Ten Things I Wish I'd Known Before Grad School

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Grad school can bring out the best and worst people. Being in my third year of it, I've seen lots of ups and downs. I've jumped with joy, trembled with terror, and cried my eyes out. I've uncovered an anxiety disorder, battled (consequent) insomnia, found the love of my life, and thrown away a thesis-in-progress. I've learned about perseverance, humility, balance, and priority. I've dealt with loads of guilt (it's good to have other things in your life), had much too much coffee, presented at a conference, and learned that in our online world, productivity is sometimes just as performative as everything else. Here are ten things I wish I'd known before starting grad school:

  1. Your mental health comes first. Literally nothing matters if your mind isn't okay. Constantly buzzing from anxiety, and terror, and the need to constantly get things done to prove that you deserve to be there doesn't need to be the norm. If you walk to class and joke about how maybe it wouldn't be so bad to get hit by a truck, then you need to take several steps back and re-prioritize. Get help, lower your workload, and remember that prioritizing your mental health does not make you weak.
  2. Everybody has Impostor Syndrome. (As long as you're not a straight, white man.) Yes, you deserve to be there. You worked hard. You work hard. You got the grades. You're smart. You matter. You will survive.
  3. Criticism is not personal. As long as it's constructive, criticism is there to make you stronger and better. It is not an attack. Your work does not determine your value. See point number 2.
  4. Nobody knows everything. It may seem like everyone around you has read so much more than you and that you're never going to catch up, but everyone has their niche topic. You're here to learn from each other as well as from your professors, and the only thing that matters is that you keep reading.
  5. Sleep is not optional. So you feel like you need to study every waking moment and that sleep is for the weak? After all, you're young, right? Wrong. If you don't make a habit of getting a full night's sleep, you're going to regularly be awake at 4 in the morning, replaying everything you said in class that day (or in your last email), beating yourself up. Anxiety will get the better of you and your mental health will deteriorate. Everyone needs sleep.
  6. Coffee is not food. You want to have four shots of espresso during your lunch break because it makes your mind sharper? Do so at your own risk, but make sure you have good, solid, protein-filled food in your stomach beforehand because it will make a difference and stop you from shaking and crying the rest of the way through the afternoon.
  7. Ask for help. Speak up when you don't understand something. Ask questions in class. Go to your professors' office hours. Make the best of your resources.
  8. You don't have to like the library. In my first year of History, a professor said that you could never succeed if you don't spend all your time in the library. That may once have been true, but in our digital world, it just isn't. Use your library resources, but it's okay to hate studying there. It's okay to prefer noisy cafés or your dining room table.
  9. Don't idolize your professors. Look up to them. Respect them. Learn from them. But never forget that they're just people.
  10. None of it matters. It doesn't matter if you don't finish on time or at all or if you take time off. It is what you make of it, and you'll be richer for the experience, no matter what happens. Be proud of yourself for trying.