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).”

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.

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.

Farming metaphors for grad school

Heather Dubrow at Inside Higher Ed recently wrote a poem describing grad school using farming metaphors. The metaphors of diversifying crops, nutritional value, and efforts bearing fruit are helpful for understanding how complicated academia (and grad school) can be. Below are several excerpts from the poem:

Orange Harvest Moon

A field exuberantly growing
careers that will be harvested?
Or does that promised carrot
just glimmer on some hope-filled pond?

Look — so many universities
dangle that carrot
to feed their hunger for applicants . . .

how about the programs that attempt
to diversify by rotating crops —
Professor? But maybe arts administrator, technical writer, editor…
Are these new carrots wholesome food?
Can this new menu sustain and be sustained?”

I encourage you to go to the website to read the whole poem, including her praise of those in academia who continue to go above and beyond the call of duty.

Graduate students and the tax plan

Graduate (and professional) students are not particularly known for paying attention to news or politics. There just isn’t time and energy for that. Yet, the proposed tax plan has made a lot of graduate students pay attention, on account of the proposal to tax tuition waivers. For many students, this would increase the amount of taxes they pay by several thousand dollars, which causes a lot of anxiety among a population that does not generally have a lot of extra money.

Graduate students organized a walkout today to protest the tax plan. As NPR reported,

“Graduate students around the country walked out of their classes, office hours, and research labs to protest the House Republican tax plan Wednesday.

‘This plan is going to be disastrous for higher ed,’ said Jack Nicoludis, a Harvard graduate student in chemistry, who helped organize a protest on the campus. He said the bill would more than double his taxes’ . . . “

Lego Grad Student provides a helpful illustration of how significantly taxes would increase for many students. PhD Comics has also chimed in about the tax plan.

Irrelevant of your political leanings and/or your opinion of the proposed tax plan, please pray and advocate for those who are worried that they would be negatively affected by it and that creative solutions might be found so that the good research and innovation that is done by graduate students (and universities in general) might continue.

 

Are our big spiritual questions intellectual or something else?

Kerry Egan, in her book On living describes the big spiritual questions of human existence as relating primarily to community. She argues:

“We don’t live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories. We live our lives in our families: the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends. This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, and this is where our purpose becomes clear.”         – Kerry Egan, on living, 28.

While many graduate students do have intellectual questions about faith, the big questions often have to do with belonging. This is true even for graduate and professional students whose whole lives seem to be caught up in theories and thinking. And it is true even when the new academic “family” feels somewhat to have been chosen for them: for example, the labmates of the lab they join and spend all their time in, the other (vet) med students who are in all their classes and labs, the cohort that helps them through the challenges of comps and difficult classes.

When this family seems to understand them better than the church family, then it is hard for people to feel like they belong to the church. It is then that the intellectual questions become harder to answer – or even become less important to answer. We in the church sometimes see only the questions, as it is often easier to blame (intellectual) questioning than to recognize how the strength of another family (and perhaps the weakness of our own) might have drawn people away.

Basketball Bash

When you go to a Big 10 school, it’s imperative that you attend some basketball games.  When Kory told me there were some extra tickets for the game on January 31, I jumped at the opportunity to go with CEF.  Not only did I enjoy the game, but it was great getting to know others from CEF.

We started off the evening with a tour of the Breslin Center.  The Big 10 and NCAA Tournament trophies are legit and the rings are quite the bling.  We saw “the den”  where the coaches (yay Izzo) spend all their time deliberating and making game plans.  We also saw the film room where athletes from all sports come to plot against their opponents.

We made our way to the concession area, after running into Travis Trice, and had a pizza party amidst plastic crates and concrete walls.  I doubt that the basement of the Breslin has ever experienced such an influx of laughter and fun.  The conversations were interesting too.  I enjoyed getting to know about other’s areas of interest and study as well as debating how to make a spell-binding TV series featuring accountants. (Any ideas anyone?)

For someone who doesn’t watch college basketball until March Madness, the game was a chance for me to learn about our team and actually get to know who the team is.  After a poorly played first half, the Spartans bounced back to win 80-75 against Illinois.  Thanks enthusiatic sports fans for making the game interesting.

Overall, attending this game was a great way to spend a blustery winter evening.  Spending time with CEF and fellow Spartan fans energized me and made me excited for March.  Come March Madness, get ready for some great basketball and bracket challenges!
~ Anna Mooi

Go Green. Go White!
Go Green. Go White!
Part of the group.
Part of the group.
The whole group before the pizza :)
The whole group before the pizza 🙂