Surviving Graduate School and Postdoc Life

Dr. Jordan Harshman

Life as a chemistry graduate stu­dent or postdoc is intellectually challenging and emotionally draining. We voluntarily sacrifice our time, money, and many other aspects of our lives in order to “make it” in academia or industry. I’ve found that this quest to make it is a curious one. It implies that we are driven by what we can achieve in the future and that we put less emphasis on what we are in the present. As with most things, a balance needs to be established between current and future satisfaction. It’s rare that I meet developing professionals who aren’t thinking about the future, so it’s likely that any imbalance is due to our heavy focus on creating a brighter tomorrow without much con­cern for the present.

It is here that we run the risk of merely surviving. When I say “surviv­ing” in the context of graduate school and postdoctoral positions, I am referring to a state where we are overly focused on a career and life that is to come, as opposed to that which we possess currently. Therefore, our immediate goal is to get through, move past, or survive these experiences in order to pave the way for our ultimate career goals. There are many challenging events in life for which we have to put on our survivor face, but few challenges encom­pass as much time and energy as do graduate school and post­docs. Because these particular challenges can consume 5–10 years of your life, I hope it will be worth your time to stop and consider a few things, and then to use some strategies that I’ve found helpful in maintaining a healthy balance between my current and future situations. 

Consideration 1: Set the Bar Higher 

So, you want to know how to survive a chemistry doctoral program or postdoc? Well, the first thing you should do is stop asking, “How do I just survive the experience?” Here’s why. We are likely to have heard (or heard of) students ask­ing, “How many points do I need to pass the class?” These students reveal that their aim is to achieve the absolute bare minimum from here on out. When we ask how to survive graduate school, it means that we walk into the experience thinking, “This will be tragic, and throughout it, my only goal is to still be living.” If the bar of our expectations is set this low, we need to be careful that we don’t trip over it.

First, to put it in perspec­tive, it’s pretty rare that these experiences can be rightly classi­fied as tragedies. However, they are almost assuredly going to be very challenging for a variety of rea­sons that are far from academic and can be quite distressing.

Second, only focusing on making it through the experience, thus satisfying the needs of our work life, neglects how we feel about our life outside of work. We need to be extra cautious as people who are very driven (that’s probably you) because we don’t always have the best grasp on when we need to take a step back. So instead of asking how to just survive these experiences, we need to make sure we are considering the whole picture—our whole life—in that process. 

Consideration 2: We (Likely) Haven’t Done This Before 

Chances are pretty high that post-baccalaureate programs are the first time we have been faced with a 5–10 year commit­ment of this scale. Sure, college was a 4-year, fun-filled fiasco, but as you have likely found out, grad school and postdoc life don’t hold much resemblance to undergrad life. Yet, thinking back to the beginning of grad school, or any times I doubted whether or not I’d finish, I would always take comfort in the previous experiences I survived, thinking, “I made it through that half-semester teaching 6th graders, toughed it out through that oral Spanish final, and hey, I even did okay in p-chem! If I can do that, I can survive this!”

Not necessarily. Be cautious of these comparisons, be­cause a postdoc or a doctoral program is not just one experi­ence you need to survive, it’s hundreds. It’s not just surviv­ing one bad group meeting today, it’s also surviving that one student in Tuesday’s office hours (you know who I’m talk­ing about), making something better than brown sludge by Thursday, and that little cumulative exam coming up on Mon­day. From my own and others’ experience, we’re not always great at predicting and tracking how stressful each of these events are, which can lead to our getting burned-out. When we weigh out what these experiences are costing us in terms of our general satisfaction in life, fight the urge to pass them off as one-time events. It’s likely that they will happen again, and we need to consider how that possibility affects us.

Strategy 1: Identify Survivor Mentality 

Now that we’re aiming for more than just surviving and are being realistic about the challenges that lie before us, what should we do? First things first: We need to identify when we’re in “survivor mode.”

In hindsight, there were many instances where I was only surviving. I would say the first step to recognizing such situ­ations is to pick out several activities that you have to do and ask yourself, “Why am I doing these things? Because I have to do them (duh).” Okay, but fill in the rest of that sentence: “I have to do them because….”

Why do you have to do them? Do you have to do them so that you can complete your current to-do list, move on to the next hurdle, jump that one and the next hundred, all so you can get that shiny degree? Or do you have to do it because completing this task accomplishes something that is mean­ingful to you now, even if that meaning is small? If you are conducting activities solely for the hope of a brighter tomor­row (or 3,650 tomorrows from now), it’s likely that you are only surviving. 

Strategy 2: Get a Life 

If you’re anything like me, work can absolutely consume all aspects of life. I’ve opted out of social gatherings to stay at work later, traded the gym for studying, and will sometimes feel significant levels of guilt for not working on Sunday. These are indicators that we may be consumed by our work lives more than we realize. They are also indicators that we need to find hobbies, passions, and purposes outside of work.

Finding such activities is easier said than done. We can get caught in a vicious cycle where we desire to do some­thing besides work, but we feel like we can’t dedicate the time it takes to really get into it. For example, I wanted to play on a church softball league during grad school, but felt I couldn’t commit to even one game a week. I finally forced myself to join up, and now it takes quite a bit to make me miss a game. I know others who engage in community the­ater, artwork, video games, volunteering, and many other activities that give them an identity outside of the university. These are healthy! 

Strategy 3: Seek Contentment 

Many times, simply hitting the reset button helps to shift goals from the long- to the short-term. We should take advantage of any flexibility we have to find ways to make our current posi­tion rewarding now. Unfortunately, there’s very little that can be said as to how to accomplish this, because it will depend on a number of things. They include our personalities, PI’s expec­tations of us, career ambitions, life situations, and so on.

However, there are a couple of general tips to get us thinking on the right track. First, talking to a PI can be diffi­cult, given the authority differential in academia. To help with this, I’d recommend an individual development plan (IDP), commonly available through university grad schools (ACS has also developed one1). This can be an effective and professional way for us to communicate activities that are meaningful to us with our advisers.

Second, sometimes the people that I respect the most are the ones who have an “it’s just a job” attitude. They are not particularly passionate about their jobs, they may not even like their jobs, but they are somehow able to stay motivated and live a generally happy life. My bet is that 99 out of 100 people of this type love the life they go home to after work, making their unbearable work lives significantly more bear-able. If we find ourselves struggling with satisfaction during grad school and postdocs, we should strive to build our personal satisfaction. 

Strategy 4: Start Thriving Elsewhere 

Notice how I didn’t say quit? I also didn’t say leave, or give up, and I didn’t imply that we weren’t good enough. If we’re being honest, the best solution for us in both the short- and the long-term can be to choose a new path. I don’t make this recommendation lightly, and we shouldn’t make this decision without consulting people who know us well. From my ex-periences, you never feel ready to actually leave your current position, and you always face significant doubt about whether or not doing so is the right call.

This is also a good time for me to mention that we cannot ignore prevalent mental-health issues2 in ourselves or others. It’s my personal belief that there is no career that is worth enduring damaging levels of stress, anxiety, or depression. If we believe that post-baccalaureate experiences are causing us severe mental turmoil, it’s time to act and possibly consider alternative career paths.

A Final Word 

If your focus is locked on the future, then it’s time to more than just survive! I encourage all of us to take stock of our present selves, because the experiences we are going through now will shape both our current and future identities.

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