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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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Published on May 4, 2021

How To Spot Fake People (And Ways To Deal With Them)

How To Spot Fake People (And Ways To Deal With Them)

They say we are the average of the five persons we spend the most time with. For a minute, consider the people around you. Are they truly who your “tribe” should be or who you aspire to become in the future? Are they really genuine people who want to see you succeed? Or are they fake people who don’t really want to see you happy?

In this article, I’ll review why it is important to surround yourself with genuine individuals—the ones who care, bring something to our table, and first and foremost, who leave all fakeness behind.

How to Spot Fake People?

When you’ve been working in the helping professions for a while, spotting fake people gets a bit easier. There are some very clear signs that the person you are looking at is hiding something, acting somehow, or simply wanting to get somewhere. Most often, there is a secondary gain—perhaps attention, sympathy, or even a promotion.

Whatever it is, you’re better off working their true agenda and staying the hell away. Here are some things you should look out for to help spot fake people.

1. Full of Themselves

Fake people like to show off. They love looking at themselves in the mirror. They collect photos and videos of every single achievement they had and every part of their body and claim to be the “best at what they do.”

Most of these people are actually not that good in real life. But they act like they are and ensure that they appear better than the next person. The issue for you is that you may find yourself always feeling “beneath” them and irritated at their constant need to be in the spotlight.

2. Murky in Expressing Their Emotions

Have you ever tried having a deep and meaningful conversation with a fake person? It’s almost impossible. It’s because they have limited emotional intelligence and don’t know how they truly feel deep down—and partly because they don’t want to have their true emotions exposed, no matter how normal these might be.

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It’s much harder to say “I’m the best at what I do” while simultaneously sharing “average” emotions with “equal” people.

3. Zero Self-Reflection

To grow, we must accept feedback from others. We must be open to our strengths and to our weaknesses. We must accept that we all come in different shapes and can always improve.

Self-reflection requires us to think, forgive, admit fault, and learn from our mistakes. But to do that, we have to be able to adopt a level of genuineness and depth that fake people don’t routinely have. A fake person generally never apologizes, but when they do, it is often followed with a “but” in the next breath.

4. Unrealistic Perceptions

Fake people most often have an unrealistic perception of the world—things that they want to portray to others (pseudo achievements, materialistic gains, or a made-up sense of happiness) or simply how they genuinely regard life outside themselves.

A lot of fake people hide pain, shame, and other underlying reasons in their behavior. This could explain why they can’t be authentic and/or have difficulties seeing their environment for the way it objectively is (both good and bad).

5. Love Attention

As I mentioned earlier, the biggest sign that something isn’t quite right with someone’s behavior can be established by how much they love attention. Are you being interrupted every time you speak by someone who wants to make sure that the spotlight gets reverted back to them? Is the focus always on them, no matter the topic? If yes, you’re probably dealing with a fake person.

6. People Pleaser

Appreciation feels nice but having everyone like you is even better. While it is completely unrealistic for most people to please everyone all the time, fake people seem to always say yes in pursuit of constant approval.

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Now, this is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, these people are simply saying yes to things for their own satisfaction. Secondly, they often end up changing their minds or retracting their offer for one reason or another (“I would have loved to, but my grandmother suddenly fell ill.”), leaving you in the lurch for the 100th time this year.

7. Sarcasm and Cynicism

Behind the chronic pasted smile, fake people are well known for brewing resentment, jealousy, or anger. This is because, behind the postcard life, they are often unhappy. Sarcasm and cynicism are well known to act as a defense mechanism, sometimes even a diversion—anything so they can remain feeling on top of the world, whether it is through boosting themselves or bringing people down.

8. Crappy friend

Fake people are bad friends. They don’t listen to you, your feelings, and whatever news you might have to share. In fact, you might find yourself migrating away from them when you have exciting or bad news to share, knowing that it will always end up one way—their way. In addition, you might find that they’re not available when you truly need them or worse, cancel plans at the last minute.

It’s not unusual to hear that a fake person talks constantly behind people’s backs. Let’s be honest, if they do it to others, they’re doing it to you too. If your “friend” makes you feel bad constantly, trust me, they’re not achieving their purpose, and they’re simply not a good person to have around.

The sooner you learn to spot these fake people, the sooner you can meet meaningful individuals again.

How to Cope With Fake People Moving Forward?

It is important to remind yourself that you deserve more than what you’re getting. You are worthy, valuable, precious, and just as important as the next person.

There are many ways to manage fake people. Here are some tips on how to deal with them.

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1. Boundaries

Keep your boundaries very clear. As explained in the book Unlock Your Resilience, boundaries are what keep you sane when the world tries to suffocate you. When fake people become emotional vampires, make sure to keep your distances, limit contact, and simply replace them with more valuable interactions.

2. Don’t Take Their Behavior Personally

Sadly, they most likely have behaved this way before they knew you and will continue much longer after you have moved on. It isn’t about you. It is about their inner need to meet a void that you are not responsible for. And in all honesty, unless you are a trained professional, you are unlikely to improve it anyway.

3. Be Upfront and Honest About How You Feel

If your “friend” has been hurtful or engaged in behaviors you struggle with, let them know—nicely, firmly, however you want, but let them know that they are affecting you. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, you’ll feel better and when you’re ready to move on, you’ll know you tried to reach out. Your conscience is clear.

4. Ask for Advice

If you’re unsure about what you’re seeing or feeling, ask for advice. Perhaps a relative, a good friend, or a colleague might have some input as to whether you are overreacting or seeing some genuine concerns.

Now, don’t confuse asking for advice with gossiping behind the fake person’s back because, in the end, you don’t want to stoop down to their level. However, a little reminder as to how to stay on your own wellness track can never hurt.

5. Dig Deeper

Now, this one, I offer with caution. If you are emotionally strong, up to it, guaranteed you won’t get sucked into it, and have the skills to manage, perhaps you could dig into the reasons a fake person is acting the way they do.

Have they suffered recent trauma? Have they been rejected all their lives? Is their self-esteem so low that they must resort to making themselves feel good in any way they can? Sometimes, having an understanding of a person’s behavior can help in processing it.

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6. Practice Self-Care!

Clearly, putting some distance between the fake person and yourself is probably the way to go. However, sometimes, it takes time to get there. In the meantime, make sure to practice self-care, be gentle with yourself, and compensate with lots of positives!

Self-care can be as simple as taking a hot shower after talking to them or declining an invitation when you’re not feeling up to the challenge.

Spotting fake people isn’t too hard. They generally glow with wanna-be vibes. However, most often, there are reasons as to why they are like this. Calling their behavior might be the first step. Providing them with support might be the second. But if these don’t work, it’s time to stay away and surround yourself with the positivity that you deserve.

Final Thoughts

Remember that life is a rollercoaster. It has good moments, tough moments, and moments you wouldn’t change for the world. So, look around and make sure that you take the time to choose the right people to share it all with.

We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with, so take a good look around and choose wisely!

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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