Building a Support System to Survive Graduate Studies

Starting graduate studies can feel like a very lonely choose-your-own-adventure story. It’s a story that you can’t really explain or articulate the details of until you’ve reached the very end to look back at the place you started. It’s exciting! It’s new! And it can be overwhelming without a support system in place. 

The twists and turns on your road, what you’re experiencing and the responsibilities heaped upon you, will not be the same as others who go straight into the workforce after completing a bachelors degree. It won’t even be the same for colleagues also working on an advanced degree. The paths we take as scholars, researchers, and experts are individualised and unique, which can make us feel incredibly alone

Our brains convince us (quite easily, sometimes) that no one will truly understand how hard, challenging, and just how draining all of the responsibilities are when you stop and really consider the balancing act that is required for earning an advanced degree. A graduate student is not only a student. During grad school, we are also building a teaching portfolio, possibly teaching for the first time! Same with research, writing, mentoring, all on top of developing a budding expertise; with the title of “student” coming through first and foremost.

All of the components that go into being a graduate student.

Support Sans Guidance

There will be times throughout your degree when you will feel so completely alone, stressed, and overwhelmed. These are the times when you need to have a solid support system in place. Talking to people who have never gone through graduate studies can be a challenge, not through any fault of their own though. They simply do not know what you are experiencing. To demonstrate, here are some of the typical questions and statements you will get from loved ones (apologies in advance for the anger these may induce!):

• When will you be done? Or when will you graduate?
• When will you get a real job?
• Are you going to be a forever student?
• It’s just school. It can’t really be that hard.
• When are you going to grow up?
• Send your resume to that university down the road to get a job. You don’t need to wait for an “application cycle.” [Alternatively: What is an application cycle?]

Trust me, you will encounter these questions and more, and you may internally rage every single time. Or sigh. Or cry. You know, depending on where you are in your own path. You might notice that many of these questions spawn directly from the idea that you are just a student even though you are so much more. I know in the moment it can be hard to remember, but take a breath. These are likely the same people who supported you throughout your undergrad degree. They are coming from a place of love and caring but simply don’t know or understand what it is you are going through.

Keep in mind that most people will not want or try to get an advanced degree, and therefore they have no concept of what is actually involved in graduate studies. They probably have no idea what comprehensive exams are, let alone know or care that there is a difference between a master’s thesis and a doctoral dissertation (or the reverse in the UK, for example). We academics know that these are completely different things, but to others it’s irrelevant. What your chosen friends and family really care about is you, how you are doing, and whether you are happy in the choices that you make. They want to support you, but you have to help them understand how to do that.

Another Task, Albeit an Important Task

I would argue that it is fairly impossible to make it through an advanced degree without developing some kind of support system. You’ll be stressed. You’ll be sad sometimes, and put through the ringer other times. You are going to need the support of your chosen friends and family throughout your degree path, regardless of whether they’ve been through it or not. 

Without experience or guidance, people will ask those questions listed above with the best intentions at heart, thinking it’s probably an easy question to answer. Your task is to help your support system become better supports and allies throughout your degree by having an answer ready to each of those questions. More importantly, you will need to (gently) correct misconceptions that graduate studies are just like undergrad but harder.

Showing your friends and family how to be a good supporter will help them help you. Explain that getting an advanced degree is worlds beyond just “more school” but is in fact the first job at the start of your career (even though it comes with little to no financial support). Demonstrate how you are laying the groundwork to become an expert in your field, and that it takes time, energy, strength of will, and so much more. Teach them that you are becoming an educator, a researcher, a scholar, and all of these things take a tremendous toll on our brains and bodies. Help them understand how to support you in the ways that you need to be supported.

Talking to your friends and family, practicing how to explain complicated topics such as “what does a graduate student really do?” will help them understand and appreciate the challenges you are facing. Talking through these topics will also help you become more centered and grounded in the steps you are taking in your career. The particular skill of translating from jargon to everyday language will also become valuable the further you go in your career, no matter whether you stay in academia or leave for the larger fields of industry, government, non-profit, and private sectors. Articulating complicated material in easy ways to understand is a skillset that opens many career doors.

Figuring Things Out

Sadly, here I where I tell you that external wisdom will only help to a point in this part of the choose-your-own-adventure. Everyone is unique and the support each individual will need is dependent on who they are as a person. What worked for supporting me throughout my studies is not going to be the same that works for you. Adding another layer of difficulty to this task is the fact that the support you need at the beginning of your graduate degree is not necessarily going to be what you need in the middle, nor towards the end. You have to be flexible enough to change and grow as you advance, and also willing to express changes needed in your support as time goes on. 

Be patient. You may not know what is good or bad in terms of support until you get there. But you’ll figure it out! After all, you’re on your way to becoming an expert in your field. You got this.

If you need help figuring out the answer to some of these questions, grab some time from my calendar and we’ll discuss it over a cup of coffee

Shout out to my amazing lab mates and podmates for being a constant source of inspiration, joy, and adventure throughout our time in grad school.