Leaping through fire — or, preparing to go to graduate school

Words of wisdom: grad school edition.

I remember graduate school quite well, partly because the memories are still fresh (I got my doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of Miami in 2012), partly because it was such a tremendous experience and partly because it has no comparison to anything before or after it. What I learned in graduate school was of course a lot about how to become a better clinician, scientist and community steward. But I also learned how to steer my own professional development, how to balance a plethora of demands and how to “code switch” between the expectations and norms of the therapy room, the research lab and new social settings. I learned how to give deeply of my time and still save some energy for a new puppy, my family and my outside interests (which multiplied like bacteria on a petri dish). Which means you can too.

This spring I had the delight of presenting with several students at the Midwestern Psychological Association’s annual conference on how graduate school is different from being an undergraduate in a session we titled “Making the Leap.” If visual learning is your thing, I started the presentation with a cartoon of a unicorn leaping gaily across clouds as if suspended by a rainbow. I said, “Sorry, this is not grad school.” I then switched slides and showed a picture of an endurance runner jumping through rings of fire in a competition that seems best left to professional stunt actors. A roomful of academically eager juniors and seniors laughed nervously. Were they really ready for this? I assured them they could be if they began thinking critically about the unique demands of graduate school. Indeed, it was a path that others have traversed before them and lived to tell.

Here, I’m sharing the important points from my co-presenters, Stephanie Fries, Halley Cooper-Shumway, Matt Jamnik, Zachary Petzel and Elizabeth Tobin. They are wonderful students from various schools and fields of psychology with great advice. Here’s the best of what they had to say:

– Understand that graduate work is always “in progress,” so you can rarely say you have nothing to do. Even between semesters, there is research you could do, clients you might be required to see and preparations you could make for conferences.

– Despite this rolling set of commitments, you will have set deadlines for some things. For other milestones, such as when you propose your thesis/dissertation, you’ll largely have to determine a timetable for yourself. Now would be a good time to faithfully practice staying organized. Use a paper-based or Web/app-based planner and a task manager to keep you on track toward graduating.

– Don’t worry about comparing yourself to others, since everyone around you is smart. You’ll probably get A’s and B’s in almost every class (as will the people around you), making GPAs much less relevant compared to college. It is best to work together rather than compete.

– You, and only you, are in charge of your own self-improvement. Faculty will mentor you in many areas, but graduate school insists on your taking initiative for the things you need. Identify these things, make them known and develop a plan and support system to get them addressed.

– You will formally or informally mentor others. Some of you will teach undergraduate students or help them acquire important research skills. In a year or more, the very help you may be getting from grad students at your university, you may be called upon to give yourself.

– Don’t strive to be the best in everything. Not only is there no time, but this is the phase of professional development to become really proficient, stellar maybe, in just some things.

– At the same time, use this setting to develop your “weaker” skills. That means taking risks, practicing something less than ideal for you and seeking feedback.

– Be kind to yourself. You are putting your mind and body through a marathon, so remember to rest and honor your needs for self-care.

– Whenever possible, indulge. Appreciate the good things in life because the daily grind deserves its counterpart: a slower, more relaxed way of experiencing the world.

– When it comes to being academically successful, there are some general rules that most try to follow: Treat grad school like a 40-hour per week job. Develop good relationships with your peers; you’ll be working very closely together. Find the right school and adviser for you. Move toward independence from your adviser over time. Speak up if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Ask for lots of advice. Know where and with whom you work best. Write every weekday. Regularly review your CV and research statement.

– And finally, when it comes to finding a balance between school and the rest of your life, these tips were proffered. First, consider grad school as a marathon, not a sprint. Work hard but schedule your free time if you need to so it won’t disappear. In the same vein, take time for your loved ones and yourself every day. You may not see this modeled in your faculty, so don’t feel guilty about it. Get as much done on campus as you can, so your home is your haven. Find a hobby and/or exercise.

There you have it, from some people not only surviving, but thriving in graduate school. Hopefully some of this advice will resonate with you. If you’re lucky, maybe you can bring this list to a graduate you trust and ask them to respond and elaborate based on their own pathways.

Best wishes. Don’t hesitate to check out resources across APA to help you make the leap, including from the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students and APA’s bookstore.

Reposted with permission from APA’s Psychology Student Network 

About the Author

Eddy Ameen is the assistant director of APAGS. Prior to joining the staff in 2011, he served as director of an outreach program for homeless youth. Originally from Rhode Island, he earned his PhD in counseling psychology from the University of Miami.