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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


The Narratives We Give Ourselves in Graduate School

The argument for reminding yourself that graduate school is "real life."

October 15, 2015

Anjali Gopal is a PhD Student in Bioengineering at UC Berkeley and UCSF. You can follow her on twitter at @anjali_gopal.




Narratives are stories that we tell ourselves that shape how we think about our histories and our motivations. When I associate with narratives like “I am a female in STEM” or “I want to work in the biomedical sciences,” this affects how I approach my career (will I engage in basic science research if it’s not related to the biomedical field?), think about my identity (how do I value my place in a male-dominated field?), and relate to other people (how do I engage with biomedical engineers as compared to humanities-majors or others in STEM?). Similarly, the narratives we tell ourselves about graduate school can affect our attitudes about how we approach the next several years of our lives. For instance, you probably have narratives in response to “I am in graduate school because …” or “While I am in graduate school, I am going to …”.


The good thing about narratives is that they help give us a coherent worldview; however, if we aren’t aware of them, narratives can often pigeonhole us into a certain mindset. One the most unhelpful narratives I see about graduate studies is that it’s just a case of “more school”. When I started my PhD, a lot of things seemed strikingly reminiscent to my undergraduate freshman year: the new campus, the annoying coursework, meeting a cohort of students in my program I don’t really know, getting adjusted to living with new housemates in a new city…


And even if it isn’t like freshman year, there are plenty of reasons for me to delay thinking about life stuff. Graduate school is busy. Academic and industry positions are competitive. If I don’t spend the next five years absolutely focused on my research, I might miss out on opportunities to really develop my career. Real life will only really begin once I have my higher degree in hand. The only thing that matters for the next five years is my dissertation. Personal growth and development can wait.


In this post, I want to talk about these two narratives. I want to address about how they might be hurting us in the long term. And I want to talk about how signing up for a five-year degree doesn’t mean that our lives are on hold.


Narrative 1: Graduate school is just Round Two of college.

There are lots of ways that college is a unique, sheltering experience for students. A huge part of college is self-exploration. We’re figuring out where our interests lie, what sorts of work opportunities might be worth pursuing, and where we’d like to head in three to five years. Society understands that we’ll be carving out new identities, making new friends, and letting go of our hometown biases in college.


Graduate school can also be an opportunity to carve out identities and make new friends—it is definitely an opportunity for growth. The main difference is the opportunity cost associated with graduate studies. Reports estimate that for every year you’re in graduate school, you could have made an extra $20,000-$50,000 in the job market (multiply that by the duration of your program to figure out how much you’re really losing). Moreover, this also coincides with the time that the rest of your college friends are steadily marching on with their lives--getting married, travelling, getting their first car or house.


Now, none of this is an attempt to scare you out of your graduate studies or tell you that it’s not worthwhile. Rather, it is merely a reminder that if these are things you care about (i.e., having other pursuits outside of your career), then it’s important to realize what you might be giving up. Don’t give yourself the narrative that the next the next three to five years is a period of delayed graduation--this is not conducive to building the focus you’d need to hit the other major milestones in your life and career. Instead, embrace the narrative that graduate school is a period of intentional learning and exploration, in both your personal and professional life.


Narrative 2: I’ll focus on my career now--but I’ll focus on personal development once I’ve finally become a postdoc, PI, or earned an industry job.

When the majority of us pursue our graduate studies, we’ll be in our early to mid twenties. However, more and more research has started to show that our twenties are when we really start to cement habit and lifestyle changes that will carry us through for the rest of adulthood. As a result, our twenties aren’t just a time for focusing on personal development; it is the time. It’s important to ask ourselves now whether the day-to-day habits we’re forming, the states of our health and well-being we’re nurturing, and the friendships and relationships we’re developing are the same ones we’d want to have when we reach our dream job or academic post.


Here’s a simple experiment you can try: suppose you want to go into academia. Think about your life in research right now. When you finally become a postdoc or PI, do you think your career will become more or less stressful? Do you think you’ll give your career more or less emphasis at that point as you have now?


Industry isn’t exempt from this either. While most graduate students have the luxury of setting their own schedule, many industry professionals do not. And industry often comes with much tighter deadlines and many more deliverables than your lab. So: do you think your career will be more or less stressful when you’ve finally made it to industry?


Previous GradHacker posts detail how we can cultivate happiness in grad school, or how we can practice better self-care. If we give ourselves the narrative that we don’t need to achieve work-life balance now, what makes us think we’ll be able to break out of this narrative when we’re older, more established, and when we have more to lose?




The other good thing about narratives is that they can be easily shaped and re-shaped to fit our desires and goals. As I move forward in my life, I find it helpful to ask myself probing questions like:

  • What sorts of relationships give my life meaning and value, and how can I develop those?

  • What do I want my day-to-day to look like in 3-5 years? Am I cultivating meaningful habits that will get my there (exercising, reading, meditating, eating healthy)? As Katie Irwin said, are you remembering your humanity?

  • Am I managing my stress levels well? How are they affecting my health or mental health?

  • Are there skills I want to develop that I can’t learn from my graduate studies? How can I develop these?


The narratives I develop from the answers to these questions can guide my growing sense of identity and purpose. If we manage it well, graduate school doesn’t have to be a case of putting life on hold—it can be a pretty great training ground that encompasses both our professional lives and our personal ones.


What are some ways you could use narratives to guide how you think about your life during graduate school?


[Photo by Flickr user Anton Petukhov used under Creative Commons License.]


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