• How I Survived the First Semester of Grad School

    How I Survived the First Semester of Grad School


    How I Survived the First Semester of Graduate School

    I married the summer before I started my PhD. Graduate school meant new beginnings and recognizing past accomplishments that prepared me for meeting new situations. Reflecting on my first semester, I found three topics that helped me do well in my first semester of graduate school: student life, socializing, and coursework. I think you can make good use of my experiences.

    Surviving Student Life

    My graduate life was remarkably different from my undergraduate. I had funding-related work responsibilities in addition to classes, and probably you will too. Depending on your program, you might be teaching undergraduates, assisting professors, working in a research lab, or working in another office on campus.

    • Schedule.

      Graduate life entailed much greater freedoms, and, after failing to balance academic and family life, I very quickly learned the importance of creating a schedule. Graduate school requires balancing classes, study, leisure, and work. Unlike my undergraduate program, I didn’t have enough time to pursue more than one extracurricular activity. Pick one or two interests that satisfy more than one area of your life (for example, social and fitness). Take some time to set boundaries and balance priorities.

    • Recovery.

      Reserve time for relaxation and reflection. A 15-minute break every two hours was essential for me. Reserving at least one weekend for relaxation and recovery can help you ward off burnout. Prioritize brain health by getting sufficient sleep. A few late nights can snowball into a week of productivity loss. Avoid burning the midnight oil.

    • Burnout is real.

      If you’ve never experienced it, strive to avoid it. Life imbalance can lead to real consequences, including depression and other health challenges.

    Surviving Social Life

    You may quickly realize that graduate research is an isolating experience. But remember that while the technical part of academic research is often conducted in solitude, your future career prospects rely heavily on your professional network and ability to navigate complex interpersonal relationships.

    • Socialize.

      As with other skills, socializing requires time and effort. Keep your head above the weeds and look for opportunities to bond with colleagues and advisors, “what are they like; what are they doing; what are their major interests?” Maya Angelou once said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

    • Network.

      The more you network the better off you are. Many graduate programs welcome incoming students with special events. Attending them can be a great way to get to know other students and faculty in your program. Consider making extra effort to network with more experienced students as they can offer valuable insights. Meanwhile, discover what others are working on. What research topics may have affinities with your research area? Offer to connect them with your acquaintances and share resources that might interest them.

    You’ll need an advisor during the later stages of your program. Seek to build relationships with your professors now so you can identify which ones you may work with on your thesis or dissertation later.

    Surviving Classes

    Unlike my liberal arts undergraduate program, graduate school represented an opportunity to study a topic of my passion. Suddenly, individual classes carried a lot more weight than satisfying graduation requirements. Studying at the graduate level entailed significantly more work than my undergraduate research prepared me for, but my passion motivated working through those challenges.

    • Class Shopping.

      Your school may offer a digital index of classes and reviews from past students. Use this to your advantage, but also take the opportunity to learn about personal classroom experiences from your peers. I enjoyed class shopping as a way to learn more about my interests. Keep a running list of all the classes that interest you, when they are offered, and what the coursework demands.

    • Reading.

      Regardless of your domain, anticipate tons of reading. Literature students might expect to read a full-length novel each week. STEM students may churn through one to two textbook chapters between each new lecture. Multiply that by three courses, and you will quickly find yourself plagued by chronic knowledge indigestion. Learn how to read effectively. Harvard offers this resource on effective reading (https://academicresourcecenter.harvard.edu/reading).

    • Writing.

      For writing-intensive courses, start becoming involved in papers early. Stay ahead of your projects by including due dates and notifications in your schedule. Make early and regular use of your university’s writing center–an excellent place to obtain valuable feedback and cultivate strong writing skills. Whatever your writing style: write well, edit like a professional, and repeat. There’s a lot more to say about writing; you can search our academic blog for excellent writing tips we’ve collected from our team.

    Think about the skills you want to acquire when you design your research project. Explore potential topics with teaching assistants and faculty.


    Is procrastination a thing? Yes. It is. There are four inescapable stages of paper writing: research, conceptualization, drafting, and editing. Early on, I struggled to know when to stop researching and begin writing. As I gained experience, confidence, context, and a deeper understanding of my audience, my writing improved drastically. Looking back, I wished I had taken better notes–conceptualizing points, started writing sooner, spent less time researching, and more time writing. Write early. Write in sections; tackle one section at a time.

    • Organization.

      Learn how to take good notes as you read/research. I started with OneNote, then tried Evernote, bought the Rocketbook, had some random composition notebooks lying around, then gave up and organized on the fly when Google Docs appeared. Whatever your method, find a systematically reasonable way to manage all your notes – and try not to make significant changes to your setup in the middle of a semester.

    Since most information is digitized nowadays, stay ahead by storing your documents in the cloud. Consider designating a single space (app, drive, whatever) to store your notes, coursework, and assignments. [Petal] (petal.org/cite) is a cloud-based reference manager that offers full-text document search across all research materials, including pdfs and docx. This was especially convenient when I needed to locate previous class documents but had forgotten the title. Keep everything—you never know what information will come in handy next semester or years from now when you’re working on your dissertation.

    • Use a reference manager.

      A reference manager is the best way to keep track of all your sources and citations by collecting, storing, and organizing bibliographic information. Think of it as your library of sources related to your courses and research interests.

    Petal is a cloud-native reference manager that stores your references and syncs them across your devices. The app automatically extracts and validates metadata, supports full-text search, and allows you to capture and save any web page directly into your project folder. You can also share your references with collaborators when working on a group project.

    The The Purdue OWL (online writing lab) is another resource for formatting and bibliography. It contains easily digestible information for every citation style.

    Try Petal for Free and Get a Head Start on Grad School

    Grad school is all about working smart. Using a reference manager like Petal will streamline your workflow, saving time and avoiding the tedium of tracking research documents in your burdened workload. Good habits and proper tools will enable you to keep up with coursework and allocate time towards building relationships. After all, less time spent managing references and creating citations means more time available to focus on meaningful activities.

    Discover the power of Petal. Sign up for your free account today!