“Did I take on too much?” One person’s view on how to survive grad school

I took on a lot with this blog– make that school and life, really– and I know it. Why did I take on so much? Because I had to. My mind, and therefore this blog, is (more or less) all over the place: I post reviews of scholarly works (for the purpose of studying) and movies (for the purpose of giving my brain a damn break); I post about what I am crocheting (to keep with my original intentions when I decided to create a blog as well as to maintain sanity) or generally creating; and I post about the woes of being a grad student. We all need a way to sort things out and cope when life gets difficult.

Edvard Munch, “The Scream” (detail), c. 1893

Grad school is hard. Sometimes it is fun, but it is work. A lot of work. I would describe my relationship with grad school as a love/hate relationship: I love learning about art and its wide array of issues, but I hate the amount of time I spend each week buried in a book, ranting in a classroom, or commuting to and from school (which ends up taking 3 hours round-trip some days). Sometimes it is difficult for me to cope with everything that I took on, but I also knew when I decided to go back to school that I was in for two years of, well, hell (although maybe I did not acknowledge my own shortcomings before I started).

The most difficult thing for me in grad school is stress management. Probably everyone who has ever been in grad school can attest to this to some degree. I am already a relatively high-strung person, and almost everything about school stresses me out: my performance in the classroom (and therefore subsequent competitiveness with other students), my limited amount of free time, the occasional difficulty in understanding material, and the ridiculous commute. The worst feeling for me is that of failure. Even though I am not actually failing, I am certainly not the best in my class. But you know what? I am slowly learning to be ok with that.

This is only 2 years out of my life, and when I graduate with my MA in Spring 2013, it will all have been worth it. It’s just the process of getting there that sucks. I have had to come up with coping strategies, which I am not always successful in implementing, but I at least try to remind myself that sometimes the stress just isn’t worth it.

Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger, “Between the Sheets” (2007)

You are going to be taken outside of your comfort zone. Your instructors are going to challenge you more than you have been challenged in your life. You are going to spend more time thinking, researching and, at least in the case of the humanities, reading than you ever have before. Though it often feels like punishment, it is all to your benefit. This leads me to my next point.

You are good enough to be there. Sure, you may not have known quite what you were getting yourself into when you decided to go back to grad school, and sometimes it is so much of a challenge that you will regularly ask yourself how you got into the program. This happens to me almost weekly during the school year. But you were admitted for a reason: your professors saw something in you and your work that they knew they could develop further. It may not happen right away, but you will eventually see that you are learning and growing, and that you made a good decision.

Your classmates are not your competition. A lot of people are going to disagree with me on this point, but seriously: there is no need to get bitchy and high-and-mighty with your classmates. You are in school, and though you are developing skills for the real world, school itself is not the real world. Save the competitiveness for the job market, and instead offer yourself to your classmates for assistance. Plus, I personally have found in the working world that being a kind, hard-working person with a unique skill set has made me more marketable than anything else.

Talk to your professors for guidance. This one took me a surprisingly long time to learn, as I am a rather stand-offish person and prefer working independently. However, I did much better on a very tough paper last Spring because I met three times with my professor to discuss and develop ideas. Your professors are there to teach you and they want you to succeed. Utilize their knowledge, skills, and advice!

Introductions and conclusions are your best friends. Most of the class-related reading I have to do is essay-oriented, and depending on the scholar, this rule does not always apply. However, most academics have a relatively clear introduction to their essay that cogently outlines what their aim is with the present work. Pay close attention to this. The conclusion wraps things up nicely, so pay close attention to it as well. However, the intro/conclusion rule applies best to books. Take good notes on both of these chapters, then read select chapters from the book that supports your research. It also helps to find some book reviews that thoroughly analyze it.

Guess where I’m interning!

GET EXPERIENCE. Grad school is the best time to do internships and volunteer work in your field. Why? Because you are a student and many institutions (ex. museums) are happy to get some additional help/teach budding professionals. I know for museums, it is much easier to land an internship when you are in school or fresh out of school, so take advantage of the opportunity for experience. Yes, you will sometimes have to do less-than-glamorous work, and a lot of the time it’s unpaid, but if you do it well, you will eventually make a name for yourself and have something worth putting on your resume’.

Learn to be ok with your limits. I discovered very quickly that my very vague idea to later pursue a Ph.D was officially out of the question. Not only did the idea of having to go through grad school for at least another 7 years sound ridiculously unappealing after just 3 months of Master’s degree-level coursework, but I simply am not cut out for that level of work and thought. And that’s fine! You can manipulate your educational background into something that will work with your career. You just have to know who to talk to and what you need to do to supplement your goal.

Salvador Dali, “The Persistence of Memory” (1931)

Learn the art of time management. I’m rarely ever perfect in this area when it comes to weekly homework, and I have often ended up paying for it later. However, I at least start my research for term papers early. Last semester, I talked to one of my professors within two weeks of starting class to bounce ideas off of him for my final paper, and I would squeeze in my research here and there throughout the semester. I began writing my paper over a month before it was due, and in the last week, I crammed as much work in as I could. Seriously, don’t let the research slide, its final product usually makes up the bulk of your grade. And on a similar time-related note…

Don’t forget about “me time.” You don’t have to have your nose in a book or be typing away at the computer all day in order to be successful in grad school. You will go crazy if you try to do nothing but school stuff all the time, and going crazy doesn’t do anyone any good. Take some time to do something non-school related: go for a walk, watch TV, do yoga, play with your pet– whatever floats your boat.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “Summer” (c. 1572)

Be kind to your body. Exercise isn’t high on my list of priorities, and my body has suffered as a result. But I am trying to do better for myself! You will help your stress levels a lot if you get your blood flowing, not only because you are releasing endorphins but because you are doing something good for you. They have also done studies on how eating total crap can mess with your head– something worth keeping in mind.

Don’t forget about your relationships. It is so easy to get caught up in everything you have to do to survive school that you end up forgetting the people around you. One of my biggest regrets is that I did not call my Grandma in the last few months before she died. This is one of the main reasons why I am crocheting as much stuff as I can to donate at the end of the summer.

I am in no position to preach, but these are a few of the things that I wish people had told me before I started school. And I still have to tell myself these things everyday. Grad school can be a great time in your life to grow, mature, and discover what you want out of life. Sometimes it doesn’t always pan out like you wanted, but I guess it’s a risk you have to be willing to take.


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