The miserable graduate student is a well-known figure in academic lore. The long-running strip PhD Comics even offers a taxonomy of miserable grad students. There’s the unnamed protagonist, much put-upon by his tyrannical adviser, Professor Smith. There’s the teaching assistant Cecilia, forever bemoaning the insolent incompetence of her undergraduate students. There’s Tajel, the social scientist and futile activist. And there’s Mike Slackenerny, whose failure to finish his thesis was a main theme of the comic’s first decade. (He finally defended and moved on, fittingly, to postdoc purgatory.)
The comic strip proved resilient with readers because its characters’ plights were all too familiar. Everyone who’s been through graduate school has known graduate students as unhappy as these.
But what about the happy graduate students? Their stories are not so mythologized.
At an interdisciplinary conference in the middle of my graduate education, I found myself among a group of professors and Ph.D. students from other schools, debating approaches to doing graduate work. A fellow grad student lamented, “I know so many unhappy grad students. Is there some way to be happy in grad school?” Several professors immediately replied that the best strategy is to keep your head down, get through your program as fast as possible and not worry about less important issues -- like your happiness during grad school.
That is fairly standard professorial advice. It’s often given with the admirable intention of helping students focus on their work and complete their dissertations efficiently. And there’s much to be said for finishing your degree and moving on with your career. Still, even five years make up a significant portion of your life, and you shouldn’t have to resign yourself to being miserable for half a decade or more (if you’re lucky enough to finish that expeditiously).
My own experience in graduate school was a happy one. I owed some of my happiness to good fortune: supportive friends in my cohort, advisers who turned out to be even better mentors than I’d anticipated, a funding package I could live on. Yet I also managed to cultivate happiness through trial and (a great deal of) error.
When I first started grad school, I would sometimes promise myself to work steadily until I’d finished an entire draft or round of revisions. At the same time, I would set myself challenging goals and then, if I failed to meet them, promise to double down and do more the next day. Yeah, right. Those methods only worked when I was close enough to a deadline to feel properly panicked.
I eventually learned, if I was finding a daily goal difficult to meet, to make it smaller. Then I would meet the goal and reward myself with a bit of goofing-off time: a quick social media check-in, a news article, whatever I pleased. Making smaller goals often felt like a cop-out until I took stock of what I’d accomplished. At that point, I would usually realize that I’d done more than I’d anticipated. Then I could take a few minutes to set myself up for the next day’s work, instead of coming to a crashing, exhausted halt. (Finite goals, by the way, allowed me to call my Project Runway habit a “reward” for a completed day’s tasks rather than “procrastination” from the evening’s work. Sometimes a label makes all the difference.)
I soon found, too, that it was easier to manage my work when I let myself to take breaks from it. I’ve always been good at those long, crazy, caffeine-fueled hours of churning out writing that are familiar to all but the sanest academics. Those maniacal sessions may work fine for small projects -- I had grad-school classmates who could turn out brilliant seminar papers overnight, with their professors none the wiser -- but they’re not so effective for the larger work of slogging through a dissertation. Eventually, I had to admit that it’s easier to run a daily sprint than a monthlong or semester-long marathon.
It was also crucial for me to keep and form friendships outside my graduate program. Whenever I was stuck in the latest round of edits on a tricky dissertation chapter, I needed friends whose opinion of me was in no way tied to the clarity of my arguments. At other times, those friends supported my academic work. In my first year of grad school, struggling to tie together the ends of a seminar paper, I went over to a friend’s apartment, plopped myself down on her couch and forbade myself to leave until I had wrestled my middle paragraphs into shape. Later, after I’d turned in the paper, she and I celebrated by watching trashy TV. Other grad students in my program got involved with intramural sports, pottery classes and nonacademic reading groups.
It was similarly important for me to have a network of friends among my fellow students. My friends in my subfield often helped me work through the intricacies of specific problems, while my friends in other areas told me when my writing wasn’t yet clear enough for nonspecialists.
Fellow grad students were also the ones to teach me the habits of thought that fostered happiness. Like a lot of paranoid grad students, I used to worry frequently about what my professors thought about my research. One day, a more advanced student from my program told me, “Look, eventually you’ll realize that your professors spend a lot less time thinking about you than you spend thinking about them.” His observation helped me divert my attention from the futile project of managing my professors’ opinions and concentrate it on the far more important task of managing my own work.
I discovered the greatest key to my happiness as a graduate student when I began to give myself permission to do things badly. As much as I wish I could say that I took breaks from my dissertation by returning to my youthful love, piano -- rediscovering Chopin and Poulenc and giving deliciously casual performances at the request of admiring colleagues -- I didn’t. Like many grad students, I’d spent much of my life trying hard to do excellent work. After a long day of dissertating, trying to do well at something else didn’t feel like a change of pace. Instead, I took up swimming and kickboxing -- both activities at which, frankly, I stink. At the end of a day of mad footnoting, I relished flailing about in the pool, trying my best and knowing that my best wasn’t terribly good. Not caring about swimming made me feel ready to care about the next morning’s work.
For too many students, misery is an integral part of grad school. And grad school, like the rest of life, is bound to have its downturns. But setting finite goals, spending time with nonacademic friends and fellow grad students, and finding a few fun things to do badly can mitigate those downturns. With a bit of luck, happiness and graduate study can go hand in hand.
Angela Heetderks is an affiliate scholar of English at Oberlin College.
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