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8 tips for starting the school year off right (for new and continuing graduate students)

It’s finally fall! Which for many of us means cooler temps, changing leaves, pumpkin flavored beverages, and back-to-school. Whether you’re a fresh face on campus, or were around all summer (and maybe some previous ones too), the start of a new academic year is a great time to evaluate if you’re setting yourself up for success, and maybe make some improvements to your approach.


  1. Join Twitter

Yes, seriously, this is my first piece of advice. You can post regularly, or occasionally, or just lurk, but you should definitely sign up. Twitter can be an amazing resource both professionally/academically — think staying up to date on the latest research in your field — and for social/emotional support on your academic journey — discussions about how to prepare for committee meetings, advice on dealing with imposter syndrome, and lots of cute animal gifs. There are plenty of articles on how to get started (try this or this); I suggest following a mix of people, journals, and hashtags relevant to your research, along with other types of scientists, science writers, communicators, and artists, and maybe a few accounts related to your other interests (like sports teams, musicians, or politicians).


  1. Separate academic success from self-worth

Grad school will be filled with failure. Grant rejections. Paper rejections. Discarded thesis projects. Experiments that don’t work for no obvious reason. Experiments that don’t work because you messed up. Experiments that work, but leave you more confused than ever. These things happen to all of us — to me, to your classmates, to your advisor, and to you. The sooner you can learn to untie your self-image from your academic accomplishments or setbacks, the happier you’ll be.


  1. Find and build a support system

Grad school can be tough. Knowing who you can go to for support, and then reaching out to those people when you need it, can help you ride out the rough patches. Building up your support system can be tougher for students who made a big move for grad school, or those who don’t naturally have large friend groups, but having just a few go-to people can make a huge difference during a challenging time. From my experience, you probably want a mix of people who will understand what grad school is like, and those that have no idea, because sometimes you need those outside viewpoints to help you put things into perspective. Your network can be local or long distance, stable or fluid, professional or personal connections, and can have different branches for different types of support. Some ideas include: old friends, new friends, your family, your significant other, a therapist, your running group, a religious leader, your PI, members of your grad school cohort, or your program admin.


  1. Don’t put your life on hold

Find a program/advisor/way to balance your personal and professional goals. It can be easy to fall into a trap of “I need to focus on school; I can think about that after I graduate.” But try not to. Always wanted a dog? Dreaming of rafting through the Grand Canyon? Ready to get married? Want to leave early on Tuesdays to cook dinner with your Grandma? You may be tight on money and overall time during grad school, but your exact schedule likely has a lot of flexibility, so take advantage of that. Of course you will need to (and should) work hard, but it’s important to make time for yourself too. In the long run you’ll be more productive academically if you’re living a balanced life.


  1. Write down what you did

Try to keep your notebook up to date and detailed. If this doesn’t come naturally, try setting aside a weekly catch up time. In the moment it’s easy to think you’ll never forget that tweak you made to the protocol, what sample 1 and 2 were, or which literature review made a great point you’d like to write about, but 6 months or a year from now? Maybe three years (and several discarded projects) down the line you’ll circle back to a set of experiments that suddenly seem much more important. Be kind to your future self.


  1. Explore “alternative” careers

It’s fine if being a tenure track professor is your Plan A, but the data shows only a small fraction of current PhD students will achieve this goal, and it’s common for your personal and professional priorities to shift over the years. So, being open to other paths early on in grad school can set you up for success later on. Start with an easy target each semester, like attending 1-2 on-campus career events or setting up an informal interview with one person whose job interests you, and scale up your task list as you get closer to graduation (or more serious about a specific career).


  1. Start a hide hustle or volunteer

Write for a blog. Start selling jewelry on Etsy. Volunteer at an animal shelter. Start a podcast. Do the calligraphy for your friend’s wedding invitations. Organize an outreach visit to a local school. These can be great ways to make new friends, build new skills, maybe even test out potential career paths or make some extra cash. Importantly, it can be a great distraction (and stress reliever) when your research isn’t going well.


  1. Start or build on a self-care habit

Meditation, running, yoga, cooking, walking your dog, keeping a daily gratitude log. Do something, regularly, that’s good for your body and your mind. It doesn’t matter how busy you are in the lab, spending a few minutes everyday taking care of your mental health is a worthwhile investment. A good self-care routine can help prevent burnout, and if you’re part of the approximately 40% of grad students experiencing mental illness, it can help manage those symptoms as well.



Featured image by Meredith Whitaker.

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