What Not To Do In Graduate School

By Lisa Barrett

“..for a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin- real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. This perspective has helped me to see there is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way. So treasure every moment you have and remember that time waits for no one. Happiness is a journey, not a destination…”
— John Philip Sousa

As a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Wyoming, I’ve learned a thing or two about surviving graduate school. But my experience is unique and far from perfect. In fact, I often struggle to remember these tips, but it is helpful to keep them in the back of my mind. These tips are also not the “only ways.” Feel free to comment on this article with other suggestions you have for fellow grad students! Here is (an oversimplification of) what NOT to do in graduate school:

1.Don’t complain*.

Complaining to your advisor or peers about how busy you are can be tempting when you are juggling coursework, grant writing, teaching duties, relationships, and personal woes. You can’t possibly fit one more thing into your schedule! Despite how you feel, you are not busier than anyone else. Try to avoid using busyness as an excuse, and see if you are able to handle a lot more than you thought you could as a result.

It can be easy (and even psychologically rewarding) to commiserate with your peers. While this may be helpful for brainstorming solutions to real problems, make sure you aren’t engaging in unhealthy complaining, as this often induces even more stress. Stressed graduate students feed off of one another, so try to stay positive and develop relationships formed on friendship instead of mutual dissatisfaction or anxiety. Surround yourself with positive people.

Moreover, remember that graduate school is a never-ending networking event. Treat interactions as interviews and build professional relationships with your future colleagues. Complaining, while cathartic, could make you seem grumpy and unhelpful, traits that may cause a colleague to avoid future interactions with you. In fact, thriving in stressful situations without complaint will make you look favorable to your colleagues (and potential references)!

*Here is some advice on making a serious and specific complaint when necessary.


2. Don’t set vague or unrealistic goals and expectations for yourself.

One of the hardest parts of graduate school is having to work independently and set your own goals and deadlines. Don’t put off whatever it is you’re dreading; instead, set a consistent work schedule and stick to it. Hold yourself accountable through strategies such as the Pomodoro technique, those described in How to Write a Lot, record- and goal- keeping, or even by starting a friendly writing group. Involve others in your goal-setting, because social pressure can be very motivating. Set goals with your advisor and ask him/her to hold you to them. Break down larger goals, such as “write my dissertation,” into monthly and weekly, concrete goals, like “write 100 words of my discussion.” Work with your mentors to determine if your long-term and short-term goals are feasible.

If you meet your goal, reward yourself (chocolate, anyone?)! If you don’t attain it, don’t get discouraged. Rework your goal so it is more concrete or more realistic. And sometimes it’s alright to accept failure or a setback.


3. Don’t fall out of touch.

Graduate school can feel isolating, but keeping in touch with old friends and your family can help. Write a letter to your best friend from home. Don’t miss a birthday. Schedule monthly Skype calls with friends and family. Make your current relationships a priority. Socialize, and ask meaningful questions. If your friendship is built on sighs and complaining, reconsider how to develop a healthy relationship. Respond to text and email messages as soon as possible, especially those from friends and family members. And most importantly, be honest with those you care about when you are feeling overwhelmed. Communicate that you “may not be able to respond right away this week,” for example.

Create and maintain networks of friends. You never know who will have a career connection or advice for you, or who will want to collaborate with you later.

4. Don’t cave in to the stereotype.

Graduate students are often depicted as miserable, overworked, and unhappy. You shouldn’t sleep, you should always be working, and you should not do what makes you happy. WRONG. You can be successful and happy, despite what you have heard or what others are doing. You should not feel guilty for enjoying yourself.


5. Don’t put off self-care.

Try out different work/life balance strategies and find what works best for you. This could be turning off your laptop and cellphone at dinner time, or only checking your email at a specific time of day.

Identify your sources of stress and anxiety. Make a list. Tackle one item at a time. Ask for help. Delegate.

Take advantage of student perks. Visit the gym and check out their fitness classes, meet with a counselor or therapist, ask a university health physician about how to cope with stress at bedtime. Many campuses have free events throughout the year– check them out once in awhile! If you don’t have access to the resources you need, find them and bring them to you and other graduate students. For example, if you are struggling with oral presentations, seek out a speaker to host a workshop for you and your cohort.

Consider trying out a new hobby with friends. Start an informal book club. Plan a vacation to look forward to. At the very least, consider reading about helpful tips, like those emailed to you for free from Unstuck Advice (like these tips on how to inject joy into your daily life). In many ways grad school is harder than undergrad, so if you get a bad grade or don’t make a deadline, don’t be hard on yourself. Grad school is full of the best of the best.



Huey, R.B. (1987). Reply to Stearns: Some acynical advice for graduate students. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 68, 150-153.

Huey, R.B. (2011). On becoming a better scientist. Israel Journal of Ecology & Evolution, 57, 293-307. 10.1560/IJEE.57.4.293

Raman, I.M. (2014). How to be a graduate advisee. Neuron, 81, 9-11. http://www.cell.com/neuron/pdf/S0896-6273(13)01191-4.pdf

Silva, P.J. (2007). How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Stearns, S.C. (1987). Some modest advice for graduate students. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 68, 145-153.


Mentoring plans for PIs: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/mentoring-plans-a-really-useful-tool-for-pis-and-their-lab-members/#more-37714

Setting goals: http://wildlife.org/members-message-to-students-setting-goals-for-grad-school/

Starting a family: http://academiclifehistories.weebly.com/blog/reproductive-strategies-in-science

Accepting failure: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2016/04/the-value-of-failing-in-graduate-school/

Pomodoro technique: https://zapier.com/blog/best-pomodoro-apps/

Unstuck life tips/advice: https://www.unstuck.com/

Complaints: https://thesiswhisperer.com/2013/02/06/how-to-complain-and-be-heard/


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