Staying Sane

An insider’s view on underappreciated graduate struggles
OCT 2018
Anna
P.
Chemistry

Brainstorming the challenges of an upcoming graduate school? Let me help.

Soon after grad school kicked off I started hearing complaints from my classmates about how insanely intense the workload and expectations are. I, too,  started to feel a lot of pressure. Here I will share a few honest facts that, in my view, are usually under-spoken and under-appreciated.

If you thought you knew what “stress” is, think again.

Whenever I am asked how I like being at MIT, I say that I really like it here, but it is extremely demanding and challenging. The first half is easily explained: MIT was my dream school and a top choice, and I have never regretted coming here. As for the second half, the top school comes with not only top level of education and opportunities, but also with top stress levels.

It is hard to adapt to these stress levels because every year the sources of pressure change. Tough grad level classes, immersive teaching, first steps in a new research area, pressure to publish papers, thesis… I could list a whole page of all the things that have stressed me out in my three years here.

The problem is that stress doesn’t disappear without leaving any traces. For me it caused pretty large weight gain and some minor health issues. The first problem can be solved with the right attitude, but the second could get far more serious (hopefully it doesn’t). With that my advice is: no matter what’s happening, don’t take it too personally. Any stressful situation will eventually resolve one way or another, but don’t let stress chew up your mind and body from the inside.

Not everyone understands what you are doing.

It might be hard to explain to other people what “grad school”  actually means, partially because there is almost no “school” component. This becomes immediately clear when you start a discussion with your friends who haven’t experienced grad school for themselves. Here are some typical questions that I have been asked:

Oh, you are in school?

How are the classes going?

When is your next vacation?

You are free in summer right?

Can you get a job for summer?

So it goes on and on. And I have to explain that classes are not the purpose of grad school because it is a (more than) full-time employment that you have to combine with program requirements such as qualification exams and some coursework. Honest answers to these questions are probably not what people expect to hear, since it’s hard to understand something that you didn’t go through yourself.

Life goes on and… goes by?

Forget the idea of a 40-hour workweek and leisure weekends because this is not how research is done in grad school. I usually never know in advance how much time I am going to spend in lab every other day because it is hard to predict what urgent matters will pop up next time.

As a result, the amount of personal time left after work is typically a lot smaller than what you might want and need. “But I came here to do research, advance science (and my thesis)! Weekends and life can wait for that!” – that’s how I thought when I just came to MIT. Try not to be as naïve as I was.

Personal time matters at least as much as your groundbreaking research, and maybe even more. It is important to have some non-scientific distractions for your hard-working brain. It doesn’t have to take up a lot of time or be very intense. As for myself, I like to cross-stitch for a little bit before going to sleep. It helps me to stop thinking about events and problems of the day and “reset” my brain. It can be as little as that but it is necessary. Balanced life outside of school will boost your productivity at work.

Unexpected twists and turns are the new normal.

Are you also the kind of person who wants to have at least a rough understanding of what you are currently doing and what should come after? Even if such clarity is not possible in every aspect of life, in work it is certainly useful to have a plan. However, it is not how grad school works sometimes.

Research tends to take unexpected turns, and you can find yourself doing experiments you thought you would never be doing. For myself, I knew two topics that I did not want to work on at all because they were very far outside of my research interests. Ironically enough, these two topics are exactly what I work on right now, with a lot of excitement. In these moments the saying “never say never” makes more sense than ever before.

Finally, throughout grad school I’ve found myself in situations where I had to do something that I had never heard of, without knowing how to do it. Furthermore, I was obligated to finish it in a very short amount of time. Yes, at first it feels as frightening as it sounds. But as you start digging for solutions you learn a lot of new stuff. And at the end of the day, you gain an important skill that could be useful in any aspect of life.

To summarize, grad school is an intense adventure that can go in unexpected directions. Keep your mind open, be prepared to work really hard and face lots of challenges. But most importantly, don’t forget to take care of yourself and don’t lose the passion for science and progress that brought you here!