Its that time of year again. The new grad students are packing up their apartments and heading out to start orientation. I’m sure you’re nervous, you probably should be. I have been a first year grad student for the last three years, and I’m very much looking forward to being a second year for the 2011 Fall semester. I’m not saying that this makes me an expert, but I have learned what it takes to survive (and excel) during your first year of graduate school.

Surprisingly, throughout these past few years, zombie apocalypse films have served as both a comfort and inspiration for my own survival. It turns out that the rise of the undead serves as a great metaphor for graduate school. The way the characters battle against seemingly insurmountable odds, with their ragtag team and unending optimism… it’s been inspirational. Drawing from my favorite zombie films, Zombielandand Shaun of the Dead, here are the rules for surviving your first year of grad school or your first undead encounter.

  1. Cardio: I’m starting with Zombieland’s iconic rule. Keeping in shape and active is essential towards feeling good and keeping your life on track. Exercise can be a great way to bond with other first years, is a nice break from studying, and also will keep you happier and help you sleep better.
  2. Double Tap: Always double check everything, whether it is your final exam paper, an email to your advisor, or the undead monster who looks dead but could rise again. Nothing is worse than realizing that your auto-correct on your email just corrected your professor’s name into a dirty word, or that you forgot to attach the works cited to your first essay.
  3. Buckle Up: To quote Columbus, “It’s going to be a bumpy ride”. You need to find something in life that will keep you grounded. It is easy to let your academic responsibilities swallow your life, leaving you in a zombie like brain dead state. Remember to find a support group that will add stability and balance to your life.
  4. Stay Together: When the world is reduced to a zombie wasteland, groups always survive better than lone individuals. Same rule goes for graduate school. You need to find people who will support you and keep you on the right path.
  5. Avoid the Infected people: A corollary to number 4, you need to watch out for individuals who are infected or emotional black holes. These are the people who bring you down, are unsupportive, or focus only on the drama. It might be a little cut-throat, but if someone is infected by negativity, it is better to leave them to their fate and remain with the living.
  6. A Bar is a Good Sanctuary: As Shaun of the Dead said, “We’re going to the Winchester.” I’m not condoning alcohol as a requirement for graduate school, but it is important to get out. Happy hours and dinners at the local pub can be a great way to unwind and meet with other grad students. Most university towns will have a restaurant or bar where the grad students go. Find that place and invite your cohort to meet there, this is a great way to work on #4.
  7. Trust your instincts: Sometimes you need to push the limits, and walk into the dark tunnel that echoes with the moans of the undead. Other times you need to step back and let someone else be the hero. There is a lot of free advice floating around graduate school, but always remember to go with your gut.
  8. Nerds survive: When the dead come back to stalk the living, it is the nerds that finally have their day of glory. New graduate students need to embrace technology and take control of their online identities. If you don’t define yourself online, someone else will.
  9. Enjoy the Little Things: Grad school is an extremely rewarding opportunity, but you need to make sure you take time for yourself and relish those moments. Whether this means taking Sunday mornings off to go out to breakfast and shop at a local farmer’s market, or taking weekend trips to new cities with your friends. You need to enjoy the little things when entering the graduate school apocalypse.

My final words are the same for those of you entering your first year of graduate school or those entering their first battle against a plague of undead: good luck.

What is your advice for new graduate students? If you’re a new grad student, what are your questions and concerns?

[This is a repost from Profhacker, Image by Flickr user Bryan Gosline and used under Creative Commons license]


5 Responses to Rules for Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse or Your First Year in Grad School

  1. Stephanie Hilliard says:

    Great tips, and I love the comparison! Being an online graduate student, I will miss some of those challenges, and opportunities, but I’m already circling the wagons with other grad students I know so we can brave the monsters together. I also plan to make as many connections as possible with the rest of my cohort, even if it is only through e-mail. Many of your tips, such as staying in shape and making sure to take time for life, served me well as an undergrad and I plan to do more of the same as a grad student. Thanks for the great advice.

  2. Barker says:

    Put strict limits on social networking, except in person! Seriously, Facebook, Twitter, all that crap will eat your face and leave you undead. Grad school is nothing like undergrad. Manage your time, limit online fun, and accept it that you will feel used and abused, lonely and sometimes — sometimes — triumphant.

  3. Lillian says:

    A few additional pointers (absolutely stellar list, though!):

    A) Realize that no matter how hard you work and how many hours you spend getting things done, you will never be caught up – there will always be SOMETHING to do. This ties into 9 above – just accept that you will always feel behind and that is EXACTLY the way you are supposed to feel. If you don’t feel like you’re drowning, something is probably wrong with you (at least that’s what I’ve been told).

    B) Better is the enemy of good enough – not to be confused with 2 above – but recognize when you’ve put forth your best effort and be able to put the pen down (or shut down the computer). You could spend your whole life making your term paper perfect, but it is probably better to complete your term paper AND all the other work you have to do (see A).

    C) “We’re not in [undergrad] anymore…” – Grad school is a totally new animal and unless you prepare for it to be different, it will probably maul you a bit (and even if you’re prepared, you’ll get mauled a little). Basically, don’t expect to be able to finish assignments and do your work the night before – and trust me when I say that pulling all-nighters is really not a good idea anymore. Especially when you have TA or RA responsibilities the next day (A and B).

    D) If you ever feel like YOU are the only one dealing with life as a grad student, check out PhDcomics. I am in no way affiliated, paid by, etc. phdcomics, but I strongly urge you to put on your RSS feed. Scientist, humanities, other grad student notwithstanding – your life will be inked and colorized in several comic frames. Key message: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. No matter what.

  4. […] am holed up in the safe place and my food stores are running out, along with my ammunition, and the zombies are clawing at the windows. Once I go out there, chances are I will be eaten alive.  In order to […]

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