Photo of two people surfingKatie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at and on Twitter @KDShives.

It’s no secret that sometimes in graduate school it feels like everything can get really chaotic. As young professionals, we are expected to produce new research and ideas while taking courses, keeping up with committee meetings, and even teaching classes to other students, and it can easily become overwhelming. While we can never truly control our environments, we can learn to grow through them and make continued progress.

Think of graduate school like surfing: On the last trip I took before starting graduate school, I got to take surfing lessons, and it has surprised me ever since how much surfing and graduate school have in common. I had to accept that you can never calm the ocean, but facing that chaos and learning to ride the waves can be one of the most rewarding (even FUN!) experiences out there. So how do we take these lessons from the ocean and learn to productively manage our personal relationship in the academic chaos around us? Here are some things I’ve discovered during my own PhD process, and I’m sure there are many more out there waiting to be discovered and shared.

Plot out the major milestones: At the beginning of your program it is a good idea to go through your graduate handbook and find all of the major milestones that you need to accomplish before they find you and suddenly make life chaotic. Nobody likes to find out that an important grant is due 6 days before you thought it was. Find out what each item is (required classes, seminar talks, committee meetings, major exam like prelims and comprehensive exams, etc.) and what date you need to have it completed. Once you have this all in one place, WRITE IT DOWN! It doesn’t have to be pretty, just a sheet of paper with your personal timeline written in your words so you know when you have to do what.

Back to surfing: Even though oceans appear chaotic, surfers have to know the tides if they want to catch the best waves. They don’t know what the waves will look like each day, just that you have the best waves at the right moment in the tide.

How this like graduate school? You don’t know where every project will go, but once you get the big picture outlined  you will be aware of all the major events headed your way and much less likely to be caught off guard by major projects. In my case, I used to buy six foot lengths of butcher paper and plot an entire semester as soon as I got my syllabus, color coding each class and professional event. Did it look weird? Yes, but I was never taken by surprise by a single deadline.

Build a system: For a lot of us, graduate school means changing how we conduct our day to day lives in a big way. One of the best ways to deal with these major changes is to establish a system or routine that works for you. For me, this means having established hours on campus and defined, achievable goals for every day to make sure that I am making consistent progress without burning myself out. Make sure these routines include activities that provide physical exercise and some social engagements that you enjoy, as both of these activities will keep your spirits up during the long haul of a graduate degree.

Find your supporters: Graduate school often means leaving family and friends far across the country in pursuit of an education. Reach out and stay connected with those who are important to you as they can be your biggest supporters and provide a necessary dose of reality when it feels like graduate school is becoming overwhelming.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to find people on campus to be part of your support network as well. Having good relationships with your peers and professors are both key to making progress and navigating setbacks, so don’t neglect these relationships while pursuing your graduate work. For me this has meant taking the time to catch up with mentors from my undergrad years, letting them know my progress, talking about what to do next, and asking about how they dealt with similar situations as a graduate student.

Dig in: Now that you know the major milestones you need to make, have a system that manages your personal obligations and know a few supporters to lean on in difficult moments, all that is left to do is dig in and finish your degree.

Sounds easy?

Not quite. You can pretty much count on the fact that nothing goes perfectly according to plan in graduate school, which is why you need to practice these lessons while things are still calm. While it is easy to remember these things when times are easy, what is important is remembering and drawing upon these lessons when things start to get busy and chaotic. It has been shown that success is not linked with the highest IQ, but with those who possess the most grit, or the ability to persevere in the face of adversity.

Once again, this comes back to surfing: Some days the waves are rougher than usual and even the best rider will wipe out and get rolled, but they know how to let that wave take them before coming back up to work on catching the next wave. (Anyone who has applied for grants in the current economic climate certainly understands this feeling.) In fact, it is often in outrageous conditions that surfers find the ride of their lives, but only because they practiced so much in calmer seas.

Have any other tips that have helped you manage all of the different demands of graduate school despite the chaos? Share them in the comments below!

[Image by Flickr user Escuela Surf&Rock used under creative commons licensing.]


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