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

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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.

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Featured photo credit: book-reading via pixabay.com

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Last Updated on July 20, 2021

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

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How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

“Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

Warming up

If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:

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  1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
  2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
  3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

Stay hydrated

Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.

Meditate

Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

2. Focus on your goal

One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.

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Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

3. Convert negativity to positivity

There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

4. Understand your content

Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.

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However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

“No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

5. Practice makes perfect

Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

6. Be authentic

There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.

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Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

7. Post speech evaluation

Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

Improve your next speech

As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:

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  • How did I do?
  • Are there any areas for improvement?
  • Did I sound or look stressed?
  • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
  • Was I saying “um” too often?
  • How was the flow of the speech?

Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:

Reference

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