Livin’ on a Prayer: The View from Halfway

Lawrence Fatica

January 30, 2017

As I finished my fifth semester in the human paleobiology doctoral program, I reached an exciting milestone: the halfway point. The first half of our program is dominated by coursework on top of our own research and teaching responsibilities. For many of us, this was the crucible in which we transformed into serious scholars, but not all of the lessons were academic. In the spirit of reflection, I polled my fellow half-doctors to see what we’ve learned thus far about graduate school and life in general. So, here is a list of 20 survival tips we’ve learned the hard way:

1.      Prioritize sleep. It may be tempting to pull all-nighters, but they are rarely worth it. When you’re suffering from sleep deprivation you feel bad, your work is bad, and everyone around you has to deal with your grouchiness. It’s just an all around bad time.

2.      You and your cohort will respond differently to the same grad school-related stressors. Coping mechanisms come in many shades: eating too much, eating to little, drinking too much, procrastinating to the point of detriment, and other behaviors that can be emotionally, physically, and professionally risky. Be a good friend by not judging the way people deal with stress. Even better—hold each other accountable and find healthy stress relievers, together.

3.      Don’t let the drama take over your life. And yes, there will definitely be drama.

4.      Grad school isn’t fair. Life isn’t fair. Get over it.

5.      Foster an environment of support rather than competition with your peers. It’s so much better to have allies than enemies.

6.      Thou shalt not make the lives of secretaries, assistants, and other administrative staff even more difficult than they already are.

7.      Find mentors that aren’t your advisor. Maybe your advisor is wonderful—congratulations on picking a winner! But having another faculty member, postdoc, or senior student you trust can provide new perspective and open new opportunities.

8.      It’s totally fine to cry on the Metro. Totally fine.

9.      Make a budget. Stick to it. Here are some tips:

10.    Find insurance that covers therapy. Use it.

11.    Keep a folder of the positive emails you receive. They can be the boost you need on a bad day. Read criticism once, take note, and then delete them. You don’t need that negativity in your life.

12.    Schmooze. Conferences and visiting speakers are valuable opportunities to make contacts that may come in handy in the future. It’s awkward and you probably hate it, but it’s worth the effort.

13.    If you’re moving to a new city, the first place you live will probably be awful. Like, flood and fire awful. Always be exploring other options, just in case.

14.    Learn to appreciate diversity. Your fellow students will likely come from backgrounds very different from yours. Recognize this as a strength and always be open to learning more about the experiences of others.

15.    Thou shalt not make the lives of secretaries, assistants, and other administrative staff even more difficult than they already are.

16.    Take advantage of living in DC!! Go out to restaurants, museums, concerts, art shows.

17.    Work on your public speaking. Give talks, lead journal clubs, present at lab meetings. The more you talk in front of people, the more comfortable it becomes.

18.    Exploit your student discount whenever and wherever you can. That card does a lot more than grant you access into the science building.

19.    Say yes to things that are scary to you.

20.    Take a deep breath. It’s (probably) going to be okay.

Though we still have a long road ahead of us (i.e., dissertations), I am hopeful that our growth as academics and humans will serve us well in the years to come. If I can add another tip to the list it is this: take the time to reflect and congratulate yourself on your successes. It can be easy to get caught up in the blood, sweat, and tears and forget just how much you do. Looking back, I’m proud of us and our accomplishments and, looking forward, I’m excited to see what act two has in store.