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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 November 4, 2020

15 Simple Ways To Make Self Improvement That Will Change Your Life

15 Simple Ways To Make Self Improvement That Will Change Your Life

Self-improvement doesn’t have to be big mind-blowing changes; it can actually be simple steps to improve upon what you already have to get you where you want to be.  However, what you will need is consistency, determination and wiliness to try some things that will stretch and challenge you.

Rather than setting your sights way off into the future, which leaves you feeling like you’ll never make it, you can start following these simple and effective self-improvement steps today.  So if you want to make an immediate impact on your life and are willing to take action, then keep reading— you’ll going to love these!

1. Be willing to work hard.

As with anything in life, if you want something, you’ve got to work hard to get it.  This doesn’t mean you burn the candle at both ends, leaving you exhausted and leaving your personal life in ruins.  It merely means that when you want something badly enough, you’ll put in the time to get there.  Action is what’s important here and the more ‘inspired’ the action is, the better the results in the end.

2. Make sure you have friends who you can talk to.

Sharing the load is important as with any self-improvement. If you can communicate with others and get feedback on how you are doing then that’s great.  We all need ‘cheerleaders’ in our corner to keep us going when times get hard, but you also need to have people who will tell you how it is even when you don’t want to hear it.  So make sure you have a good support network around you, especially those people whose opinions you respect.

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3. Adapt to your circumstances rather than over-thinking them.

Sometimes, we can hit a hard period. Perhaps you’ve lost your job or your partner has left you.  Instead of over analyzing the situation, learn to adapt to your circumstances and accept them as they are.  It’s not about making your circumstances into some kind of a drama; remember, what you focus on expands which means you’ll get more of it.  You then don’t become your problems and you’ll feel a lot less burdened by them.

4. Ensure that you use your time wisely.

Time is of the essence, some might say; whilst others will say that time is an illusion.  One thing we do know is that you have one life on this planet, so how you use that time is of the utmost importance.  So how can you use your time wisely? Only you know how to do that, but look at how you currently spend your days: do you sit working all day, get home, eat and then sit slumped in front of the TV for the rest of the evening?  Your time on this earth is precious, so isn’t it time to make use of the time you have left? Try something new, go for a walk, learn a new language or meditate but make sure it’s something you absolutely love.

5. Always be consistent.

A wonderful way to self-improvement is to make changes to how you do things.  For example, with your friends, are you always the unreliable one who bows out of an arrangement just before it happens? Or are you someone who starts a new exercise routine and then stops doing it 3 weeks into it?  Whatever it is and whatever you do, always be consistent. When you make a commitment, stick to it. It will improve your life immeasurably you’ll feel more confident and happier with yourself, especially because you’ll know that whatever you tackle, you’ll be able to consistently do it!

6. Go and find your happy place.

No, I’m not saying “place” as in popping to your local bar or restaurant and gorging yourself on your favorite drinks or food. What I’m saying is to find out what you love to do, what makes you happy and go there.  Your happy place is a place where you find peace, where you lose yourself and feel contented.  Meditation is a great way to find your happy place; it brings you back to you and ensures that you are always living in the present moment.

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7. Make sure you embrace all your emotions.

In life you are going to find that it throws you some difficult challenges, sometimes it will bring out your fears and lead you into uncertainty, and other times it will be joyful.  It’s important to embrace all emotions that come up in your life, embrace them wholeheartedly and understand why they are there and then let them go.  Try not to dismiss or resist them because remember “what you resist, persists,” so embrace them each and every time.

8. Always be prepared to step out of your comfort zone.

The idea of stepping out of your comfort zone for some people can leave you paralyzed with fear; however for any changing in your life, your comfort zone will always have to be stepped out of.  It doesn’t have to be something big, like doing a sky-dive or something just as crazy. However, it’s worthwhile to change something that you’d once have feared, like going to the cinema on your own or eating at a sushi restaurant when the thought of trying raw fish which would normally mean you running for the hills.

So try something new—it doesn’t have to be wacky, but it has to challenge you!

9. Be on hand to help others.

Whether it’s helping a stranger on the street or a family member or a friend helping someone else either in their time of need, lending a helping hand is a wonderful and simple self-improvement to make.  Giving to others is not only beneficial to those you are helping but also to yourself; it can give you a sense of purpose, of contribution and also takes your mind of your own troubles and worries.

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10. Live in the present moment.

A wonderful self-improvement tool is to live in the present moment, to live in the now.  It is within this moment that you’ll appreciate all that you have and see the beauty in the simplest of things.  Being mindful of your current circumstances and bringing your mind back to where it belongs will bring about a happier way of life instead of constant worry or stressing about the past or future—both of which do not exist. Only the present moment exists. When you get used to living that way, you’ll never want to go back!

11. Learn something new.

There is nothing so liberating as learning something new; it can lift both your confidence and self-esteem and give you a great reason to meet new people.  If you continually top up your brain activity by learning something new all the time, you’ll feel on top of your game and want to share the knowledge you have learned. There is nothing quite so empowering as learning a new tool in life that can either improve your circle of friends or raise confidence levels—or both!

Reading is also a great way to help you learn something new:

12. Exercise daily.

This seems an obvious one, but exercise is so important not only to your health but also to your spirit.  We all know that after exercise, the world can feel a brighter and more positive place, so why don’t we do it more often?  Exercise isn’t about getting the perfect body or losing weight; it’s more about feeling good inside and out!  With a healthy body comes a healthy mind—so start something today. Even if it’s just a daily walk, it’s better than staying on that couch, again.

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13. Go to new places, travel a bit.

I’m not saying go fly off to some far away distant forgotten land—although you can if you so wish. It’s more about going to new places and experiencing life outside of your own back yard.  Too many of us stay in one place too often. We only see the same people, the same streets and do the same things each and every day.  If you want to improve your life, get out there and see the world and what it can offer.  You can start by going to a town or city you’ve never been to in your own country and checking out the architecture, the landscapes and the people.  Anything new is good, so get out there!

14. Listen to uplifting music and dance.

If there’s one thing that can really improve your life and get you excited about it, it’s listening to great uplifting music and dancing.  When was the last time you really let go?  Let it all hang loose and got into a piece of music and let yourself go?  Dancing, like exercise, makes you feel great. It releases all kinds of emotions and can make you feel unbelievably good.  Self-improvement isn’t all about the serious stuff; it can be something as simple as finding new music, music that inspires you and makes you dance and have fun!

15. Get up earlier than normal.

This is the last one, and it’s last because it’s one of those self-improvement tips that we all know is a good thing, yet we seem to avoid it at all costs!  If you think about it, the earliest part of the day is when your brain is most active because it’s been turned off for the last 7 hours or so.  So don’t you think it’s best to get all those things above done in the morning?  Things like exercise, meditation and dancing, which can all be done in the first part of the day.  Take it from me: this early morning stuff can really get your day started with a bang!

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Featured photo credit: Laura Chouette via unsplash.com

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