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7 Life Lessons Grad School Teaches You That You Won’t Learn In The Classroom

7 Life Lessons Grad School Teaches You That You Won’t Learn In The Classroom

“Better you than me,” they said. “You’ll burn out,” they said.

I can’t count the number of times I heard this when I announced in late 2007 that I’d planned to go straight on for my Ph.D. after finishing my Master’s. Eight years later, with both degrees in hand as well as a number of gray hairs that I’m pretty sure I didn’t have when I embarked on this mad journey into Middle Earth to battle a dragon disguised as a dissertation, I sometimes think the only skill I’ve learned involves crafting twitter-length poems about wine, coffee, and sleep that would make Lord Byron weep. However, reflecting on the experience, I realize that I’ve emerged with a set of transferable life skills that definitely didn’t appear in the course objectives of any of my syllabi.

When I entered grad school on the cusp of what would transpire to be a seemingly endless economic recession, a Master’s and a Ph.D. still spelled job security; now many of my colleagues and I sometimes feel like our degrees are worthless slips of paper, but as I’ve spent much of this past year finding increasingly innovative ways to market my skills both inside and outside of the academy, I’ve realized how much I’ve grown both as a scholar and as a person. If you’re contemplating grad school, currently working toward a graduate degree, or in a transitional phase of job-seeking or career changing, take a few minutes to reflect on these seven life lessons that grad school teaches you that you don’t learn in the classroom.

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1. Practice self-discipline in whatever you do

Okay, let’s start with the hardest one before I lose your attention. Much of the research conducted in grad school is self-directed. Yes, you have advisers and colleagues, but no one is standing behind you, looking over your shoulder and reminding you of deadlines. This makes it easy to fall into the “it’ll get done when it gets done” trap.

When I was working on my dissertation I adopted Erin Templeton’s “rule of 200,” the only way I ever managed to get any writing done. This technique, in which you commit to writing 200 words every day, has served me well both in my academic and professional writing, enabling me to juggle multiple projects and meet deadlines. Self-discipline is sometimes the only thing that stands between you and the completion of anything on your to-do list, whether it’s meeting a professional deadline, kicking a bad habit, or reorganizing your closet. Long-term projects and goals can intimidate us because when we look at the “big picture,” we feel overwhelmed by the breadth of what we have to accomplish, so forcing yourself to meet regular minimum benchmarks and doing your best to stick to them will help propel you forward.

2. Life is essentially one big juggling act

The further along you move in life, the more responsibilities you’ll find heaped on your plate. Grad school will test your juggling skills in the proverbial fire better than anything else. When you have to balance coursework, teaching or other professional responsibilities, committee work, and your personal life, you find a way to keep your balls in the air, because you have to. That seminar paper won’t write itself, but the lawn won’t mow itself either, nor will your car fix itself or that leaky bathtub magically stop dripping.

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Many graduate students have to juggle school with other adult responsibilities like families and careers, and as overwhelmed and overtaxed as you sometimes feel, it’s all essentially an endurance test that makes you much better prepared for whatever balls life throws at you when you learn sooner rather than later how to exercise your juggling reflex. Of course, part of mastering juggling is also knowing your limits, so don’t overtax yourself either.

3. You can survive on very little when necessary

Grad students know better than anyone how it feels to run on empty. Whether it’s too little sleep, too little caffeine, too little food, too little money, or too little patience (which is likely caused by some combination of the above deprivations), you eventually get used to the feeling and learn to cope. This can likely serve you well in other areas of your life too; when money is tight, you’ll learned to stretch the budget. When you’ve been up all night with a sick child, you’ll drag yourself to work on 2 hours of sleep and half a cup of coffee (because the dog spilled the other half and you didn’t have time to make more). You’ll realize that just when you think the energy well has run dry, there’s miraculously one drop left.

4. Cling to your friends like a life raft

Of all the things I’m grateful for having gained in my experience as a grad student, my deep, life-enriching friendships are the things I cherish most. When you spend six months co-authoring a paper with a colleague, spending every weekend pouring blood, sweat, tears, and vodka into a masterpiece, something happens. You become soulmates. Somewhere between the first drink and the fiftieth, you realize that you can no longer remember what life was like before you met each other.

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I’ve shared a lot of professional and personal experiences with my grad school friends. I’ve traveled with them, taught with them, shared meals with them, cried with them, and drank with them; I’ve even dated them. Anyone who’s spent any time in grad school knows the danger of falling down the research rabbit hole. Your friends are the ones who knock on your door when they haven’t seen you in a week to make sure you know what day it is. They distract you with alcohol and Jane Austen movies the night before your dissertation defense. They celebrate your successes, share in your sorrows, and keep you from falling apart at the seams. They’ve seen you at your best and at your worst, and trust me, you don’t want to burn those bridges. They know too much and might become a liability.

5. You’ll never stop learning

Just the other day, I had a conversation with a friend about a book she’d just read, and my immediate reaction was “Damn, why didn’t I know about this book when I was writing my dissertation?” The truth is, one book probably wouldn’t have upgraded my research from passable to earth-shattering, and I’m probably going to read the book anyway. Even if I never use it, it’s more knowledge I get to squirrel away for a rainy day. My students know that I base my teaching philosophy on the belief that the most powerful learning occurs outside the classroom, because the “real world” is where the rubber hits the road, and you find yourself applying your skills. Life is one big classroom, and no matter how much you know, you can always stand to learn something new.

6. Confidence is less about what you know and more about how you present your knowledge

Anyone who has spent time in the academy knows that intellectual snobbery often makes the rounds with the regularity of the latest Lolcat pictures. Especially when you’re new to higher ed, this can make you feel microscopically small and insecure in the midst of the huge ideas that everyone else seems to have. In the grip of your insecurities, you can easily forget that everyone else probably feels just as small and just as scared as you do. Someone once told me that talking about your dissertation is basically lying through your teeth about an argument you haven’t developed until you realize you actually believe in the lie.

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I realized that I did actually “know my stuff” one morning when a student asked me a random historical question about Queen Victoria, and I plucked the answer straight off the top of my head. The student didn’t know, and didn’t need to know, that I only had that answer so readily available because I’d just come across it the day before in my research and it hadn’t yet been obscured by everything else I was thinking about, like the pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch on Instagram that I absolutely hadn’t been drooling over during my office hours. The salient point to take away here is that my student asked me a question, and I had an answer. There’s nothing more to it than that. Whenever you’re feeling insecure or insignificant, just sip your coffee and look busy and important. If you do it confidently, you might fool even yourself.

7. It’s okay to cry

There’s no crying in grad school. Except when there is. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently covered a trend making the rounds on Facebook involving a series of greeting cards about crying in grad school, one of which congratulates the recipient on “not crying in front of your adviser.” This humorously conveys, albeit with a sad kernel of truth, that despite the popular idea that such behavior is frowned upon, grad students cry as much as they drink. Really seasoned grad students can do both simultaneously. It’s a gift.

Stressful situations cause anxiety, and anxiety triggers emotional responses like tears. Crying isn’t a weakness. It’s your brain telling you that something is wrong and you need to chill the heck out. Crying can also help you feel better. According to Dr. Judith Orloff, it “stimulates the production of endorphins, our bodies’ natural pain-killer and ‘feel-good’ hormones.” She goes on to say that humans are the only living creatures definitively known to shed emotional tears, though studies suggest that monkeys are capable of the same. If you send a monkey to grad school, you can probably prove this more conclusively. Simply put, you cry because you’re human, so let the tears flow when they need to and know that tomorrow is a brand new day.

Featured photo credit: book-reading via pixabay.com

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Last Updated on March 25, 2020

How to Crush Your Lack of Motivation and Always Stay Motivated

How to Crush Your Lack of Motivation and Always Stay Motivated

How many times have you not achieved your goals and let yourself down due to your lack of motivation? When you’re not wallowing in sadness and self-pity, you are too busy procrastinating till you can’t anymore and before you know it, you are part of vicious cycle of anxiety and stress.

Whether it’s losing weight or bringing your business to fruition – motivation is essential for growth and success in every sphere of our lives.

That said, it is not easy staying motivated. In order to constantly stay motivated, you need to take ownership of your life and consciously make efforts in that direction.

Well, it’s never too late to take matters in your hands and change the course of your life. Here are 11 effective ways to crush your lack of motivation and always stay motivated:

1. Write Your Goals

The power of writing goals down has always been underestimated. Why write when you can remember, right? Wrong.

Our thoughts are all over the place and the first step to achieve your goals is to organize your thoughts. So, write your goals down, however big or small they might be. Make them as specific as possible and assign deadlines to each of them.

As you write them down and revisit them regularly, they get further drilled in your head, taking you closer to your goals. Doing this small exercise helps you to remain focused, motivated and lets you track your progress with ease.

Start today – take to your laptop or a diary and get down to writing what you wish to achieve in life.

2. Beat Procrastination

Your lack of motivation and procrastination go hand in hand. Every time you procrastinate, your motivation levels take a greater hit. The only way to bring an end to this loop is to stop procrastinating.

Next time you find yourself putting off something for ‘later’, stop and assess the reasons behind it. Get to the root of the cause and eliminate it in order to overcome this poor habit of procrastinating which is sabotaging your life and mental health.

Take a look at this guide and learn how to beat procrastination:

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What Is Procrastination (And the Complete Guide to Stop Procrastinating)

When you finally overcome procrastination, you will realize the positive impact it has on your mood and motivation levels.

3. Celebrate Small Wins

In the quest to achieve the bigger goals in life, we often forget to celebrate the smaller wins along the way. An achievement is an achievement – be it big or small, it deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated.

Finished a project on time? Reward yourself. Managed to run on the treadmill for a good one hour? Pat yourself on the back. Found time to meditate? Celebrate it.

It is these small achievements that reinstate that we are on the right path and take us one step closer to the bigger goals.

So, get into the habit of recognizing and appreciating small wins. You will be surprised to see how this practice helps you stay motivated.

4. Practice Gratitude

It’s easier to whine about what we don’t have rather than counting our blessings. Isn’t it?

Making gratefulness a part of your life is a very important step to retain high motivational levels. It revitalizes our spirits and renews our enthusiasm for life.

So, how do you practice gratitude? For starters, keep a gratitude journal to jot down what you are grateful for, express your gratitude to people you love and spread positivity wherever you go. If you need some inspiration to be thankful for, here it is:

60 Things To Be Thankful For In Life

By doing so, you begin to focus more on what you have rather than what you don’t and that is a great start to stay motivated.

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5. Be Optimistic

Life is not always hunky dory. There will be bad days when things aren’t going in your favor, when you feel lost and all you want to do is give up.

At such times, instead of letting negativity take over your life, adopt an optimistic approach to life. Quit overthinking, ask the right questions and focus on finding solutions.

Yes, there will be hurdles along the way but if you hang on to positive affirmations and hopes, the journey will be a lot smoother. So, with every passing day, sow the seeds of positivity and you are sure to build a positive environment around you.

6. Don’t Dwell on the Past

A lot of times, our lack of motivation stems from the habit of dwelling on the past. This gives rise to fear and regrets, preventing us from making progress in the present day.

Dwelling on the past is nothing but a waste of time. Understand that the past is long gone, and you cannot do anything to change that.

What you can do is make your present day worthwhile. Instead of looking back and having regrets, learn from your mistakes, forgive yourself and move on.

So, the next time you find your mind wandering off to the past, be determined to change the way you think and consciously concentrate on living in the present. This guide can help you:

10 Simple Steps To Let Go Of The Past

7. Face your Fears

You can never find motivation where there is fear. Identify the fear that is pulling you back and tackle it.

If you don’t face your fear head on, you cannot expect to conquer it and renew your motivation.

Ask yourself: What is stopping you? What are you scared of?

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Once you accept your fear, you can work on an action plan and think of solutions to overcome it. This article will give you some effective tips on conquering your fears:

How to Overcome Your Irrational Fears (That Stop You from Succeeding)

Seek external help if required but don’t choose to turn a blind eye over your fears – it will only aggravate matters.

8. Visualize your Success

You must have heard the famous quote, ‘see it to believe it’. That is exactly what visualization is about.

One of the most effective self-motivation techniques, visualizing the process to your desired outcome helps you move in a positive direction and achieve your goal.

Close your eyes and focus all your energies on the minutest of details that will take you where you want to reach. Doing this exercise everyday inspires you to keep going and not lose hope. The vision of attaining success will drive you to do better while instilling belief and confidence.

9. Find Inspiration

Can’t seem to find inspiration inwards? Don’t panic. There are plenty of external sources to gain inspiration from.

From motivational books and quotes to speeches, films and apps – it is a good idea to take help from motivational material to rekindle your spirits and regain your motivation.

Everyone is wired differently. For instance, a self-help book might work for your friend, but it might do nothing to move you. So, find what inspires you and turn to it when you are in desperate need for motivation.

Finding inspiration externally fills you with hope and sometimes that is all you need.

10. Enjoy Downtime

You are clearly exhausted with all the running you’re doing in life. So much, that you don’t even have time to stop and think what’s causing you so much unhappiness. All you know is that you are lacking motivation and everyday seems to have become a struggle.

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Now, that’s certainly not how you should live the rest of your life.

You need to schedule downtime for yourself, relax and give your mind and body some rest. Take a vacation, indulge in hobbies, meet some friends, put your hair down and stop with all the overthinking. It is important to do things that make you happy in order to think clearly and stay motivated.

11. Meditate Regularly

Meditation lets you take control of your mind. It improves focus and concentration while helping you relax.

Whenever you have had a tough day or find your thoughts going places, the best way to calm yourself down is by closing your eyes and meditating. It helps you to remove all the unnecessary frills in life and keeps you on the right track.

Include meditation in your daily schedule and you are sure to see an improvement in your productivity and motivation.

The Bottom Line

Practicing these simple exercises isn’t the tough part, what’s tough is religiously doing them every day.

However, don’t expect to get rid of your lack of motivation overnight. There will still be days when you will be low on energy but by making these conscious efforts to stay motivated, you are sure to see a vast change in your perspective and your response to bad days.

So, start today and be committed to making a positive change in your life.

More Tips About Staying Motivated

Featured photo credit: Sonnie Hiles via unsplash.com

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