7 Pieces of Advice for Grad School Students

7 Pieces of Advice for Grad School Students

The first year of graduate school for me was incredible, amazing, life-changing, and HARD. Transitioning straight into grad school from my four years of undergrad, I approached grad school as an opportunity to grow and learn on a personal level, while also growing in the classroom.  As my friends and former classmates were celebrating new jobs and new cities, I dove back into the books for a quick two more years.

Throughout my first year of graduate school, I learned a few things that will stay ingrained in me for many years to come.

1. Strive every day to know who you are. 

This sounds simple and kind of silly. “I know who I am, I’ve been this my whole life.” Take the time to remind yourself of your values and motivations –or change them if you feel inclined. Seek an identity outside of “grad student” or “rookie” or “employee” or “supervisor”.  The sea is probably going to get a little rough, and your identity outside of your current experiences can potentially be a lifesaver.

About three weeks into grad school, in a very non-confronting way, someone asked me what I was passionate about. I HAD NO ANSWER. That onset of cold sweat as I quickly escaped the question with “Diet Coke. You?” didn’t leave me. FOR DAYS. All I had known was being a student, studying, and being a student employee.

So I found an answer. I dug and read and educated myself and opened my eyes to the world because although we are in this for the right reasons, we have so much more to offer. I worked so hard these past ten months to find what was important in my life, in my corner of the world, and fought to never let that leave me.

2. Love your people and let them know how you feel.

Tell them the things they do that you admire. If someone makes you feel motivated, valued, loved, or supported, tell them. If someone uses words that strike you wrong, let them know. Let them know you love them for who they are, and do this often.

I presented at a conference in my first semester of graduate school. During one of the speakers, they had us turn to the person next to us, make eye contact, and tell them some things you admire about them. Yes, we all shifted uncomfortably, looking to pour out our hearts to our colleagues and supervisors. However, it was such an impactful opportunity. I had never had the opportunity to share with my boss how INCREDIBLE I think she is and how I can never thank her enough for going to bat for me constantly. Now, I do it weekly. I do it the minute I think it. I am constantly spouting praise and grace at people and searching for incredibly unique things that catch me when I interact with them. I find that my relationships are stronger, my support web is deep, and I never think, “I hope they know how important they are.”  TELL THEM.

Also, talk to your people. If someone (especially a real, full blown adult professional or your momma) asks you how you’re doing, actually tell them how you are doing. I don’t know about y’all, but here in the Midwest, it’s always “Good, and you?” Talk about how you’re doing, out loud, and ask for help when you need it. One of the most important things you’ll find in this first year of grad school is that we NEED people to do this life.

3. Don't envy your peers.

It doesn’t matter who gets what jobs, roles, or what new city someone moves to. Celebrate your people, be genuinely happy for them. They’re in your corner; do not compare yourself to them, rather be grateful to have them.

There came a very clear moment for me in February of my first year. I felt stuck. I had just had a whirlwind, crazy fall semester, ran a marathon in December, had just gotten back in the groove of the second semester and BOOM. I was STUCK. It seemed that the whole world was living their best lives in new cities and buying things on their salary that my graduate student stipend couldn’t afford and I was stuck. In the same city I did my undergrad in, nonetheless. What I had forgotten was that I was still moving, despite my feelings otherwise. I was moving forward, learning and growing. Maybe not moving to new cities, but I was navigating new depths of myself and my intellect. And so I chose, on that day that I realized what the anxiety was about, to not envy. To celebrate instead of sit with the pangs of jealousy, and to look forward to what was in sort for the short 18 months I had left of my program. Choose joy and celebration. Find patience and grace with yourself.

4. Know that you’re great.

You’re flippin’ great. You’re great. Remind yourself (in a humble but confident way) that you’re great. There is no one like you in this whole world.

5. Lean into the hard stuff.

Lean into the words and realizations and readings and questions that make you wince and make your stomach turn in a knot.  Identify them and then CHOOSE to lean into it. Choose to learn from those reactions, as opposed to running. When feedback hits you hard, ask for expansions. Be eager to improve and grow yourself. This is your opportunity–maybe one of the only opportunities you’ll have in this life–to fail HARD and check yourself publicly and be given grace to grow and learn from it. Please, always, lean in to the hard.

And with that, keep your head down and your chin up. This is hard work. This experience is going to try you and reward you and grow you far beyond what you can imagine.  Keep your head down and work hard, endlessly pushing yourself to do better in your job, class, friendships.  Keep your chin up–YOU WILL BE DOING THE VERY BEST YOU CAN AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT. Sometimes, the best you can do doesn’t feel like enough. And sometimes, it is a mere shadow of your potential.  However, at that given moment, you’re doing the best you can, and that’s pretty big.

6. Be where your feet are.

Do you need that again? BE WHERE YOUR FEET ARE. Right here, right now, in 10 days, in 4 months. Be wherever you are at the time that you are there. We are quick to see the days long–it’s easy to wish for the next step, or to view this as a stepping stone. Be where you are. Embrace it fully.

7. Say thank you.

When you’re feeling grateful, say thank you. Whether it is a sticky note left on a desk or a letter in the mail, say thank you. You’ve got a lot of support. 

If you’re considering graduate school, gearing up for your first year of graduate school, or maybe not at all, hopefully these lessons will be some that you can lean into as you navigate that first year.


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