Surviving Grad School

Surviving Graduate School the Zen Way

Everyone knows graduate school is tough -- but it doesn't have to be stressful. This article is about surviving graduate school the Zen Way. What does that mean? Well, it's all part of my philosophy of life first, work second. Graduate school (and academia in general) has a tendency to take over your life and it takes effort to keep it from doing so.

This is not a guide for being an overachieving, star graduate student. This is a guide for making it through graduate school and enjoying the ride as much as possible.

The first section will be about course selection and time management. Surviving graduate school starts with a manageable course load that lets you connect with your interests, take advantage of your school's resources, and pick the right classes to suit a Zen lifestyle.

The second post will be a crash course in handling your reading and writing load. We all know that graduate school is a lot of work, so it's all about working smarter and more efficiently. I managed to make it through three years of courses without pulling a single all nighter.

Finally, I'll wrap it up with my best advice on how to keep graduate school from taking over your life. There are a lot of extra-curricular opportunities and responsibilities competing for your time in graduate school. Some of them are worth it, others aren't. Wisdom is knowing the difference.

Course Selection and Time Management

When you're just starting graduate school, course selection will likely be your first task. Deciding which courses to take can go a long way to making your overall grad school experience smoother, more productive, and more enjoyable.

1. Check, meet, and avoid exceeding course requirements
The best place to start the course selection process is by checking the requirements for your program. There are likely several sets of requirements you need to meet: PhD residency for your graduate school, a certain number of credits for your department, and maybe even specific courses for your program. Knowing these requirements means that you can get them out of the way early, at convenient times. But more importantly, knowing these requirements means that once you've met them, you can take a lighter course load, or take courses in other, unrelated departments just for fun.

2. Don't fear interdisciplinarity
Interdisciplinary is a buzz word in academia these days. However, most grad students still tend to stick to their own departments. It's valuable to remember that there's a whole course catalog waiting to be explored. Following tip #1, there's a good chance that you're only required to take about a third or half of your courses in your own department. Venture out, have some fun, learn new things. Plus, it makes you a more well-rounded scholar to know how other disciplines treat the topics you're interested in.

3. Take advantage of independent studies and research credits 
Many programs are quite generous with the number of independent study credits they allow. In my program, we're allowed three independent studies and three research credits. I took all my research credits in one quarter to free up time for my qualifying exams (a scheduling tactic I highly recommend), but I only took one independent study. Looking back, I wish I'd used more of my independent study credits, especially during terms where the course offerings weren't that interesting. It could have saved me a lot of time slogging through boring courses and instead let me focus more closely on developing a personal research agenda. 

4. Take some undergraduate courses  
Again, there's usually a limit to the number and level of undergraduate courses you can take, but I took a few during my coursework and enjoyed them a lot. The work load is a lot lighter but if you find a good course it can be really valuable and interesting. I would especially recommend undergraduate courses for subjects you aren't that familiar with, or to serve as a buffer credit during a busy term.

5. Look for synergistic courses
Sign up for courses where the subject matter (and, even better, the readings) have some overlap. You'll get a more thorough understanding of the topic and your work load will be less. You'll be especially happy when term paper time comes because there's nothing sweeter than turning in one paper for multiple courses.

6. Shop around
To make #5 easier, you'll need a good idea what each term's courses are actually going to be about. To do this, ask professors for their syllabus up front and consider showing up the first week to scope out the class. If you like what you see, enroll. If not, don't be afraid to move on. 

Reading, Writing, and Staying Zen

Now that you've selected a course schedule with the perfect balance of practicality and enjoyability, it's time to actually pass those courses. 

A big difference between graduate school and college is that you're expected to do most of your work outside of class. Most graduate classes only meet a few hours a week -- the usual schedule in my program is one 3-hour meeting, once a week. In order to make that schedule qualify as "full time" you're expected to do something like 3-4 hours of work outside of class for every hour in class. The upside is that academia is a results-oriented environment and if you know how to work smarter and more efficiently you can probably cut that schedule in half. 

1. Learn how to skim-read
The thing about the reading load in graduate school is that some professors assign so much reading that it's pretty much an unspoken assumption that you won't read every word. There just isn't time. So you have to learn how to skim-read. You skim over most of the text, looking for the general arguments and overarching conclusions. Once you find a section that looks important, you read it more closely. That should give you a solid general understanding of the reading. 

A general understanding is enough to keep up, but not enough to really shine in class discussion. To do that, you'll want to...

2. Focus on a few key articles or chapters 
Chances are that some pieces in the growing pile of assigned reading will catch your attention more than others. Focus on the ones that do and read them closely. Once class discussion comes around, you might only have a little to say about most of the readings, but if you have a lot to say about a few of them, you'll be just fine. Plus, this is a good time to build a foundation for your personal research agenda.

3. Write as you go
As you're reading the aforementioned key pieces closely, it's a great time to sit down and write a few words summarizing and reflecting on what you've just read. The summaries will come in handy if you need a refresher on what the article or book was about. You'll also refer back to them when it comes to writing your term papers and, if they're well written, you can probably cut and paste a good chunk of these "reading reports" into your final papers. This is especially handy if your final paper is a literature review. 

Writing as you go is a great habit to get into. In addition to reading reports, you could jot down research ideas, random theorizing, or interesting class discussions. A writing habit will be your best friend when dissertation time comes around. It's a lot easier to write a few hundred words every day when the ideas are fresh than thousands of words in a night-before-the-paper-is-due frenzy. 

4. Seek out secondary sources
It's inevitable that you'll be assigned a reading that's impossible to get through and/or make sense of. Some of those French theorists try really hard to make sure nobody can ever decipher their brilliant ideas. In those situations, don't be afraid to read what others have written on the subject...even if it has "for dummies" in the title.

Book reviews and literature reviews are regularly published in academic journals and usually provide a good summary of the literature in question, as well as a few critiques to take your understanding to the next level. 

Lots of academic presses publish introductory guides to major thinkers, theories, or movements. The Routledge Critical Thinkers series is pretty good. There is also a series of Very Short Introduction books that you can check out, like Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction or Globalization: A Very Short Introduction.

Don't be shy about checking sites like Spark Notes or even Wikipedia for basic summaries. Once the major concepts are clear, you can go back and read the original. You'll be surprised how much more sense it makes. 

5. Write synergistic papers
This is the payoff from signing up for synergistic courses I mentioned in the first part of this series. I don't think I've ever written completely separate papers for all my courses in a single term. The challenge is picking a topic that allows for a high degree of overlap, while also leaving room to tweak and customize the paper for the specific course.

There are a number of ways to make this happen. One is to pick an artifact to analyze, write up the necessary background info, and then use different theories or methods to do the analysis. Another approach is to put multiple courses in conversation with each other. How can what you learned in course A be applied to course B, and vice versa? It's about finding the overlap in multiple concentric circles: that's your topic.

How to Keep Grad School from Taking Over Your Life

So far, we've covered smart course selection and even smarter ways to survive the workload of those courses. However, graduate school is not all about coursework. There are other obligations and opportunities vying for your attention and, before you know it, they can take over your life. 

1. Develop a reputation for quality work while staying under the radar
This isn't really a separate point as much as a point that makes all the others possible. If you want to protect your freedom you can't stand out as a slacker. Basically, you want your professors and advisors to trust that you'll do your work, and do it well, while respecting that you do your own thing. 

This means you need to foster a reputation for being a hard worker, but an independent one with a life outside graduate school. Look at the married graduate students. People usually assume that they have better things to do than think about school 24/7. Follow their lead.

2. Don't spend too much time in the graduate student office
The first step in making sure people know you have your own life is to not spend all your time hanging out at the graduate student office. If you're around and look available, people will assume that you are. Learn to work from home, at the library, or at coffee shops. 

3. Just say no to departmental politics
You'd be surprised how big a role politics plays in some departments. Gossip, favoritism, serving on committees, planning conferences, or playing secretary for important professors is no way to spend your graduate school time. You're in school for a specific purpose: to get your degree. If you stay focused on that, rising above department politics is a lot easier. 

4. Pick and choose only highly relevant events, talks, or conferences
The regular sharing of ideas is a huge part of academic life in the form of speaker series, symposia, conferences, or other kinds of presentations. There'll be many opportunities to attend these kinds of events, and some of your fellow graduate students might go to every single one in an attempt to appear like eager learners (see playing politics, #3). 

But remember, you have a life. You don't have the time to sit through talks that have little to do with your work. My research agenda is pretty broad, but there are only a handful of talks throughout the year that are truly relevant and interesting. Learn to spot those, and skip the other ones. 

Same with conferences. There will inevitably be one or two major conferences that everyone in your program attends. Going to one is fine for the sake of maintaining your reputation (see #1), but I like to use more personal criteria to decide which (if any) other conferences I want to attend. Location is always good, especially if your school provides travel funding. Hello Southern California in the middle of winter! Or submit to a conference on a very specific research area that attracts scholars you admire and would like to meet. 

5. Work less, but work regularly
I've already suggested that you develop a daily or semi-daily writing habit because working a little as you go is a lot less stressful than working a lot the days before a big deadline. The same concept applies to all your work. 

Personally, I aim to do 3 hours of work every day, including most weekends. I usually work best during the late morning because I like getting my work done and having the rest of the day free. And yes, I rarely work more than 3 hours a day unless I'm on a roll and really want to keep working. 

Three hours a day doesn't sound like a lot, but it's time spent very consciously and with a focus on results. It helps to keep a to-do list with your weekly readings, writing assignments, and other projects. That way you can really target your efforts instead of getting caught up in busywork. 


Hopefully you've found the advice in this series helpful for making the graduate school years a bit less stressful and overwhelming. My advice is not about "suffering through" graduate school or "getting it over with." It's about making graduate school enjoyable while it lasts and making it work as a part of a balanced life.

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Comments 3 comments

A.A. Zavala profile image

A.A. Zavala 5 years ago from Texas

All good points. Thank you for sharing.


pioneerio profile image

pioneerio 5 years ago from UK

Great advice :)


Ken Lamb 3 years ago

Turning in one paper for multiple classes is called self-plagiarism.

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