“While I considered myself responsible and took undergraduate studies seriously, doing clinical work as a trainee required a whole new level of preparedness and maturity. I needed to make a huge mental shift from being a college student to being a graduate student. For me this meant treating graduate school like a full-time job, being prepared to work greater than a 40-hour work week, even if classes and practicum required less than this.”
Erlanger “Earl” Turner, Ph.D, a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, was surprised by the amount of writing that grad courses required. “I wish I had known that it required so much writing. I expected to read a lot for classes and seminars but the extent of papers (sometimes) weekly was very unexpected,” said Turner, who graduated from Texas A&M University’s clinical psychology program.
Similarly, “Realize that your time will not be your own,” Thieda said. She explained:
“Other people decide what you will do when during daytime (and sometimes evening) hours, such as going to class, doing practicums and internships and fulfilling other duties, like assistantships. Your weekends will be spent on studying, reading, assignments and projects. Expect lots of group work as well, which will be challenging to coordinate with classmates who have similarly packed schedules.”
This also requires being highly organized. Thieda recommended such applications as Google Docs and Skype, along with a good ol’ planner.
3. Let go of perfectionism.
Because grad school requires so much juggling, students need to learn to prioritize their work and relinquish perfectionistic tendencies, said Kristen Morrison, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist at The Colorado Center for Clinical Excellence, who also graduated from A&M’s clinical psychology program. Not only is there little time to create flawless work, but you’ll also run yourself ragged.
If you’re having a tough time with this, talk to students who are further along in the program to see how they’re able to keep up.
4. Focus on perseverance.
One of Morrison’s supervisors told her that a dissertation is “nothing more than a test of perseverance,” which she believes applies to grad school as a whole. It isn’t that you need to be a megastar scholar. The key to success is “the willingness to keep going and not give up;” to “keep working to do well in grad school.”
5. Make time for self-care.
“Self-care is paramount to success” in grad school, Thieda said. “It is easy to get overburdened with assignments and responsibilities, but taking time to connect with friends who are not associated with the program and family is important.” She also suggested journaling (or other ways to self-reflect), exercising, eating well and getting enough sleep.
In college, you might’ve been able to swing an insufficient sleep schedule, but in grad school, this can have a negative impact on the quality of your work. Solomon realized the need for a better routine when “I could no longer function well for my academic and clinical work on five hours of sleep.”
But, of course, fitting in self-care isn’t easy. Morrison suggested picking several activities that you can’t do without. Her main source of self-care is exercise. So she created her own tricks for working exercise into her days. Her first year, she participated in intramural sports, which became “a fun way to meet grad students who were not in our program [and] to have a bigger network of acquaintances.” She’d also combine “social events with self-care,” running or going to the gym with friends. (“Support and building relationships with your peers is the saving grace in grad school,” she said.) In addition, she signed up for yoga classes at the gym, a commitment that motivated her to go more often. She also brought her gym clothes to school because she knew that after she got home, she’d too exhausted to go back.
For other grad students, nonnegotiable activities might be reading, writing, painting or participating in marathons.
6. You might feel like a fake, but remember that you aren’t.
When starting grad school (and even years into the program), many students experience what psychologists have termed the “impostor phenomenon,” a deep sense of insecurity about their capabilities and intelligence.
For example, Solomon shared:
“I spent the first couple of years of graduate school convinced that I was a complete fake. I thought that there was no way that I could be as smart or talented as everyone else, and so I had to work three times as hard to accomplish the same results.
“Even when I was doing well, I worried that it was a matter of time until I was ‘discovered’ and had fantasies of being thrown out! This was obviously ridiculous, but it was just like hating my belly — my insecurity was more about deeper fears and less about actually being able to pass a class.
“I wish I had been able to accept the evidence of my intelligence earlier so that I could spend more mental energy learning and absorbing than worrying that I would be found out.”