Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Pep Talk to the Overworked Grad Student

by , PhD

Feel like your advisor is working you into the ground?

Perhaps you have come to the conclusion that graduate programs have complete disregard for their students’ personal lives and that they intentionally and ruthlessly work their students like slaves.

I won’t attempt to deny these accusations, but I do believe in seeing the bright side to any unfortunate situation. Below I’ve outlined a little pep talk to encourage you on your quest for that coveted postgraduate degree. 

Hang in there. It will get better

You may feel like there is no end in sight, but it will get better. When you finish your major coursework, your workload will subside to accommodate more research and/or teaching opportunities. Also, when that happens, you will have a much better handle on department processes, and things that were difficult before will run much more smoothly. With less coursework, you will also have more time to fully commit yourself to the projects that you are currently working on. 

Nothing worth having comes easily

That cliché of “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is highly applicable in graduate school. Holding a graduate degree puts you in the top 7% of the United States population (NCES, 2014). For comparison, an estimated 34% of the US population has a bachelor’s degree or higher (NCES, 2014). A pessimist might say, “The reason so few people earn postgraduate degrees is because it’s not worth it.” It actually is worth it (on average). According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014), people with a master’s degree enjoy about $11,492 more per year than their bachelor counterparts. People with PhDs make about $26,780 more per year than people with bachelor’s degrees. 

Difficult experiences are learning experiences

Some of the best learning opportunities are born out of aversive circumstances. For example, it only takes a rat one encounter with a noxious drink to know never to touch that stuff again (e.g., Garcia & Koelling, 1966). Difficult experiences in graduate school are the same. With each step, you will learn to be more efficient, productive, and creative with your work. By the end of your time in grad school, you will be able to mentor the new folks who need help navigating the program. Even if your future job has very little to do with academia, you will still carry forward into your new profession the life experiences that you’ve gain from graduate school. 

The best students have the most pressure put on them

As my husband says regarding coaching: only the best athletes get yelled at by the coach. The same goes for graduate students. Graduate advisors are strategic thinkers, and they are not going to waste their time hounding advisees that aren’t going to produce anything. Instead, they hound their best performing students, and give them the maximum workload possible. Why? Because the best way to test a student’s aptitude is to see how much they can handle. The more you perform, the higher your advisor will set the bar. They get the work done, and you get the benefits (or consequences) of being the golden kid. 

This may be one of the last times in your life for undeterred exploration and learning

After all the trouble of getting my PhD, I’m going to sheepishly admit that I miss grad school. I miss the opportunity to sit down with a stack of research articles and lose myself for an unknown amount of time. I miss the chance to follow research ideas down the many rabbit trails and then produce data from those ideas. I miss the opportunity to explore new topics in my coursework and learn from experts (i.e., my professors) in my field. When you graduate and go off to the workplace, suddenly you are the expert, and everyone is looking to you for answers. I know with time, I will get used to this new role, but I do miss the chance to uninhibitedly learn and grow in my field.

For all you vitamin D deficient lab rats, my take-home message is this: be grateful for the opportunities that you have as a graduate student, know that this hard work is just for a little while, and realize that you’ll have many rewards on the other side of the graduation stage. 

Image used with permission by PDPArchitects via iStockphoto.

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