Graduate school is overwhelming and lonely at times. In addition to producing good research, graduate students have to balance networking, taking classes, staying updated on advances in their field by reading papers, and managing personal life goals. Everyone has a research advisor and, usually, labmates with whom they can discuss research concerns, but it’s not always clear who to go to for other grad-school-related advice.
To address this issue, my labmate and I have started a weekly check-in routine that has helped me grow personally and professionally during graduate school while also combating loneliness. For example, by planning out my time and having someone to hold me accountable, I figured out how to fit in time to train for and run my first half-marathon and built up the confidence to reach out to someone at Google whose research I admire (I’m now interning there for the summer!).
This routine is easy to replicate! In this post, I will explain how to build this type of peer support system during graduate school.
Step 1: Find a Buddy
I recommend finding a graduate student in your program that is in approximately the same stage of graduate school as you are (e.g. same or similar year in PhD). I check in with one of my labmates, but you could also reach out to someone on your floor or someone you meet through an extracurricular activity.
Step 2: Establish a Check-in Routine and Prepare Your Materials
Once you’ve found someone to discuss your goals with, decide on when to meet, where to meet, and how frequently to meet. It’s also helpful to decide on a structure for the meetings. My labmate and I meet every Sunday morning at a coffee shop1. Before each meeting, we each prepare by doing the following:
Create a document for the week (could be in OneNote, Notion, or a regular txt file)
List out broad goal categories and then prioritize a few realistic goals for each. For example:
i. Run experiment x
ii. Run experiment y
iii. Finish presentation slides
b. "PhD Goals"
i. Read one new paper in my field
ii. Set up meeting with collaborator z
iii. Work on personal website
i. Run 3 times this week
i. Do laundry
ii. Clean bathroom
iii. Buy groceries
i. Plan dinner with person a
ii. Get coffee with person b
f. "General Health/Self Care”
i. Meditate three times this week
ii. Take time to read a book
g. “Extracurricular Activities”
i. Set up meeting for activity c
These categories might change week to week. On some weeks, I might replace one of these or add “Finances” or “Family”. I think it is important to include self-care and fun tasks, in addition to the stressful ones, to make sure you take enough time for yourself outside of work.
Step 3: Meet and Discuss!
During our meetings, we both pull up our goals documents for the previous week and the coming week. We first go over how our previous week went. Some useful questions to talk through with your buddy are:
Was I able to accomplish all of my goals for last week?
If not, why not?
a. Was the amount of goals realistic? If not, what can I cut down on?
b. Was there one category that I procrastinated on?
c. Was there one category that dominated the others? Was it just for that week or can we strategize how to create more time for other goals?
d. Was it a tough mental health week? If so, what can I do to create a better, happier situation?
What can I change this week to help myself be more productive and less stressed?
After going through the previous week’s goals, we talk through our goals for the next week. I often find that hearing about someone else’s goals and strategies helps me improve mine. During this part of the meeting, you might want to:
Discuss your categories for the week
Add any carry-over goals that were not completed during the previous week
Outline a plan for when each goal will be achieved during the week. This could be at any level of granularity. I usually assign days of the week and morning/afternoon to my goals. This is especially useful if you have sequential goals (e.g. can’t start experiment y until experiment x is done) or goals that tend to dominate your week (e.g. I could always spend more time preparing for my interview, but I am going to assign non-negotiable blocks of time to my other goals, such as exercise).
Confirm meeting time for the following week
This routine has helped my organization, and I plan to continue it after graduate school. By setting goals with someone else, I have learned many skills in organization and completed tasks I normally wouldn’t have thought to do myself. For example, from hearing my labmate’s goals, I learned how to build and design a better personal website and was pushed to network more with people at MIT and at tech companies. We also trained for the half marathon together as a result of learning we both enjoy running and wanted to make more time for it. No matter what phase of life you are in, I think finding a person to check in with is useful and sometimes even essential for personal growth. You will learn new skills, learn more about yourself and your habits, and hopefully create a great friendship along the way!
1This was written early in the semester before we started working from home. Now we have a zoom meeting every Monday morning to check-in with each other.