So You Want to Go to Grad School? Part IV: Surviving and Thriving

So you want to apply to grad school? Are you sure? You read PART I: On Deciding to Apply and PART II: On How to Apply, and PART III: Are You Sure? The fourth post of this series is about how to not just survive BUT THRIVE in grad school!!!

Some of the details may be particularly useful to students pursuing history degrees, especially food history. However, most of these tips are applicable for other humanities and social science degrees.

How can you survive grad school? It's a long haul-- especially the PhD. 

Enjoy the pump-up song Love Myself by Hailee Steinfeld as the soundtrack to this post. Listening to overly- poppy, pop music that celebrates faux-self empowerment at the sake of collective healing from exploitative capitalism is a self care strategy for surviving grad get used to it. 

Tip #1: It is a marathon. Pace yourself.

You don't start a 42 km race focused on the finish line. If at the starting gun you already are fixated on the race being over, you will make yourself miserable. It is about the process. One kilometer at a time. Step by step. 

During grad school it will be important that you look ahead to the future. You have to keep in mind the next step and the next mile so you don't trip and fall. Long term thinking is important to finishing. However, if you think about EVERYTHING you have to do all the time (and yes it is A LOT) you will feel overwhelmed. 

If you have never run a marathon before, completing a race might seem impossible at the moment. But you can take one step, right?

Make a list of the smaller tasks you have to accomplish and you will soon chip away at your to-do list. 1,320 steps later and you have completed a km. 56,100 steps and BAM- marathon done!

You've got to learn to enjoy the process (and pain is part of the process). 

Write a task list/ calendar of what you need to accomplish this week, this month, this year, and by the end. It's okay if this list/ calendar shifts over time. Having some kind of plan will help you reach your goals.

On this document, include:
- list of archives you want to visit (or however you will collect your evidence/ data)- KEY: if your department or faculty offers research travel stipends, I highly recommend you write the deadlines for these award contests on your calendar. The more research you have done in advance will make applying for research travel funding easier. 

- upcoming conferences that you want to present at (as well as the deadlines to submit the abstract). KEY:  if your department or faculty offers conference travel stipends, I highly recommend you write the deadlines for these award contests on your calendar. 

- articles you want to write and submit (KEY TIP: submit an abstract to a conference, get accepted so you have to actually write the presentation, you will get feedback on that presentation at the conference, use that presentation to become a future article for publication or a dissertation chapter (or both!) I have found that an upcoming conference is one of the best ways to motivate myself to write. )

- internal department deadlines: do you have to submit a thesis proposal and defend it? Do you have language requirements? course requirements? Find out these deadlines in advance

- funding deadlines: as discussed in Part II you might be applying to external funding agencies. These applications take FOREVER (I allocate at least 2 months for them). There are likely other kinds of funds you can apply for at your institution or externally. Get these on the calendar/ game plan sheet.

- job application deadlines: are you applying to TA? to be a course lecturer? to teach? Get those deadlines on that calendar.

- TA/ Teaching/ RA deadlines: do you already have a job as a TA? lecturer? RA? Depending on university policies you likely need to return graded work within 2 weeks of students' submissions. Mark those dates on your calendar (or whichever date your boss tells you that the exams must be graded by)

- Other deadlines: do you have an article due? revisions due? a book review due? are you organizing a conference? a dental appointment ( I have accidentally been late to 2 because they were not in my planner). Get it all down there! And yes- make sure to get your teeth cleaned!!!!

You are going to need to learn to be a planner. Organize your life. Refer to your planner often to see what is upcoming (or even mark in your planner to start working on a certain task for an upcoming deadline).

Tip #2: Expect Type 2 Fun

As a distance runner and endurance athlete myself, I am going to continue this post with sports metaphors (sorry non-athletes). 

Type #1 fun is the kind of fun that feels fun at the moment. Examples include sledding down a hill, cuddling with a puppy, and surfing in perfect conditions. Wonderful moments-- but they bear no resemblance to grad school unless the puppy passive aggressively howls and pees on a copy of your article like reviewer #2... and it is always reviewer # 2...

Type # 2 is the kind of fun that is fun AFTER the experience. Type # 2 fun moments tend to be more fun in the re-telling-- like getting stuck in the Bay of Fundy tide change because you forgot that New Brunswick is in a different time zone than Montreal so the tide changed an hour earlier than you thought and you had to portage your kayak and gear through 4 kms of mud flats and haul everything 20 meters up a cliff... not that I've ever experienced that... whoops (hey we all make mistakes).

If you are a person that prefers instant gratification, maybe going to grad school is not the best kind of decision. There will be moments of Type # 1 fun (currently trying to recall an example... at a loss), but overall it is more of a Type #2 fun activity. 

SO... make sure you have some Type # 1 fun in your life. The PhD SHOULD NOT BE YOUR ENTIRE LIFE. HAVE FUN! HAVE HOBBIES! EXPLORE NEW PASSIONS! Do silly things like taking a dance class or learn to knit or hang out with friends. 

Sure PhD work takes up time- but you have to find a way to enjoy the rest of your life. Your entire identity cannot rest on your dissertation.

Tip # 3: Sound body, Sound Mind

Exercise. Eat balanced meals. Sleep. Go to the dentist and the doctor. 

The tormented artist making himself miserable (and yes- in the Hollywood representation it is usually a him, because... well of course it is) IS NOT A ROLE MODEL. 

You will feel better and work more effectively and efficiently if you take care of your health. 

For me having a routine that I can count on means that no matter what is happening in the PhD program or any other aspect of my life I am reminded that I can depend on myself-- that I can count on myself. Every day starts with crunches followed by a run with my dog. In the past 3 years I have only missed 7 days of running in total. Discipline in fitness leads to discipline in other areas of my life. Plus I thrive on the illusion of stability.

But there's no need to be so dogmatic (get it? dog- matic...I run with my dog) about things. Do zumba! Ice climb! stretch!! Take care of your body.

Tip # 4: Feeling Bad? Welcome to the Club

Doing a PhD can be really challenging. Living is also challenging. 

Do you have a huge pile of work and it is stressing you out? Take it one thing at a time and chip away  at your to- do list. GUILT DOESN'T WRITE CHAPTERS- WRITING DOES.

Have you eaten? Have you exercised? Have you slept enough? Do it!

Are you sitting and staring at your computer and not producing anything? STOP WORKING for the day! Accept defeat for the day! Don't beat yourself up about it! It makes no sense to make yourself miserable. Take the afternoon off- go for a swim! Grab a pint with a buddy! Don't feel bad for resting. Enjoy the rest of your day and you will be refreshed and excited to work the next day.


There's a meme "You Should Be Writing." I have chuckled at it before but feeling guilty about not working is wasted energy. If you have chosen not to work, then enjoy the time off. 

Still feeling bad? Do something nice for someone else. When I am sad I will bake cookies for my neighbors. You aren't the only person in the world having a bad day.

How can you channel your emotions and energy into doing something positive for someone else? Next time you are in a bad mood you might bump into that person and they will smile and you will be reminded of all the good in the world OR your neighbor might bring you apples (because apples = cookies?! I think not! Just kidding! Apples are great!)

Tip # 5: Build community. 

This can be slow going but so worth it. It is quite likely that you moved to a new city or town where you might not know anyone in order to complete your graduate studies. A stranger is just a friend you haven't made yet. Get to know the names of your neighbors, people at the local cafes you frequent, and even if you are shy, at least smile at people. I know, I know- social norms and all. 

I encourage you to make friends outside of your department. Make friends with people from all walks of life and of different ages. It will give you perspective that your dissertation is not the be all, end all of the universe. Most people will not care about your dissertation except for the fact that they want to support you because friends support each others' goals.

So many people inside and outside of academia deal with loneliness. Try new hobbies, join clubs at your university, join a dating app, or sign up for a local charity!

Also - as the song goes, make new friends but keep the old ones/ one is silver, the other gold. I also know I would not have survived grad school without the phone calls to my mom, my (now late) grandmother, my (now late) godmother, my best friend from high school Mar, my best friend from undergrad Mica, my community of friends, and MY DOG. 

My dog Bubbles always helps me keep perspective. Plus no matter how bad I feel I still have to take this pupper out 4 times a day. Through my dog I have made so many friends (shout-out to my dog park crew!!) Pets are wonderful! Considering getting a pet! My fish Waffles is far less maintenance than my dog and he also brings joy to my life.

We might see a dissertation as the pursuit of one but it is really a team effort. I was recently writing the acknowledgements section and I have had - no joke- 35 different people help me edit chapters along the way!!! Other friends provided distractions by planning canoe trips or heading downtown for dumplings. 

Part of building community and finding a support system is reciprocity. It is important that you support your friends in their endeavors as well. Show up to their parties. Write them birthday cards. Go to their kids' baptisms. 

Tip #6: Here's the Secret: Under these Clothes We Are All Naked

Do you feel inadequate? Do you feel like an imposter? Welcome to the club. Under these clothes we are all naked. We are all trying to figure it out. Find mentors that you can trust. It is okay if you mess up-- try to be better tomorrow.

Tip #7: Complaining Can Be Fun BUT Stay Positive

Limit the amount of time you spend complaining. Focusing on the good and what you enjoy will keep your spirits higher (and help you be more productive). 

Tip #8: Diversify

Are you having an issue with your supervisor? Look to other professors to be mentors. Every professor has his/her/ their strengths but also weaknesses. Like a romantic partner, you can't expect one person, one supervisor to meet all of your needs. We have friends and family to support us in our personal lives. In our professional lives we need to broaden our systems of support. You have your committee and I hope your committee is fabulous and supportive and challenges you! But you are still going to need to find other people to mentor and challenge you.

Remember Reciprocity! and say yes! Mentors may ask for you to be on a panel or work on a project. These opportunities can also be valuable experiences.

Is your research unfulfilling? Get a side project. Believe it or not, despite my love of the history of feminist restaurants working on one project for years on end can feel stale. To cope, I had side projects. The Historical Cooking Project has allowed me to touch on various topics without too high of a commitment. I also have worked on the history of women and beer and begun a project on sexism in save-the-whale activism in the 1970s. Reading and researching new things can help you make cross disciplinary, cross regional, cross periodic connections that can bring new energy and excitement to your dissertation project. 

Don't only hang out with academics. Do hobbies and activities not related to your research and away from your university.

To conclude:

Does some of this seem like life advice that has nothing to do with a PhD? Exactly. That's the point. A PhD is 4,5,6,+ years of your life. It should only be PART of your life. You are a complete and lovely human being.