Notes on Surviving and/or Flourishing in Graduate School

Mark Ortiz (far left) graduated from the University of Alabama in May 2015 with degrees in Religious and Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Geography at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he studies the connections between global climate politics and ethics.

Survival…, what a dreary thought. As a climate change researcher, the concept of survival calls to mind dystopian images of underground bunkers, moribund ecosystems, and tough political trade-offs. Graduate school, while taxing, is (or should be) considerably less miserable and trying than these apocalyptic scenarios.

That said, graduate school is difficult. I’ve found it helpful during my short tenure to mine the wisdom of people who have been through it before – professors and colleagues further along in my program especially. Here, I offer a couple of the lessons I’ve learned during my first three semesters of graduate school which will hopefully have resonance beyond the walls of the academy:

1) Find your tempo

Modern life often moves at a dizzying pace. Graduate school is no exception. Most graduate programs require demanding coursework, seemingly endless hours of study, and – in the humanities and social sciences at least – a lot of writing. If your program is like mine, you will be encouraged all the while to conduct original research which will eventually form the basis of a master’s thesis or PhD dissertation and, relatedly, to apply for grant and fellowship funding to support your research activities.

The impulse for many is to work hurriedly and indefatigably, churning out assignments, proposals, and conference papers with a machine-like efficiency. While this is a common model for surviving graduate school, I would suggest that thriving in advanced study requires finding one’s own rhythm or pace. For some, the optimal speed comes along with the caffeinated buzz of the all night work session. For others (myself included), success stems from decelerating and allowing ideas ample time to gestate and evolve. Of course, a multitude of other factors particular to one’s program come into play when determining the correct tempo of graduate scholarship, but – as an adviser reminded me last year – it is always possible to slow down or speed up as necessary, even if only a bit.

2) Be an omnivore

I don’t mean this as a dietary prescription. Rather, I mean participate omnivorously in life within and beyond graduate school. Chances are graduate school will present you with a smorgasbord of opportunities, from on-campus lectures, to conferences, to potential conversations with interesting people on your campus or in your discipline. Last year, I spent so much time burrowed in the books that I attended pitiably few of the plethora of free events, talks, and meetings at my university and in the surrounding area. It is my greatest graduate school regret thus far.

To me, participating omnivorously means attending events directly related to your academic or life interests as well as those activities only tangentially related to what you do. You never know when you will develop a new fascination or encounter a new idea or project that will reshape your interests and life ambitions. Similarly, tap into the wealth of knowledge that the faculty and staff of universities possess. Arrange coffee or lunch conversations with faculty members whose work interests you, even if it has nothing to do with your own. Graduate school is one of the best places for reinventing oneself and experimenting with new ideas and concepts. Even if your degree program requires specialization in a subject or topic, there are few limits to the ways in which a general knowledge can enhance even the most hyper-specific work.

Much more could be added to this dyad of modest suggestions, but I hope these help orient you to embark on the odyssey of graduate school.