mosquito is swatted.” Mary O’Connor.
  • A helpful book to read: Dorothy C. Bass, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (2001)

Timing

Sometimes people discover Campus Edge near the beginning of their program. They’re looking for a community and so they search for and find us online, or they visit our supporting church, or they meet us at the graduate fair. Sometimes they connect with people in their program who’ve been participating in Campus Edge for awhile.

Other times, though, people have found Campus Edge later in their program. I lament a little that these individuals didn’t connect with us sooner – we could have been blessed by their insights and presence, and we might have been able to encourage them through providing a supportive community and a place to ask difficult questions.

Yet, I also believe that God is at work in the timing, and people will come to Campus Edge at the right time. While one might expect that the beginning of one’s program would be the best time, we’ve seen that sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s because life is too full or overwhelming for there to be space for one more thing. For others it’s because their faith journey is going really well – they’ve connected to a church/Christian community and are receiving answers for their faith questions. Still for others, it is even possible that they wouldn’t have found someone at Campus Edge who they would feel a strong connection.

Yet, later a time might come, whether that be a crisis or a gentle nudge, when connecting with and participating in Campus Edge would then be good. Perhaps a person has experienced a deep sense of loneliness or isolation, or church doesn’t seem to fit quite like it used to, or there is a longing to be with people who understand the unique experience that is grad school. And then, whenever people ready – no matter how early or late they are in their program, I hope that they do find Campus Edge and we can be an encouragement and place of hope and grace.

Academia and your Identity

Kate Samardzic recently wrote a helpful article that illustrates what she wished her friends and family knew about her PhD experience. It captures the experience of many of the graduate students that I know, reading it can be a way to understand better what it’s like to be in graduate school.

In the article, Samardzic highlights the challenge of your identity becoming too wrapped up in academia. She notes:

“For PhD students, our work becomes closely aligned with our self-worth, and we take failures hard. We need to be resilient, and as we struggle to learn academic resilience, we need our friends and family to understand that what we are feeling isn’t just normal ‘job’ stress, and respond to our requests for support accordingly.”

She challenges friends and family to encourage and challenge her in the following way:

“Our self-worth is closely aligned with our work, and when things go wrong, it can really feel like the end of the world. Remind us that it isn’t actually the end of the world. Remind us that every day is a new day and that today’s struggles are a normal part of the scientific process.”

Mental Health and Graduate School

As we’ve noted before on this blog, “graduate students are at a greater risk for mental health issues than the general population.” A recent study by Harvard quoted in The Atlantic reiterates this, noting that “the study’s results, which also include survey responses from nearly 200 faculty members, indicate that many Ph.D. students’ mental-health troubles are exacerbated, if not caused, by their graduate-education experiences.”

The article notes the high pressure in graduate school, but also highlights how graduate school can feel meaningless:

“Compounding the pressures is the sense, at least according to the economics Ph.D. candidates surveyed by the Harvard researchers, that their work isn’t useful or beneficial to society. Only a quarter of the study’s respondents reported feeling as if their work was useful always or most of the time, compared with 63 percent of the entire working-age population. Only a fifth of the respondents thought that they had opportunities to make a positive impact on their community.”

Please continue to pray for those struggling with the challenges of graduate school: not just the difficult workload, but also the difficulty in seeing how their efforts are meaningful.

Adapting your Spiritual Disciplines for Grad school

The Emerging Scholars Network has a helpful article that gives wisdom for adapting one’s spiritual disciplines to the challenges of graduate school. The author, Chandra Crane, highlights “the value of simple, flexible, and defined spiritual disciplines. Or, to put it more succinctly, the urgency of having healthy boundaries between spiritual disciplines which give life and energy, and spiritual disciplines which require effort and sacrifice.” As the author points out, graduate school is complicated and asks a lot of people: “the realities of graduate school are often not enough time, money, or energy. So trying to do the exact same spiritual disciplines in a new season of life is often a recipe for disaster.”

She recommends adapting one’s practice of spiritual disciplines to be more simple: “streamlined, shorter, and/or less rigorous.” She graciously points out that “Accepting this limitation isn’t “settling” so much as settling in, understanding one’s finite nature (as opposed to God’s omnipotence), and adjusting to the realities of a new stage in life.” Reflecting that, she argues that “spiritual disciplines must be flexible enough to handle the constant changes in our lives as our schedules are interrupted and rearranged, and as our energy and stress levels ebb and flow.” For examples of what simple, flexible, and defined might look like, as well as further wisdom on spiritual disciplines, I recommend that you read the whole article.

Marriages often struggle in Grad School

While most of the people who attend Campus Edge are single, a significant number of people in grad school are married. And grad school is hard on marriages, as a somewhat recent article in Chronicle of Higher Education points out. The article contains a number of difficult-to-read anecdotes: stories from real people for whom getting a doctorate has caused significant pain to themselves and those they love(d). The author,  Kathryn R. Wedemeyer-Strombel, begins by acknowledging how frustrated she has “become with the fact that so many of [her] friends have lost their marriages to graduate school.” After explaining how grad school can be hard on marriages, she ends the article with wise and helpful advice for those who would like to have healthier relationships.

For those of you haven’t gone to grad school, grad school can feel a lot like having a (first) baby: lack of sleep, long hours, lot of scary unknowns and feeling of incompetence, not a lot of helpful communication, strange eating habits, emotional chaos, and so on. While the stress level can be compared to that of having a first child, the support network and rewards aren’t as significant as having a child: there are no wonderful baby giggles, positive hormones, babysitters, and/or wonderful people who bring you meals.

Quoting another grad student, Wedemeyer-Strombel notes: “Grad school is a crucible that strengthens relationships and can expose unknown cracks in [the] foundation.” A healthy relationship means that both people in the relationship are doing their best to work towards helping each other get through the challenge of grad school (stress, neglect, insecurity, etc.); that is what the commitment to love each other looks like. The commitment to love translates also into communicating with each other and making choices that are good for both of you, which includes developing one’s gifts and caring for those you love. Failure to communicate and make choices for the good of everyone in the relationship might cause the marriage not to be able to survive the growth, changes, and choices that happen in each partner during grad school, irrelevant of how committed one might be.

Your prayers are thus requested for grad students, especially since we as a culture and as a church don’t always know how to talk about good commitment to one another looks like.