By James Steur, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Graduate school is an exciting time for students to explore their research interests and develop as a scholar. However, the experience also poses its own set of challenges: an intense workload, understanding statistical analyses, navigating the unspoken norms of academia, and many other unexpected challenges. The roundtable, “How to Survive Graduate School,” brought scholars and working professionals from a variety of backgrounds to have a frank discussion about the stresses and challenges that graduate students face. Despite the variety of perspectives—a current PhD student, faculty members, international scholars, to name a few—many spoke about similar challenges and practices they wish they had adopted at the start and later phases of their graduate school careers. Ultimately, this roundtable was a refreshing reminder that graduate students are not alone in their struggles, and that we should all be gentler with ourselves.

Unexpected Challenges

1. Time Management

As a graduate student, you are often juggling a variety of roles as a student, TA/instructor, and researcher. The sheer volume of tasks you’re expected to do on a day-to-day basis is going to be challenging, so learn how to manage your time effectively. While everyone has a different strategy for managing their time, it can be helpful to identify what isn’t working for you and to be honest with yourself. How are you spending your time? Are you spending too much time on certain activities?

2. Reading Effectively

Many roundtable participants noted that the reading load in graduate school is voluminous. Although you may wish to read everything in your courses as deeply as possible, it may not be possible every week. Organize a reading group with other students in the class to discuss the readings in your course, along with the main points and key takeaways. And, over time, you’ll learn how to read at a quicker pace to extract the main points of an article—keep reading and give it time.

3. Understanding Methods

Most individuals entering graduate school for political science have minimal training about math or coding. Recognize that you’re not alone, and that many people enter and graduate your program with minimal methodological training. Often, the purpose of methods classes is providing you with a strong foundation about quantitative methodology. Over time, you’ll develop greater mathematical maturity and ability to perform your analyses. Additionally, work with other graduate students on your methods assignments. If you’re in the same boat, help each other out.

Important Reminders

1. Professionalization into the Discipline Takes Time

Professionalization into graduate school and academia is a process. Over time, you’ll learn how to take criticism, network with others, and learn the norms of the discipline. Be patient with yourself and seek out advice on professionalization. In the past, I’ve written my own personal strategies for networking at conferences and interviewed Dr. Gustavo Diaz about how to maximize your conference experience. The resources to professionalize are available—don’t be shy about asking or looking for them.

2. Approach Graduate School with a Routine

The process of pursuing a Ph.D. is often an unstructured process that allows for flexibility in your work schedule. It is possible for you to wake up at 10AM each day, and work until 2AM pending a few possible restrictions in your schedule. Develop a daily routine that works for you and be disciplined about that routine. Get enough sleep, don’t skip meals, drink plenty of water, and take breaks. Don’t compromise your routine for work, as it will be harder to maintain that practice. To the best of your ability, treat your time in graduate school as a job and not a lifestyle.

In the end, one roundtable participant noted that you should “expect disappointments” in graduate school. Whether it be a bad day at work, a research project not going exactly as you expected, or whatever the case may be—disappointments will happen. But, if you define what success means to you in your graduate career, it makes managing your disappointments much easier along the way.

About the Author

James Steur is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  His research interests include political psychology, political behavior, and the role of emotions in citizen  decision-making.  He is a first-generation student, passionate coffee drinker, and excited to be blogging (for a third time!) at MPSA. You can find James on Twitter at  @JamesSteur