Grad School Tips (from a Recent Graduate)
Going through grad school, especially for a doctorate-level degree, is very challenging. As I've discussed in a previous post, doctoral students need to serve many different roles and find a way to balance them all. That's not the full picture, though; after all, what does it mean to actually do well in a grad program, and what does it take to fill all those roles? Now that I'm recently graduated from my program, I wanted to take some time to reflect on what it was that helped me to get through the program, and what I wish I had done differently. I'm going to do my best to summarize my general tips throughout the post, and I may update it over time if I think of additional tips. With that in mind, this post may be similar to my internship application and interview tips post, in that you may want to bookmark it and return to it later. It will build upon some of the ideas I presented for taking graduate classes and will focus more broadly on grad school in general. It won't cover everything, as that would make an already long post too long, but I want to cover things that maybe you haven't thought about if you're in a graduate program, or that you've thought of but need an extra nudge to actually follow-through on.
So, with all of that in mind, let's dig in to the details.
- Todo system/app
- Inbox zero
- Time tracking
- Final thoughts (on organization)
- Learn Word
- Reference managers
- Casual writing
- Eat the frog
- Regularly update your CV
- Keep copies of official department documents
- Track goals, review regularly
- Imposter syndrome
- Join organizations and listservs
- Accept opportunities (mindfully)
- Work/life balance
- Maintain a hobby/create something
- Personal reflection
- Recognize pending burnout and accept your limits
Remember the end goal
As you can probably imagine, organization is key for doing well when you are fulfilling multiple busy roles as a grad student. Not only does it help you to compartmentalize your roles effectively, but it's also crucial for ensuring you don't forget anything important that you need to do. Keeping organized will give you piece of mind, especially since you'll get a lot of the clutter of todos out of your head in some way. Plus, being organized (and punctual, efficient, etc.) is highly appreciated within academia (and really everywhere) so it can lead to additional opportunities, better letters of recommendation, and so on.
Keep in mind as you're reading these tips that organization strategies are a very personal thing, in that you need to really figure out what works best for you. I'll try to talk about tips in broad/general terms, and I'll give some of my workflows/tools as examples, but I am by no means trying to suggest everyone should do things the same way I do.
So, here are my tips for maintaining organization throughout the long grad school process.
If I could make a single recommendation for how to improve your life significantly throughout grad school (and likely elsewhere), it would definitely be to figure out a todo management system that works for you. That can be via an app or on paper, as I've written about previously. Whatever the specific format, experiment with different options until you find something that works for you, then refine from there as your task demands change over time.
When you find something, fully own it and incorporate it into your day-to-day life. While you don't need to put everything on your todo list, you should try to put anything important on there, including small important things (e.g., to email someone). The more consistently you use it, the more likely you'll be to remember to add things and check it, and the more it will become incorporated into your life. For example, you can use your todo list to keep track of homework assignments by entering all of your readings, papers, and so on into your list at the beginning of every quarter/semester. It's very easy to think "I'll remember to do that," but you'll find more and more throughout the grad school process that your memory has very hard limits and quickly becomes overwhelmed with the amount of tasks being asked of you (especially when you need to think through everything to prioritize and focus your limited time).
For my todo system, I used Todoist for the majority of my time in grad school (and it's still easily my go-to). I have various "projects" setup (e.g., School, Internship, Personal) where I can categorize my tasks. Every task that is added is given a priority, a "due date" for the day I want it to show up on my list, and sometimes a label to get more specific (e.g., the name of a supervisor within the Research project). I even put a lot of recurring tasks in there (e.g., monthly reminders to check that bills were successfully paid, weekly reminders to make my lunches for the week and do laundry, reminders every other day to do some professional development upkeep activities). My account is even setup to automatically notify me on my phone and laptop at the exact time a task is scheduled for if I list a specific time (e.g., today at 4pm) which I can use to make sure urgent tasks are seen, or I'm reminded at the appropriate time (e.g., to check-in for a flight a few minutes before check-in starts).
I've even used this to varying extents for emails. For example, the recent redesign of Gmail incorporates Google Tasks, so emails can be drag-and-dropped to make them into todo items. Todoist also has a Gmail plugin that allows for similar functionality. That can help you make sure you follow-up on anything that you need to. And by putting everything in one system (or at most two, maybe three, if it fits your workflow best), that helps to ensure you don't miss anything. Leverage the accuracy and memory persistence of technology when you can; the human brain, for all of the things it is amazing at, is pretty poor at those two crucial functions.
While on the topic of email, this is another area where people will do themselves a huge favor: figure out a good way to manage your emails.
"But I never miss any emails," I can hear many of you say.
"I don't like email, so I just check it when I need to and make sure I take care of everything," you may also say.
Ah, but that thinking tends to...not be the most accurate. If you're the type who has 10,000+ unread emails in your "inbox" (though I hesitate to call it an inbox at that point), then you have almost certainly missed and/or forgotten to follow-up on emails. Plus the act of having to go through and try to find an email likely takes much longer than maintaining a clean inbox.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying you should set-up dozens of filters to auto-sort and label emails as they come in. There's a lot of gray area between "I don't organize my emails at all" and power users (besides, filters have limited use in grad school when you may get very different types of emails from the same small group of supervisors).
That said, I do recommend trying to maintain "Inbox Zero" as much as possible (i.e., having an empty inbox). If you're done with an email (i.e., read and doesn't require follow-up), archive or delete it so it's not cluttering up your inbox (I recommend archiving unless it's junk; you'd be surprised how many emails you need to refer back to years later). If it requires follow-up, but at a later date, then add it to your todo list, snooze the email, leave it there as a reminder, or do something else that will help you remember to follow-up. If it's spam from an email list, take two seconds to unsubscribe so it never clutters your inbox again, then delete.
It's as simple as that, really. Check your inbox every so often (at least daily), archive anything that doesn't need your immediate attention, and only leave the emails that do. No missed emails, no forgotten responses, less clutter, less tracking, and more quick on-time turnarounds to things. It keeps you feeling more on-top of things, and helps those you're emailing appreciate your responsiveness.
And don't overthink response times. "I don't want to respond too quickly, otherwise that will set a precedent and they'll start to always expect a response that quickly." Nobody should ever expect an immediate response via email. If they need an immediate response, they would call, text, or get ahold of you in some other similar way. Emails should be responded to (in general) within 24 (to 48) hours; people emailing you likely understand that. Sooner is fine and gets it off your plate. Just focus on being productive, not on setting precedents with everyone.
This one should go without saying. If you're going to be serving multiple roles and have a very busy schedule (spoiler: you will), then you need to keep a calendar so you know when and where things are happening. I like to have an electronic calendar, especially given how often schedules change when you're in academia, clinical work, and so on. That also comes with the benefit of allowing for reminders to be set for meetings that are infrequent or at a different time from usual. Ultimately it comes down to finding a system that works for you, like everything else.
Calendars have a couple of uses outside of just scheduling classes/meetings/appointments/etc., though. First, they can allow you to get a good snapshot of how your time slots are grouped (or not) so you can try to organize your planned meetings and work appropriately. For example, if you have a lot of classes on a certain day of the week, which will force you into the "student" mindset, then you may want to plan on doing homework that day so you can stay in that mindset rather than planning to make calls to collaterals for a patient (which would require shifting into the "clinical" mindset; shifts like that require more mental energy than you would expect).
Another advantage, which is often overlooked, is that you can protect your time more easily. If you don't have a calendar, then it can be hard to figure out when will be a good time for self-care-related tasks. If you have a calendar, and are careful to not fill it completely with work-related things, then you can "schedule" time for self-care, which will effectively protect that time if you are careful to honor that time and not schedule anything else during those time slots. In grad school, that can mean scheduling sleep and meals during really busy times (not even really joking much when I say that).
Something that you'll find going through grad school is that you generate a lot of information, get a lot of reading and assignments, and your materials can quickly become very cluttered. To help with that, it's very helpful to have a system in place for backing-up your files, materials, and so on in an organized way. That not only helps you to remove extra clutter (since you can "archive" older material by moving it someplace that's out of view), but it makes everything easily accessible for when you want to reference back to those materials (and believe me, you'll be amazed how often you want to access those materials, even outside of studying for comps).
Plus, having a system for creating back-ups is crucial for helping to protect your important files (e.g., your thesis and dissertation files). After countless hours of work, you don't want to lose everything due to a hard drive crash or some other accident. And those things very much happen (I know a few people who had close calls and almost couldn't recover their important dissertation files). Have at least two copies of every important file, ideally three (one main copy, one copy on an external hard drive, one copy saved to the cloud). In addition, save multiple versions of things so you don't lose content that you previously removed, because you can't undo work that was done several versions of a file ago. I have made it standard practice to save a new version of any documents I work on (e.g., syntax, manuscripts) with the current date in the file name (using Save As...) whenever I go to work on that file. A lot of the actual backing-up process can be automated, so you just need to set-it and forget-it, then keep files organized in folders (at least somewhat) and occasionally archive things when there's a lot of clutter. By periodically going through and cleaning things up (e.g., at the end of a quarter/semester), you can have an extensive and organized back-up of everything with fairly minimal effort.
One note that I'll make is that you'll want to be careful with what is being backed up and where. This is especially true for those of us working with confidential information. Have hard drives encrypted, and only do local back-ups of sensitive files (I only have selected folders auto-back-up to the cloud so confidential information isn't uploaded). I've discussed the importance of encryption and tools you can use to improve your digital security in a previous post.
This one is a suggestion I have mixed feelings about, and it's something I'm still figuring out the right balance for personally. In clinical psychology you'll have to track your clinical hours for several years, so this will be forced on you to some extent. Yet, even outside of that I think it's helpful to at least be mindful about how much time you spend on different things. That can mean using a time tracking app, but that may not work well for everyone; most apps are either burdensome to manually add tasks (especially when you're constantly bouncing between tasks), or they may not be very accurate in guessing what you were working on if they automatically track your computer and phone use. I personally only use an app to track my hours for work that I will be invoicing or reporting in some way.
At least having an awareness of how long things take has a few benefits, even if you don't track time closely. First, it helps you to more accurately estimate how long things will take in the future (spoiler: usually 2-3x what you anticipate). Second, it helps you to make sure you're not overworking (which is easy to do if you become more focused on task completion than time spent working). And third, it helps you to get a sense of whether you are really committing an appropriate amount of time to the most urgent tasks. Grad school is all about prioritizing and managing your time effectively, so the better sense you have about how you're investing your time (without spending too much time examining how you're spending your time, somewhat paradoxically) the better off you'll be.
Final thoughts (on organization)
Alright, I get it. We're only at the end of the first section, and it can already seem a little overwhelming. There's a point I want to make about the organization advice, though: once it's all set in place and habituated, it significantly decreases your mental burden, it doesn't increase it. Sure, there's an upfront cost of needing to put these things in place. It can help if you start in your first year, when things are in flux anyway. Then from there, as your demands increase/change over time, it's just a matter of adapting your system that's already in place. That's much easier to do than trying to create a system from scratch after things have already gotten complicated.
The most consistent feedback I received from supervisors, across all areas of work throughout grad school, was compliments for my organization and efficiency with things. Though really, that was a pleasant side-effect of having an organization system. To me, the greatest benefits of having a system are the sense of relief and the sense of control that it gives you. Whenever I've slipped from using my system consistently, I not only became more likely to forget to do things but I also felt my mind become more cluttered as I tried to remember what to do and when, which impacts quality of life. Maintaining an organization system is far less taxing than trying to remember everything, especially once you've found a system that works for you. Scheduling a meeting, filing a todo, archiving an email; these are all things that take seconds to do, but can save you a lot of work down the road. Plus, once they're habituated then you do them pretty much automatically without realizing.
Oh, and it could help you graduate on time; it's very easy to have the grad school process extend an extra year or two if things don't stay on schedule. And the sooner you graduate, the sooner you can move into your career and start earning a real salary.
Finally, setting up an organization system isn't just to help during grad school. It's something that will last for decades to come (with adaptations over time, of course) throughout your career. So take some time to figure it out and put in place early on. Your future self will thank you.
Alright, with organization out of the way, let's move on to a topic many students won't like, but that is important. Something that you'll inevitably run into a lot is having to write in grad school. Assignments, manuscripts, thesis, dissertation, clinic notes, and so forth. There are a lot of different formats and styles that you'll learn over time, and not all of it can be made much easier than by just becoming more efficient over time (e.g., touch typing is a major asset and will serve you well).
Thankfully, for the longer writing you'll need to do (e.g., dissertation), there are a number of different things you can do to help yourself write more, write faster, and feel less miserable when writing. Let's get started with the two most important.
Whether this or the next section is more important is debatable, but I wanted to highlight this topic first because I think it's much less appreciated. That's because everyone knows generally how to use Microsoft Word, but they often don't know how to really take full advantage of the program. Setting things to Times New Roman, 12pt font, double spaced, and so on is the bare minimum you need to know. However, there is a lot that Word can do for you to save a lot of headaches, and so you can focus more on writing and less on formatting. Many people already know about page numbering, but there are a few even more powerful tools you can use that will save you a significant amount of time.
Tabs and indents
If you are manually trying to line things up on a page, especially if you are entering several tabs and spaces to get something on a certain part of the page, you are wasting a LOT of time (and it probably doesn't look that great in the end anyway). There are some easy ways to get things to auto-format painlessly in word. I've written about this previously, but I wanted to bring it up here again because it still baffles me just how many people go through the majority of grad school not knowing this. And the longer you go without using auto-formatting, the harder it is to go back and reformat various documents that will follow you for a long time (e.g., your CV). The only time formatting should take up a significant chunk of time is when it's a fringe case (e.g., trying to get page numbers in the appropriate spot when only a section of your document is in landscape).
Rather than go into detail here (this post is already long enough), I recommend reading the previous post I wrote (and watching the videos below) to learn more about tabs and indents.
Table of contents and navigation
Something that can be under-appreciated when you're working on smaller documents (e.g., class assignments) is the fact that Word can handle your table of contents for you. That includes formatting, making sure all of the main headers are listed, maintaining the appropriate page numbers, and so on. This is huge for theses and dissertations, as doing those things manually takes a long time, and you frequently need to update them. Plus, the way that it is handled means you can be more confident that you're following the appropriate style of your manual of choice (e.g., APA style).
By using the built-in Styles option to format text for headers—rather than manually centering, making text bold, or whatever else—you can simply go to References > Table of Contents to have one automatically inserted into your document. To update the listings and page numbers, you can right-click the inserted ToC and tell it to update the field. That's all it takes, and everything is updated for you instead of you having to go through and spend several minutes listing everything, trying to add trailing dots, making sure page numbers are accurate, and so on. Automate, automate, automate.
What am I talking about when I say the Styles option in Word? This:
Yah, those big boxes right on the main page that many of you have probably never clicked. The ones that can apply multiple aspects of format (e.g., bold, centered) in one-click that you're often doing in multiple clicks. Just right-click one of the options (e.g., Heading 1), select modify, and set all of the options that fit with your stylistic manual (e.g., APA style). Takes only a couple of minutes to set-up and will save you a lot of time down the road.
Oh, and using Styles makes it so your document can be navigated using the Navigation pane:
When you have that, you can click any of the headings and go to that spot instantly. Very helpful when you have a 100+ page dissertation (spoiler: they get that long pretty quickly), so save yourself the headache of constantly scrolling up/down manually between sections.
Plus, you can use the same ToC feature for other things, like maintaining a list of figures. For that, you just have to make your own style with a relevant title (e.g., Figure), then when you add a ToC you can right-click, select Edit Field, press the Field Codes button, then add this text:
TOC \t "Figure" \c
Just replace "Figure" with whatever the style name is, and you're done. Simple as that!
Have I convinced you to save hours of your life by clicking a simple box yet?
There isn't much detail I can really go into in this section (har har), but I wanted to take a moment to mention this because many of you will read this and go "OOOOOOH, THAT'S how you do that!" Word lets you break up your document into several sections, which doesn't visually change anything but allows you to apply some different formatting to each section separately. The main way this came up for me (and likely most grad students) is in trying to get page numbering to work right. Many thesis/dissertation manuals require starting off with roman numerals, then not until a certain page starting with standard number (i.e., 1, 2, 3). Start a new section when you need to make the change in numbering format (Layout > Breaks > Section Breaks), and tell Word to restart the page numbering (rather than continuing from the previous section) in the page number settings.
To see how to use some of these tools, I recommend watching these great videos by Scott Hanselman. Hopefully they'll inspire you to take an afternoon to really figure how how to actually use Word effectively (so you're not just putting "Proficient in Microsoft Word" on a resume without it meaning something; and side-note, don't put anything like that on your CV):
With Word out of the way, another very important tool for helping with your writing is to have a reference manager. I prefer Mendeley (available for free), but there are a few options available (e.g., EndNote, Zotero). When picking one, make sure to think about what will work long-term, as this will follow you well beyond grad school. For example, you may be able to get EndNote for free from your school, but (as of right now) that would mean having to pay to keep using it after you graduate. And while the reference managers allow exporting and importing so you can switch between them, that's always imperfect as they each handle things in slightly different ways that aren't 100% compatible.
Having a reference manager helps in a few different ways. First, nearly all of the major ones have built-in annotation tools at this point, so when you need to read articles for class or a manuscript you can do it all from within the reference manager without printing everything out (the trees will thank you). That's a lot easier than carrying around a lot of copies of articles at any given time, and helps to make sure your annotations are available to you for years to come (whereas if you print and make manual annotations then you're likely to lose them when you clear out your paper documents after a class ends). It's not for everyone, as some people can only effectively read a physical copy of an article, but it's definitely worth at least copying over your annotations into the reference manager after you've finished reading the article if that's true for you. Plus, they pretty much all offer cloud back-up, so that's taken care of for you.
Second, they make the process of putting in-text citations and putting a bibliography/references list nearly painless. All you need to do is keep the citation information within the reference manager relatively up-to-date for the articles you import (and they generally do a good job of auto-filling in the information about 80% of the time, so you'll just be checking and spot-fixing in most cases). Then use the built-in plugins for Word so you can auto-insert citations in-text. They'll let you select the manual of style so everything is formatted appropriately, and they'll manage all of the intricacies for you (e.g., displaying the appropriate number of authors, handling any overlap in author names and years). Plus, you can have it enter the entire references section for you, all formatted, and automatically updated as you add/remove any of the in-text citations.
Third, as I mentioned briefly above, reference managers are crucial for maintaining what will be a rapidly-growing library of articles you'll collect throughout grad school (and beyond). By the time you're about half-way through grad school you'll most likely already start to run into the situation when you're writing and think "shoot, I KNOW I read this somewhere and this is right, but I can't for the life of me remember what article it came from so I can cite it." Reference manager (usually) to the rescue! Use it to search keywords, including any annotations you put on the document, and you can (usually) find it pretty easily from past classes or papers so you can cite it in your current document without having to do a lengthy lit review to accidentally find the same article all over again (which you'll likely do here and there regardless).
I think this topic goes under-appreciated by many. This fits more broadly into the category of establishing "flow" when working, but the tedious nature of writing can make it even more pertinent when you have a big document to work on. This will vary a lot from person to person, so spend some time reflecting on what type of environment tends to be most productive for you.
For example, I write best when I have natural light, am on my own, in the morning, with coffee, have music playing (mostly without lyrics, though specific type of music depends on the mood), with a minimalist writing environment, and my work area organized so I can access whatever I need quickly and without much effort so the writing process doesn't get derailed. (In fact, that's exactly the setup I have while writing this blog post). I also do better with "binge" writing (i.e., plowing through without many breaks).
That being said, others do better with a pomodoro style of writing (i.e., taking scheduled small breaks), or with varying levels of noise (from no noise to busy coffee shop chatter). There are even differences in how neat or cluttered work spaces should be. Again, figure out what works for you so you can maintain your focus as much as you can. Focused time is one of your greatest assets in grad school. (With time for things like looking at Instagram and going for walks, of course, just planned so you don't avoid your work).
This one may not be realistic for everyone given time constraints, but I think it's really helpful to find time for casual writing (along with other types of creative work, which I'll discuss in more detail below). In grad school we get so caught up with writing in formal language for various types of documents (even if there are very different styles between things like clinic notes and manuscripts). But that can have some side effects, including difficulty communicating ideas in easy-to-understand ways, general word-finding abilities, and just how we relate to the writing process as a whole.
I've found that writing blog posts, journaling, and other forms of more casual writing has had several benefits. One is that casual writing can serve as a way of building up momentum to writing more formally. For example, if I'm dreading making edits to a large manuscript then I might write a journal entry first just to get myself into writing mode, then afterwards the switch to making edits to the manuscript is a much smaller jump. Second, it's helped me find ways to communicate ideas more clearly, including when speaking to others, because it forces you to think in more real day-to-day language at the same time you're thinking about your professional topics.
Again, this may not work well for everyone, but I think it's worth trying out. Nobody needs to see what you write; the idea is just to get yourself into the writing mode in a way that you enjoy, so you can actually find motivation and energy when writing. (And if you happen to get some nice blog posts for a personal website out of it, all the better).
The entire grad school process is marked by development in a variety of ways, so it may seem a little odd for me to put this topic up here. The problem that many don't realize until they're several years into a program, though, is that grad school can easily turn into development down a path that you may not really want (it'll almost inevitably be one you didn't originally intend, but that can be a good thing).
It can be a lot to ask of yourself, but when you're sailing the choppy seas of grad school (I'm apparently in a metaphorical mood) it can be easy to be carried by the currents rather than checking your bearings and adjusting your ship as needed. By at least being mindful about your professional development, you can get a lot more out of the grad school process and can come out on the other end on much more solid footing for your early career.
So, let's discuss some different things that will help you to make progress in the direction you choose (more or less) rather than the direction everyone else may try to choose for you. Plus, similar to the organization topic, these skills will be important beyond grad school, so the sooner you work on them the more you'll benefit from them.
Eat the frog
There are different variations on the quote, which has been attributed to Mark Twain but has unclear origins. Regardless, the quote is still very meaningful and goes something like this:
The idea is that it's very easy to procrastinate and avoid the very thing that we need to be working on. There is a level of truth to the joke that the world's cleanest apartments belong to students who are supposed to be writing their dissertation. Unfortunately, that sets you up on a path for quick burnout because the tasks are always looming over your head, and it can slow down your professional development. While it's difficult to eat the frog first thing in the morning (or jump straight into the pool; pick your metaphor), the satisfaction you experience afterwards for no longer needing to worry about it is not only relieving, but also rewarding. It motivates you to do it more consistently in the future, plus it ultimately results in more time and energy to devote to tasks that will further your professional development.
Get some ketchup if you need to; just make sure you eat the frog for breakfast as much as you can. (Yes, I recognize that the metaphor is starting to fall apart a bit, so in the words of the Monty Python crew, let's "get on with it").
Regularly update your CV
Ah, the Curriculum Vita (CV). All of the frustration of resumes, but longer and more time-consuming to format and maintain. It can take some time to figure out a good way to format it that will be somewhat future-proof as you get more sections to add over time, but that's probably the least challenging part about keeping a CV. I've already addressed some of that briefly in a previous post.
No, the hardest part about maintaining a CV is to remember to do it consistently so you capture everything. Things happen so quickly (and yet seemingly so slowly) in grad school that if you only update your CV once a year when your labs/practica/etc. change then you'll likely find you've forgotten a lot of things and need to go back to check "when was that poster? who were the other authors? did that manuscript ever get submitted?" and so on. If you can remember to do it (maybe put it as a recurring task on your todo list; coming full circle), it's helpful to add things to your CV on a regular basis so there's less searching involved (and less potential of forgetting things worth including on there).
For your troubles, you get an extra reward: filling out annual reviews is much easier when your CV is reliably up-to-date. Many programs (and even APA) require reporting various aspects of the previous year, including how many publications you were on, conferences attended/presented at, what milestones you've completed, and so on. If you can confidently refer to you CV to answer a lot of those question, those documents become much easier to fill out.
Which leads me to the next suggestion...
Keep copies of official department documents
If you have to fill out an official document in grad school, chances are you'll fill out that same document (or others like it) several more times over the years. Unfortunately, the time between filling out those documents can be pretty long, so it's not uncommon for students to fill them out from scratch each time. If you save copies of previous versions of the documents (e.g., documents summarizing all of the requirements you've fulfilled thus far), that means each new version of the document can just build on your previous ones rather than doing it from scratch each time (which gets harder and harder to do the longer you're in the program).
Plus, it's just good practice to keep those documents anyway as back-ups. Programs are generally very good about keeping track of these documents, especially since many of them are required as evidence that you've met the degree requirements at time of conferral. That said, human error happens, and if it does with these documents then you want a back-up for the worst-case scenario possibility that something is misplaced. (Didn't happen to me, thankfully, but it's so easy to keep copies of documents that it's better to be safe than sorry).
Track goals, review regularly
OK, we've gotten some of the more logistical-type tips out of the way in terms of professional development. Now you've gotten yourself organized, your documents are up-to-date, and you're ready to eat that frog.
Except...what frog are you supposed to eat?
If you don't know, then someone will gladly tell you...except they may try to make you eat their frog. So it's up to you to keep track of things so you know if the frog you're eating is the one that is worth you eating.
This one is a bit of a tough topic, as I'm not sure there really is a tried-and-true method for this. Instead, everybody seems to cobble together their own way, or they don't really track this at all. Regardless of the how, it's important to reflect on your current goals, and where you hope to be in the next several years, so you can make sure things line up (as much as is possible within the demands of grad school). That doesn't mean the plan won't change over time (spoiler: it definitely will), but when it does change it gives you an opportunity to recognize that change and to adjust accordingly.
This is especially important for those of us going the clinical route. A lot of our commitments (e.g., practica) are at least one-year commitments, so there are limited opportunities to change direction if that's what's needed. By checking-in with yourself occasionally to get a sense of whether you are heading in a direction you like in terms of professional growth and developing competency, you'll be better prepared and able to pivot if/when needed during the brief windows of time we are given throughout the process.
"Yah yah yah, imposter syndrome, I already know about this. Grad school gives people imposter syndrome like Oprah gives away cars. We all get it if we're going through this process."
Fair. Imposter syndrome is something that is talked about a lot now, so there's good recognition of it. However, recognizing it and actually embracing it are two very different things. You may recognize it happens, but can most of you say you've found a way to really take ownership of imposter syndrome? Probably not.
When we talk about imposter syndrome, we're usually focused on the feelings of "what am I doing here? I'm not qualified. Everyone else here is qualified but not me." Yada yada, we've heard this all before. Unfortunately, the conversation usually stops there...which isn't very helpful.
Sure, there's a level of comfort that comes with the knowledge that everyone else experiences imposter syndrome too. Consider this, though: how helpful would it be if I went to a clinical case and said "oh, don't worry, other people feel anxious too, so you're in good company, just try to power through your worries"? The family would fire me pretty quickly. Yet that's more-or-less the way we talk about imposter syndrome.
So to address imposter syndrome, let's dissect it a bit first. The core of imposter syndrome (from my perspective at least) is the fact that we are aware of what we don't know and are aware of our uncertainties, but we don't see those same things in others. Everyone around us can seem confident, which stands in stark contrast to our self-doubt and uncertainty. This is especially true when you're in grad school and everyone is finding their specialized niche, so everyone else has very detailed knowledge of some things that you have very little knowledge about. The problem is that we often don't remember that the inverse is also true (that we have a lot of specialized knowledge those same other people don't have; because we know it, and it seems simple to us, we quickly assume others know it as well or that it's not as valuable of knowledge compared to the knowledge others have that we don't have).
Great, so we have an understanding of imposter syndrome. So then what can we do about it? The thing many of us clinical psychologists love to recommend but sometimes forget to practice ourselves: reframe. Granted, it can seem a bit sugar-coated to say "don't see yourself as lacking knowledge, see yourself as having growth potential." There's some truth to that, though. See, when facing imposter syndrome I think it's helpful to remind yourself of something: of course there are things you don't know yet; that's the whole reason you're in grad school! If you knew everything already, then why would you even be there?! You're not an imposter, you're a student. And part of being in grad school is learning that you will basically, in some capacity, remain a student the rest of your professional life (that is, your degree is a milestone, not a sign that you have nothing else to learn).
It's a slight distinction, but that's what I mean when I say embracing the imposter syndrome. You're supposed to have it, and it's a sign that you are setting yourself up for success as a life-long learner; admitting what you don't know so you can seek answers will make you a better clinician/researcher/etc. in the future. It's the ones who really do think they know everything they need to know that are problematic and you need to watch out for. The goal is just to take ownership of that feeling so it's not self-defeating, but instead becomes part of your identity as someone who is a *gasp* developing professional! (Funny how things come together like that).
So the short version is: imposter syndrome isn't a sign that you're lacking, it's a sign that you're recognizing areas where you can improve, and fully owning that will help to set you up for success. (Plus recognizing your own areas of expertise will be helpful for developing your niche, like my expertise [relatively speaking] in technology enables me to have a website and make an app).
Join organizations and listservs
Alright, now we're back into the more boring categories. But this one can be easy to overlook.
As we're going through our time in grad school, it can often feel like we're figuring out our path on our own in a way that nobody else has figured out before. Spoiler: others have almost certainly been down a very similar path before. Maybe not in your program specifically, but somewhere. And a great way to find out about how to best go down the path you're trying to go down is to join professional organizations. Many of them have information for students that can offer helpful guidance (e.g., lists of relevant internship sites), along with having mentorship programs and other helpful opportunities.
Not to mention the opportunities for developing professional connections that will help you gain opportunities and such down the road. That's definitely true too, though it can be harder to focus on developing those relationships when you're in the middle of the grad school process. The student resources tend to be the gold mine hiding in plain sight while you're in grad school.
Accept opportunities (mindfully)
Now, that's not to say you shouldn't focus on finding opportunities and developing those professional connections when you can, whether through professional organizations (e.g., the APA divisions) or elsewhere (e.g., your department). In fact, finding opportunities for additional professional work is basically a requirement in grad school; if you're not involved in manuscripts and different things, you're not considered to be keeping pace in the program.
However, it's easy to get carried away with accepting opportunities. I'm certainly guilty of this as well, so this is a bit from personal experience.
When presented with opportunities, especially ones that are related to the work you want to do long-term, it can be tempting to always say yes. If not for the experience itself, then because you feel guilty saying no. However, with every "yes" you give, you're increasing the expectations on yourself and taking away more of your time. Remember, time is one of your greatest assets in grad school, and it needs to be spent wisely.
Agree to too many opportunities, and you get spread too thin, resulting in poor-quality work and/or taking much longer to complete your program, neither of which are ideal. Accept too few, and you may miss out on a chance to make that perfect connection, to get a skill that you wouldn't otherwise get, and so on. So with every opportunity that presents itself, take some time to think it through and try, as best as you can, to weigh the pros and cons; there's no need to respond immediately in the moment. It's a bit of a gambling game, but you need to try to bet your resources on the opportunities that have the highest likelihood of a beneficial payout. They won't always pan out—that's just part of the process—but being mindful about the opportunities you accept should help to maximize your benefit from them. And even if they don't pan out, you'll at least have the opportunity to learn something that you maybe wouldn't have been able to.
Along with imposter syndrome, self-care is a topic that is mentioned frequently throughout grad school. Everyone remarks about how important self-care is, but it's left to "make sure you're practicing self-care!" rather than more substantive suggestions/recommendations (in most cases). That's partly due to the fact that everyone will have their own unique routine of self-care that works for them (like most things we've talked about thus far).
That said, I do think it's helpful to point out things that you should be considering in order to help set-up a self-care routine. Thinking through these things should hopefully make it easier for you to recognize when you need self-care, and what types of things may provide self-care.
Ah, work/life balance. The epitome of self-care preaching without much substance. "There is no such thing as work/life balance!" "Do something you love and you'll never work a day in your life!" "Family, friends, and work; pick two and sacrifice the third!" Different variations of these quotes are often used for click-bait articles across the internet in an attempt to prey on those who are feeling burnt out.
Let's be real: work/life balance is nebulous, different for everyone, crucial and yet difficult to establish and maintain. Not to mention it's something that will constantly change throughout the grad school process as the various work demands you face change as well.
There are a few big-picture suggestions I have in terms of work/life balance (with some more specific recommendations in other sections below), though.
First is protected time, which I already talked about as a benefit of having a calendar. Try to have time that is reserved for doing your own thing, whether that be an afternoon on the weekend, past a certain time each day, time for coffee and news in the mornings, or whatever else works for you. There will be some exceptions at times, of course, but try to keep to a general pattern of having time that is free of work-related tasks.
Second, make sure you are continuing to socialize. Ideally outside of grad school colleagues, but it can be with your cohort as well (after all, your cohort will likely understand what you're going through better than anyone else; the doctoral process is very unique). That doesn't have to mean going out for long nights of partying. Even getting brunch together on a weekend, or walking together to get coffee in the morning can be enough.
Third, try to integrate work and life as much as you can, in whatever way makes sense without the work completely taking over. Like I mentioned, that can be through having your cohort serve the dual role of friendship and work colleagues, finding work to do that aligns with work you enjoy as a hobby, putting in place little traditions like celebrating each other's birthdays in your cohort, and so on. It's unrealistic to completely separate work and life, so the more you can get your work to fulfill the needs of your life then the easier it will be to establish some semblance of a "balance." For example, I've helped research labs with updating their websites before, which fulfilled the needs of completing research lab hours but also scratched the self-care itch by being in the realm of my hobbies.
Maintain a hobby/create something
This one seems pretty obvious, and I'd say most grad students are pretty good about identifying at least one hobby that they maintain throughout the grad school process (even if which hobby they're prioritizing changes throughout the process). Whether that be exercising, participating in some sort of activity, or something else (e.g., this website and app development are two for me), find something that you enjoy and try to keep it up.
I think something that is worth considering is finding a way to include an activity that involves creation of some kind. That can be art, cooking, personal writing, app development, videos, and so on. There are a few reasons I think the creating process is uniquely helpful for grad students.
First, grad school is a very long process filled with baby steps and few milestones. It can feel like you're putting in a ridiculous number of hours for what feels like very little return. When that feeling persists for weeks and months, it can wear you down quite a bit (even if it's not true; you're making progress, you just don't see it day-to-day). Having something creative you do means you more consistently have a product that you've completed. That provides you with a more consistent supply of feeling accomplished and like there's tangible progress being made in some way.
Second, similar to the casual writing I recommended above I think that including creative work in some way helps you to develop your own niche as you go through the grad school process. When grad school consumes your life, it can be easy to get lost in the mindset that is being passed down to you by supervisors, professors, literature, and so on. One of the goals of grad school should be finding a way to take all of those things and incorporate them into who you are. The goal isn't to become a cookie-cutter academic, but to become a unique professional with something new to contribute to the field. If you practice creating things while going through the process, it allows you to explore that more and to potentially find ways you can take your knowledge and put your own personal twist on things. My android app is an example of that.
Third, the creative process can help you to establish additional contacts outside of your program. Whether that be in-person or digitally, it can help you to develop a larger professional (and/or personal) support network. Not only can those connections be helpful for support and further learning, but it can also lead to unique opportunities and potential employment down the road. When you have a product of some kind (in the sense of something you produced, not necessarily something you're selling), it helps people to see your work in a more tangible way, which can trigger those opportunities in unexpected ways. Manuscripts are one example, but those take a long time to get published, come with a lot of critique that can feel harsh, and are generally divvied up in a way that it doesn't necessarily feel like it's yours, so consider production outside of just academic writing.
This is similar to tracking your goals in the professional development section above. On a more personal level, I think it's very important for students to learn more about themselves as they go through the grad school process. That includes identifying strengths, weaknesses, habits, tendencies, and so on. This is especially true for those going into clinical work, as personal reflection is important for understanding how any biases and such you may have (spoiler: we all have them) can potentially affect the care you provide.
Personal reflection can happen in a variety of ways. Whether it be practicing mindfulness and reflection while on a bus/train during a commute, journaling, meditation, regular group check-ins with peers, and/or attending therapy yourself. Not only can reflecting help you understand yourself as a clinician and/or academic better, but it can also help you to recognize signs that you're heading for burnout, can help you recognize and correct habits that are getting in the way of your growth, can help you to identify times that you are most productive, can help you to manage transitions between roles and eventually out of grad school and into professional work, and so on. Plus, it helps you to practice and develop empathy for yourself. Most grad students can be very hard on themselves—it's a characteristic that helped us to reach the point of entering grad school but can sabotage us if we leave it unchecked as we face the realities of our limits and what our careers will look like.
Which leads me to my next point...
Recognize pending burnout and accept your limits
Burnout is going to happen. Many times throughout grad school. And it sucks. Though each time it happens you're provided with a learning experience. What were the signs right beforehand that you didn't notice in the moment but can catch in hindsight? What types of things will help you mitigate burnout in the future? What types of tasks put you at highest risk of burnout? By understanding these things, you can better prepare for the future so you can hopefully prevent additional episodes of burnout. They'll still happen, but hopefully less and less often over time as you better understand yourself.
That requires accepting your personal limits. We all have them as humans, even if we don't like to admit it. And grad school can make it extra difficult to accept our limits; "I'm tired and can't focus, but the deadline is tomorrow so I just need to power through" is an easy thought to have. However, somethings to keep in mind: 1) deadlines in research are often goals, not hard deadlines that can't be extended a few days (heck, a lot of projects extend years beyond their original deadline goals); 2) an extra hour or two of productivity now can come at the cost of a week of low productivity if it leads to burnout, so it's in your best interest to delay a little bit now rather than fall behind on more things later; 3) the quality of your work suffers as you approach burnout, so what seems like it should only be an hour of "powering through" can often turn into several hours because you're less efficient and more accident-prone; 4) by failing to practice appropriate self-care to prevent burnout, you're setting a bad personal precedent for yourself for the future; and 5) it also sets a bad precedent for others in your program, who will feel more pressure to push themselves to the point of burnout if everybody else is doing the same.
To counteract the guilt that can come with accepting your limits, try to reframe what you're doing. It's not giving in, or being lazy to spend a night watching Netflix (or doing whatever else) when you're approaching burnout. Just like muscles need to rest after a workout, our brains need rest time as we approach burnout, so it's recharging in preparation for another productive push forward. Do that enough times, and you'll start to really appreciate just how much more efficient and consistently productive you can be, which has the additional benefit of preventing work from piling up (which can further decrease your likelihood of heading into burnout).
Oh, and once you're burnt out, make sure to take care of yourself. Even if it feels like you're admitting defeat, lower your workload for awhile and focus on getting your energy back, even if that means taking a "mental health day" or two. Burnout can easily be prolonged for several weeks, and can easily turn into depression if you're not careful. As I mentioned, everyone gets burnt out at various times during the grad school process, so your supervisors likely understand and can be flexible as you recover. Just communicate and be purposeful in taking the time you need.
Alright, so that covers a lot of the detailed tips I have for getting through grad school, but there are a few more general tips I still want to discuss. For example, there's one trait that will be crucial for the grad school process, even if you follow the tips I highlighted above: grit. For those unfamiliar, "grit" is the ability to persevere over an extended time despite obstacles getting in the way. Grad school is full of obstacles and unexpected delays, so it's incredibly important to be able to persevere through those things in order to keep moving forward. Many students who make it to the grad school level already have a lot of grit—that's how they got there—but grad school can still be overwhelming for even the most resilient of people.
I'm not as familiar with the literature on how to develop grit—for that, I recommend looking into Angela Duckworth's work. That said, I think by being mindful about the need for grit, and having consistent reflection on whether you're demonstrating grit, can be a good way for you to reframe as needed to help maintain perseverance. It's something we all struggle with, and something I'm still in the process of trying to figure out (e.g., recognizing that momentum can be helpful for powering through obstacles), so hopefully this section will see some additional updates over time.
Something important to remember is that having grit does not mean pushing yourself to the point of burnout. So if you find yourself pushing yourself beyond your limits, don't assume you're demonstrating grit; an example of grit is powering through edits on a manuscript without getting caught up in all of the seemingly negative comments reviewers made, not staying up all night to complete a draft. It's a somewhat subtle difference, but a very important one to be aware of.
If you have thoughts/tips related to grit that would be good for me to include here, feel free to leave a comment below!
Remember the end goal
Next, as we start to wrap up this post, I want to make a point that may seem obvious but many students need to be reminded of: grad school is a temporary experience, not a long-term job/career. And by that I don't mean to just give encouragement that you will reach the end and get your degree someday, but even more importantly it's important to remember that your career isn't really starting in grad school. By that I mean that you shouldn't be thinking of all the things you want to do in your career with the hopes of getting a lot of that work done before you have your degree. I'm guilty of this, and so are many other grad students; it's very tempting to think "I can finally do some of the research I want to do!" and start off with wanting to do a large research study you've always dreamed of. However, the goals of the thesis and dissertation should be to demonstrate your research capabilities—ideally while learning some new research methodology that you may not do 100% perfectly the first time—not to be high-quality research you've always wanted to do.
Sure, by all means find a way to make your thesis and dissertation fit within the area of long-term work you want to do. But keep in mind that the goal of grad school is graduation, not serving the role of early-career. You'll have plenty of time to research and establish yourself after graduating, once you're actually in early career. Don't try to do a large project that will extend grad school for multiple years if you can help it.
That being said, I know people who have done that and are happy they did so. There are always caveats to these types of suggestions. For the majority of students, though, I would caution you to really think it through. Consider the pros and cons of starting a large project a few years early, vs waiting a few years until you have a more livable income, can contribute to retirement savings and such throughout the project, have less competing demands, more resources available, better knowledge for how to do the project, all while you're in a long-term setting. In nearly all cases, the latter probably makes more sense.
And finally, the last point I want to make is that all of these changes should be occurring in small steps. It's unrealistic to think that you'll change overnight, or overhaul your system of doing things completely, or even just feel like you have a firm grasp on what you're doing as a grad student within the first few months of being in grad school. Even though it might feel slow and like nothing is really changing, the goal is to make adjustments and improvements slowly. Doing so gives you time to habituate everything, makes it more likely things will stick, and sets you up for longer-term success.
So be patient with yourself, give yourself time to adjust and adapt, and keep thinking about things in terms of small goals for improvement instead of large goals; have the larger goals be milestones set in the future, with a plan for the small steps that will lead you to accomplishing those large goals.
Alright, that's a LOT of information. And in the end, it still doesn't encompass everything needed to get through a doctoral program. All the same, hopefully this post will act as a good resource to refer to from time-to-time (e.g., maybe during yearly reflections on plans for the upcoming year as roles and expectations change).
The good news is that there is an endpoint to the process! It can feel like there's not when you're in the middle of the program (and really, all the way up to the final stretch), but it is there. Just be mindful to make sure you're continuing to move forward so you don't get stuck in any one spot, and you'll eventually be able to reach this point yourself.
Any tips you would like to add after being in grad school? Or do you have questions about the process as someone either in a program or considering grad school? Leave a comment, and we can keep this resource evolving and developing over time.