• Daniel Kephart

Graduate School: A Five-Minute Survival Guide

You've been accepted to graduate school, congratulations!

Okay, nobody holds a notebook like that.

A world of well-meaning individuals from professors to friends to your Uber driver (thanks, Sebastian) bury you beneath a deluge of advice. Pay close attention to that advice, especially the bit from your Uber driver, because it comes in handy more often than not. You're here, though, because you still have burning questions.

Why am I here? What is the purpose of graduate school? Will my childhood passion for my chosen discipline turn to jaded bitterness? Why do so many intellectuals watch Rick and Morty?

This guide will answer none of those questions.

What it will do, however, is provide you with some of the oft-overlooked practical solutions to everyday problems you'll face. Sure, I've had my fair share of philosophical musings in graduate school; but more often I've found myself trying to figure out how to stretch my time and balance my budget. Below, with trademark Chapter of the Day cheekiness, I've outlined some quick tips that will keep you spending less time googling solutions and more time pondering existential crises.

Food - It's What's for Dinner

No one is quite sure who invented food. Possible candidates include Eliza P. Fuude and General D. Licious Sustenance. What we are sure about is that human beings sure do like food. Unfortunately, many graduate students can't cook their way out of a paper bag (or, for that matter, cook something to put into a paper bag). Never fear: Here's the Chapter of the Day 3-step guide to feeding yourself in graduate school.

  1. Get a slow cooker and/or air fryer - I know, I know, the money to buy gadgets doesn't grow on trees. In the not-so-long run, though, you'll end up saving dough by grabbing this pair. Slow cookers are great for cooking in bulk (key if you like to meal prep); and even a low-end air fryer can make whipping up a protein-packed breakfast or dinner a lot easier. I was a non-believer and now I regret it. I could've saved a lot of money and felt a lot healthier if I'd invested sooner.

  2. One cup of joe - Heresy! Poppycock! Truth: Caffeine becomes less helpful the more you sip it. Like a lot of other graduate students, I operated pretty heavily for awhile on the ol' bean juice, interspersed on occasion with a saucy energy drink. Only after laying off the coffee for a week for a medical issue did I realize how much more alert I felt. So cut things back if you can, that way a caffeine jolt can come through when you really need it (helloooo finals week).

  3. Alcohol makes you sad - Tequila isn't an upper, sorry folks. Any spirit containing ethanol - including tequila - is a depressant. That's not to say one can't enjoy a little of this or that now and then. Just because alcohol is ever-present in graduate school, though, doesn't mean one is a bad academic for not being enamored of the drinking culture. And if the stress of work has you feeling down, don't be fooled into thinking a drinking binge will clear things up and provide perspective. Biology doesn't work like that.

Health - Lean, Mean, Grading Machine

Hopefully you don't need me to tell you that staying healthy is important, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. But the graduate student shuffle doesn't exactly make it easy to be a carb-eschewing, kale-chewing, freshwater canoeing Instagram model. Here's some tips for keeping in ship-shape all semester long.

  1. The gym is for bodybuilding - Want to pack on some muscle? Great, adjust your diet accordingly and hit up the gym! For many of us, though, staying healthy probably has less to do with looking in a mirror or seeing a certain number on a scale and more to do with mobility. Navy SEAL and Ultramarathon runner David Goggins has been called "the hardest man alive," and set numerous fitness records. You might suspect David spends all his time in the gym (and he spends more time there than me, that's for sure) but Goggins says the real secret to his success comes from (a) willpower and (b) stretching. Now I wouldn't exactly advocate spending 2-hours a day stretching, but finding a form of daily motion that makes you feel more in-control of your body is definitely a win. So don't feel obligated to go the gym if it makes you miserable - just find a way to let your body develop its mobility.

  2. Hotlines can help - Recently, I began having some basic dental issues I needed cleared up. When you've moved thousands of miles from home and are on a strict budget, though, even basic issues like that can seem insurmountable. Don't panic - reach out for help from people more than willing to assist. Many large universities have a hotline with trained support teams who can help you even with seemingly mundane issues like finding a doctor taking new patients. Got a problem and don't even know who to ask? Consider posting on the Reddit community r/Assistance, where 175k people have come together to help each other with whatever they can. Don't sacrifice your physical and mental health when there are resources available.

  3. Get some sleep - Maybe the oddest toxic obsession in graduate school is bragging about sleep deprivation. But one can only go for so long before the sleep-debt piles up and the inevitable crash hits, potentially ruining a whole weekend. So when people start to talk about how little they sleep just smile, nod, and then go to bed with an easy mind. You'll be back at it again in the morning, refreshed and energized. Incentivizing sleep can help too - I like to watch a short TV-episode every morning when I wake up, so I have something to look forward to when going to bed.

Money - You Don't Have Any

Okay, maybe you have a little. Money is always tight in graduate school, though, and lots of the tips one can find online are pretty vague (okay, I know I need a budget, but what about after I have one?). Fear ye not, below is some practical advice that could save you a buck.

  1. Mint Mobile - Need a phone plan? Consider looking at Mint Mobile, a prepaid service that lets customers bring and existing phone and number. Mint will even let you purchase a cheap test-SIM card to see if their cellular service works well in your area.

  2. Amazon Kindle - There's something to be said for the feel of pages in your hand. But when those are textbook pages, things can get pricey quickly. Thankfully, textbooks are always almost cheaper (not to mention available instantly) on the Kindle Store. I used the Kindle app on my computer and phone for some time; but a couple months back I finally bit the bullet and bought a refurbished kindle e-reader. Already, I find myself reading more - mainly because it's so light I can take it anywhere with me.

  3. Student memberships - Just about everyone will tell you to look for student discounts; but here are some that sometimes get overlooked. First, many of the journals or professional societies in academia have low-cost or free memberships for graduate students. A helpful little item to know when building your CV. Second, signing up for Spotify student (5 smackaroos monthly) gets you free access to Hulu and Showtime. If you're like me (a friend calculated from my Spotify wrap that I spend about 25% of my time annually streaming music or podcasts, mostly while grading) then that's some serious bang for your buck.

Friends - You Don't, err, Make Some!

Now more than ever, in the age of Corona, it can be easy to feel isolated and alone. At the same time, now is also a great time to rekindle some old friendships and build some new ones. In fact, some days I feel more connected now than I ever did before in graduate school.

  1. Discord - It's a meme (and not an unfounded one) that some people spend all their lives on this voice-call and chatroom software. The ease and simplicity of setting up a Discord, however, means that it's the perfect medium for creating new communities in a world in isolation. Especially now, when grading student work late into the evening, it's great to hear familiar voices chatting away in the background.

  2. Letters - In classic ye olde fashion, sit down and write a letter to someone you want to let know you care, especially if they're older and less familiar with today's online media. Having that tangible reminder of your affection can mean a lot to someone.

  3. Post Something on Facebook - Politics, pets, and memes is just about all Facebook seems good for these days, but it still works pretty well as a platform for some fun and silly discussions. Recently, I've been trying to post something every day from my reading. For me, it's a fun little game. I've noticed, though, that posting each day leads me to actually converse with more people, rather than just mindlessly scrolling.

Don't Panic :)

Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, one of the best comedy books ever written, says that the most popular feature of the eponymous Guide is that it has the words "Don't Panic!" written in large, friendly gold lettering across its title. In order to avoid copyright complications, I've written the phrase in purple lettering and used a smiley-face (that's how the law works, you know).

Genuinely: There's no experience quite like graduate school. For all its many problems, being a graduate student is fundamentally fun. Don't feel guilty for not enjoying a seminar or two, but likewise don't feel guilty for loving what you do either. So go ahead, laugh with your students. Smile when your professor makes a nerdy joke. Take your work seriously, but never take yourself too seriously.

And that's the 5-minute survival guide to graduate school.

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