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Graduate school is an academic, professional, and personal learning experience. It is an arduous journey that often takes numerous failures and mistakes to reach our destination. This week, Andrea and I will be reflecting on the first posts we wrote as part of GradHacker and what we have learned since then, and Natascha will be discussing what she wishes she knew prior to entering grad school.

In March 2011, I wrote my first ever post blog post on graduate education for ProfHacker. This was before Alex and I endeavored to start GradHacker, and before the first GradHacker workshop that led to the blog’s creation. I wrote a post titled “Dawn of the Grad: Rules for Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse and Your First Year at Grad School.” In it, I discussed what I had learned about tackling your first year of graduate school based on rules from zombie movies, including Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.

My original rules included:

1) Cardio- because keeping in shape is important for health

2) Double tap- always checking things twice

3) Buckle up- because it’s a bumpy ride

4) Stay together- get support from others

5) Avoid infected people- avoid negativity

6) Bar as a sanctuary- take time to relax

7) Trust your instincts

8) Nerds survive- embrace tech and studying

9) Enjoy the little things

While I continue to believe that these are generally good guidelines for surviving grad school or a zombie wasteland, I often forget them myself. As a fourth year PhD grad student with three more years of experience and at least a dozen more zombie movies released, I can honestly say that I’ve forgotten to double tap on several emails and papers, I’ve skipped numerous chances to improve my cardio, and it took a lot longer for me to finally learn to relax on weekends. The advice at the time was easy and seemed straightforward, but in reality grad school is truly a bumpy ride and solid rules don’t always work. That’s why I’m adding some new rules to the list that may help with support and expectations for grad school (or the zombie apocalypse).

1. Find a tough love mentor: In every zombie movie, our younger heroes have the support of an older, wiser mentor who gives them the tough love they require to overcome the odds. Columbus has Tallahassee in Zombieland for verbal abuse and physical support. The east end misfits from Cockneys vs. Zombies have their grandpa who inspires their heroism but still gets on their case for their missteps. It is important to find someone in grad school who is going to push you to excel, give you the tough truth about your future and choices, but also support you and guide you through this time of your life.

2. The Safe Haven isn’t what it seems: Most zombie movies or shows have a mythical place or destination where they hope to find respite from their troubles. In Shaun of the Dead, they think that if they can just reach the Winchester pub they will be safe. In Resident Evil, they believe if they just escape the Umbrella Corporation Headquarters under Raccoon City they will be free of the horrors beneath.Zombies are like stress. You need to figure out how to deal with it in grad school because it never fully goes away. Often grad students focus on finishing the PhD as a type of safe haven, believing once we’re past the defense we’ll be free of this zombie apocalypse. The truth is that when you are nearing the end of the degree term you’ll be job hunting or working on a post-doc, maybe after you’ll be fighting for tenure, or trying to move up to the next level position in a company. As we’ve learned from zombie movies, the safe haven never truly exists. The zombies always find a way in, and it isn’t until they are fully dealt with that the problems are gone. There isn’t a final deadline or destination, so it’s up to you to enjoy the moment rather than focusing on the end.

3. Plans don’t always work; be flexible: At some point in the zombie film, the characters are going to concoct an elaborate plan to escape the zombies or the building they are in. In Doghouse, the boys use a special device to distract the female zombies, which works until the device malfunctions. In Dawn of the Dead, the elaborate plan to deliver food from the mall to an ammo store where a man is dying of starvation ends with a number of deaths and the loss of their safe haven in the mall. Plans are important because they give us direction, but that doesn’t mean they will work. We need to be able to develop a plan, but also be flexible if circumstances change. Being adaptable to new contexts and situations is almost as important as having a plan in the first place.

4. Seriously, enjoy the little things: I’m repeating this one, because it is probably the most important lesson I have learned and need to continue to learn. In a wasteland of zombies, there is always a moment when the characters have a break from the chaos to love and live. In Shaun of the Dead, they take a moment to enjoy a pint at the Winchester. In Zombieland they trash Bill Murray’s house and drink his expensive wines. Despite the chaos of Dawn of the Dead, friendships and love develops between those trapped in the mall. Even in grad school, it is important to keep living and enjoying the little things. Try taking one day a week completely off, schedule in a real vacation that includes turning off your phone and computer, or just give yourself a break every once in awhile to watch an entire season of The Walking Dead. We can’t avoid living life simply because we’re grad students. Just like those in the zombie apocalypse, we too can continue to enjoy the little things.

Over the past three years, I’ve become a much more balanced grad student, and have learned to deal with a lot, though I could be a lot better and still have a lot to learn. My choices and plans aren’t always perfect, but I’ve developed better ways to cope with stress and survive in ways that work for me. That is the true trick of grad school and zombie apocalypses. Get as much advice and information as possible, but in the end its up to you to make the decisions that best fit your life.

Good Luck.

What do you wish you were told prior to grad school?

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