In its brainstorming stages, this blog post was going to outline several tips for surviving grad school, strategies for success I’ve begun to embrace after five semesters as a graduate student. But surviving grad school cannot be, and should not be, represented as a “one-size-fits-all” approach. My experience here at Niagara is vastly different, almost incomparable, to my time as a graduate student at Syracuse. Across programs, preparation differs and expectations vary, not to mention that each of us current or future graduate students is unique. If there’s been one takeaway from my first semester at Niagara, it’s that learners are variable. At any rate, I will not tarry on this issue.
Instead, I’ve decided to use this blog post mostly as a means for catharsis, to think through ways that I can improve before this new semester commences. After all, it’s a New Year. NEW YEAR, NEW ME. I kid.
If there has been one commonality throughout my grad school experience, it’s the stress I experience each semester. The stress itself is different each time, but it’s always there. For me, my resolution for this upcoming semester (if I must set one) is to try harder to manage and react productively to my stress. I repeatedly tell myself that I’ll stop procrastinating, that I’ll find ways to decrease anxiety and maximize efficiency. At the beginning of every semester, I’ve thought, “This time, I’ll overcome my habits of laziness. I’ll cut out social media. I’ll read more. I’ll spend more time on x, y, or z.” But then the semester begins, assignments pile up, responsibilities at school compete with duties at work, and I feel like I’ve dug a hole so deep that I feel like I can’t get out.
But I always get out. After each 14-week rollercoaster, the semester comes to an end and I look back satisfied, awash with the feeling of accomplishment. So what’s the problem? The problem is that along the way, my mental and physical stamina dwindles. I begin to place blame on outside forces for the stress that I’m feeling.
I blame the academy for expecting graduate students to produce, produce, produce. I blame my schedule for not allowing enough time to focus on coursework. I blame textbook writers for their exhausting prolixity, wasting my time by entertaining trite ideas. I blame the cold weather because my fingers can’t type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. I blame the lighting in my bedroom, living room, and office. I blame technology—primetime television, Netflix, Instagram. I blame everything around me and in so doing, I encourage the spiraling, uncontrollable, and ever-growing negativity that feeds off the "blame" game.
But, is it better to simply blame myself? Blame, unquestioned and unexamined, is unproductive. After all, Socrates famously said, "An unexamined life is not worth living." In my attempt to examine my life—specifically my academic habits—I’ve come to realize that the root of my problem is my exaggerated reaction to the stress of grad school.
This semester, I'd like to work on improving the way that I react to stress. I certainly know what I should be doing to prevent stress, but I also know myself and can recognize from years of prior experience that I probably won't stop procrastinating even if I promise myself a thousand times that I will (I work best under pressure, after all. At least, this has been my go-to mantra to justify my bad habits).
So, in the face of assignments to complete, group projects to finish, and readings to analyze, what does one do to manage the stress? First, I've been told, "Know your unhealthy coping mechanisms." Mine? Denial, anger, blaming things seemingly outside of my control and, of course, overeating (I just can’t finish this project if the last morsel I’ve devoured was two hours ago. I need brain food! Do we have any chocolate?). Sure, I'm aware of these unhealthy responses and I suppose admitting your problem is always the first step, right? Right.
Next, "Work toward healthy stress management." I suppose that I've been subconsciously thinking about how to deal with the stress that I'm anticipating this semester because I've randomly taken up exercise despite my body’s overwhelming opposition. If I believe anything I read on the Internet, it’s the endless testimonials championing exercise as the ultimate stress reliever. Honestly, I don’t know what will work best for me in this conscious effort to react productively to stress but it’s precisely this consciousness that I’m hoping to maintain throughout the semester.
Historically, coming to consciousness has been a catalyst for change. We come to a realization, we awaken, we see the reality of situations and their central problems, and we discover that we want to change. While I don’t yet have the solutions to my problems, I know that targeting my stress management is a worthwhile endeavor.
Now, I know that this post has been a bit self-indulgent, a personal reflection from someone that you, Reader, don’t really know. But, in some ways, I already feel more ready to take on the approaching semester (perhaps more reflective writing will help to manage my stress?). I’ll check back in mid-semester with updates to satisfy your mounting curiosity. In the meantime, if you’re searching for a text that’s actually about surviving grad school, check out Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.