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Fall 2009

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Words to the Wise
Cinnamon Pace

Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me at the Start

Dear Newbies,

Welcome to the world of graduate life! Presumably you have taken the step of going to graduate school because you have found something that interests and intrigues you, an intellectual adventure you feel ready to embrace. Congratulations! I am sure that you are all ready for you classes, your research, and your intellectual expansion. What you may not be prepared for is how it is going to permeate your whole life.  How, from this point on, you may always feel that there is something hanging over your head and how every moment there is something that you could/should be doing related to grad school. (The technical term for this is "grad student guilt"; it is a pervasive and persistent psychosis.) I truly believe that one of the supreme challenges inherent to grad school is balancing working hard and being productive while at the same time avoiding becoming a stressed-out, unhealthy, one-dimensional basketcase.

Sadly there is no class, GPS coordinate, literature search, or algorithm that can give you the solution on how to handle this problem. There are several strategies: some involve coping mechanisms, and others involve just giving in for the duration. However, for myself, I believe that striving for balance is possible, that you can be both productive and at peace. While there are many correct paths, here are five tips that I have learned (often the hard way) through my time as a graduate student. The first two address a few things that I find can help you suck the intellectual marrow out of the bones of graduate school, and the last three are for your sanity. I hope you find them useful.

1. Treat graduate school like a job, a job that is at least forty hours a week.  Throughout graduate school you will have two types of time, structured and unstructured. Your classes, the labs you teach, the recitation sections you lead, and the seminars you participate in are all your structured time. Structured time keeps you busy, but it is also easy because you are directly accountable to other people for being there. It is unstructured time that will bedevil you, as it is both your best friend and worst enemy. Unstructured time is when you read papers, track down sources, collect data, and write. Lots of very, very, very important things happen during unstructured time.  Unstructured time is vital, but it is also problematic as you are only directly accountable to yourself to show up for it. So treat graduate school like a job and keep track of your unstructured time so that you show up to work for yourself.

2. Do not hide away all of the time. It is very easy to work from home or from that super secret spot in the library. Don't get me wrong; sometimes seclusion is important. However, too much seclusion can detract from one of the most important aspects of graduate school—interaction with the like-minded individuals around you. Sure, you will interact with people in the classroom, but sometimes (often, in fact) the most stimulating conversations and the best ideas come from that casual unexpected encounter in the hallway. So feel free to hide away sometimes, but also make an effort to work in your lab or your office on campus to put yourself in environments where you will be able to interact with those around you.

3. Find something you enjoy that is separate from grad school. Play soccer, take a yoga class, join a band, learn how to work a pottery wheel, become a pool shark, whatever, just find something that is separate so that when you need an outlet, you have one.

4. You will need a local support group, people to commiserate and laugh with—trust me on this. Some of you may have friends here already, but if you are new to the area make sure you take advantage of the social opportunities that present themselves to you. Even if you are not naturally gregarious, make the effort to show up for the BBQ, go to happy hour, or take a chance and invite someone over for dinner.  And down the road, when you are the experienced graduate student, please remember to take the time to extend a hand to the newbies.

5. Endeavor to live a healthy life. Eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep. You will be happier and you will be more productive. Your body is the horse that will carry you through the rest of your life, and it doesn't need to be sacrificed on the altar of graduate school. (Not the least because your body includes your very organic brain, which it turns out you will be needing.)

Sincerely,

Been Around the Block


—Cinnamon Pace, PhD student, Biology