6 Things I’ve Learned in 6 Years of Grad School

This year is my seventh and final year of grad school. Every time I say it out loud or write it down, I get chills.

Here are a few things that I’ve learned in the last six years.

Black woman with black curly hair and dark glasses sitting on a bench in front of a lake

1. Your cohort is your lifeline.

Seriously, don’t take your cohort for granted. Especially if it’s a good one (and I know that not everyone can be so lucky).

Your cohort consists of people to commiserate with and to get advice from. You might share interests with them, and you’ll meet up for drinks with them. You’ll support them and they’ll support you. You might even split up work with them (and I highly recommend doing this).

I love supporting my friends in all their endeavors and feel especially proud of my cohort-mates (who are also my friends!) when good things happen to them.

I couldn’t have gotten through the past six years, or teaching for the first time, or taking three years of exams without them.

Image with two women on the right. On the left is the text: We'll be best friends forever because you already know too much.

2. Manage your energy, not your time when it comes to DEI work.

I’ve been on a few DEI committees myself and have written a few posts about deciding whether to join one. In the last six years, but especially the last three, I have seen both great and truly abysmal work. When it falls into the latter category, I can’t say I’m surprised anymore.

I have a lot of hopes and dreams for this field, but I am far beyond wasting my time and energy on trying to convince people who don’t care to really, truly care. It’s draining, both mentally and emotionally.

Don’t ever feel obligated to do anything that you don’t want to do. This includes things that you really don’t feel qualified to do – I have been hesitant to say no to these things in the past because I don’t want to disappoint someone (even a stranger!), but if it’s not something you feel confident about, there’s really no question. Don’t do it.

3. Grad students get shit done (when they want to).

I am continually impressed (but not surprised) by the work that grad students put in to make waves in their departments and their larger fields. I’ve been a part of many initiatives myself, but I’ve witnessed so many more.

What surprises me is that frequently their efforts go unacknowledged. I think that we, as a discipline, are getting better about this. But we’ve got to keep it going. Invite graduate students to collaborate with you on projects, publications, events, whatever. Compensate them. Acknowledge and celebrate their work.

4. It’s okay to not have all the answers (no one does).

Don’t get me wrong – I still feel like an impostor every now and then. But I do feel better knowing that everyone makes mistakes.

No one is 100% knowledgeable about anything. It’s wrong to expect and even require that of people.

5. Invest time in things that spark joy.

Again, I’m not perfect here. One of the first posts I wrote on this blog was during my second year of candidacy, when I was still figuring out how to balance my work and my life.

I still don’t think I’ve completely figured it out, but I do try to intentionally make time for the things that make me happy these days. This includes (but is not limited to) spending time with my loved ones, taking pottery classes (even if it’s the same introductory course more than once), exercising, reading, running pedagogy workshops, organizing events, etc.

Whatever it is, if it fills your cup, it’s worth the time and effort. Working yourself to the point of burnout is not. I learned that the hard way.

6. Not everyone is going to get along (and that’s okay).

I am a people-pleaser. I hate conflict or confrontation, and, honestly, I do care what people think (even if I pretend like I don’t). However, something I’ve come to really, truly believe is that you don’t need to be friends with everyone in your program or department.

That might sound cynical or mean or whatever but, honestly, it’s probably impossible.

Everyone has their own lives and has people with whom they feel most comfortable. Of course, you should try to be nice to the people you work with and around. But it’s not a requirement of grad school that you become BFFs with all 20 or 50 or 100 people in your program.

Honestly, who has the time?

Don’t feel guilty if you want to spend time (or live) alone. And certainly, don’t feel compelled to attend every event or outing or birthday party that comes around. There will almost always be another one, on another day, for when you’re feeling more up to socializing.

And on the other hand, don’t judge people who don’t always want to hang out too harshly. You don’t know what they’re going through, or what their comfort levels are, especially now. There’s a whole pandemonium out there. Cut people some slack.

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