How I’m surviving my first year of grad school (and still enjoying it)

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The cowl I am making

Starting grad school has been a bit of a roller coaster and everyone seems to say that the first year is the hardest. So far, I still enjoy showing up everyday so here is a list of advice I have received and have tried to incorporate into my lifestyle that might help if you find yourself overwhelmed.

  1. Get (and keep) a hobby. This isn’t anything new. I have found that when I take a few hours a week to do non-math things that I enjoy, I am more productive while working. I received this advice frequently before I started grad school but it still took a while to sink in. At the beginning of this semester one of the students in my cohort has started a knitting circle that meets every other week. This lets us be social and have some project in progress that we can pick up anytime we need a break. Knitting circle gives me incentive to be productive before we get together. It also helps me take a break from work so there is some progress between gatherings. Other students in my cohort try to go rock climbing a few times a week or workout at the gym. Some plan days to go skating at the ice rink or hiking when the weather is nice. I suggest doing something you enjoy enough to make sure it happens as often as possible.
  2. Confront “imposter syndrome”. Almost everyone feels like the dumbest person in the room sometimes and even though I have been told this, I still feel isolated sometimes and like I’m waiting for someone to find out it was a mistake to let me in to the program. It feels awful. My cohort has been very open about this issue so the isolation is less of the issue. If I feel this way, I can walk into someone’s office from the same class and say “I feel like the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on,” and they will respond with something to the effect of “I felt that way today, too!” or “it’s hard stuff; let’s figure it out,” and we open up the chocolate stash and move on. The sooner we all figure out that we aren’t alone in feeling lost, the less demoralizing year one will be.
  3. Prioritize. I received some really good advice from a student in her third year of grad school. Anytime she finds herself frustrated about something she is spending a lot of time on, she asks herself three questions:
    1. Is it making me smarter?
    2. Is it improving my grade?
    3. If the answer to the first two is “no”, then why am I doing it?

    If the first two answers are “no” and the last question doesn’t have a clear or good answer, she stops doing it. The key here is to be realistic with the things you spend your energy on to be sure you’re spending it where it needs to go.

  4. Schedule efficiently. During the day, my energy level and brainpower fluctuate and I’m really not good at doing any real work during the low times. For a while, I tried to just do homework until it was done and deal with the other things I had to do but I ended up spending way too much time on certain tasks and would be really frustrated. Instead, I know that mornings come with high energy and brainpower so I work on math then. Early afternoon is a very different story and I’m pretty useless for homework so I grade, respond to emails, or whatever else is on my to-do list. Later, I’ll get back to homework or studying. Another strategy I’ve heard is to keep a list split up by how much brainpower is required and to assess your level when you go to start a task and pick the highest item you can handle. The reality is that not all time is created equal but everything needs to get done.

I am still working on taking my own advice but these are the things I look at when I’m overwhelmed. Feel free to comment any other suggestions or strategies that you find useful!

About Sarah K. Salmon

I am a graduate student in mathematics studying algebraic combinatorics flavored by Coxeter groups at University of Colorado, Boulder. I earned my B.S. in mathematics at Northern Arizona University in May 2014.
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