8 Things Only A Grad Student Would Understand

* You Start Asking Your Boring Self: “Am I Still Normal?”
* Your Life In Two Words: Study & Research
* Your Favorite Hashtag: #nosociallife
* Your Sleep-Wake-Eat Cycle is Disrupted
* People tell you, “Oh, I Thought You Were An Undergrad!”
* Coffee Is Your New Best Friend
* You Are Broke—or Getting There!
* You Think Of Quitting—But You Never Do

Graduate school is no walk in the park. College life is often thought to be synonymous with fun; graduate school, meanwhile, can be a torturous journey. While being in college lets you in on the latest events and parties, going down the Ph.D. road means giving up some of life’s greatest pleasures.

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But the sacrifices – or as Churchill said it, the blood, sweat and tears – are well worth the rewards! There’s the promise of numerous career advancement opportunities with a doctorate, including promotions, pay raises and praises in the workplace. The personal fulfillment that comes with earning a doctorate cannot be overemphasized. And the numbers speak for themselves, too! For the 2021-2022 period, the projected number of master’s degrees awarded is a high 930,000! While the projection for doctorate degrees is lower – 197,400 – it’s still impressive. Indeed, graduate degrees pose their share of challenges, but there are plenty of reasons for their enduring popularity.

Graduate studies are a battlefield, and students are soldiers who must all learn to survive—and thrive.

If you’re a grad student, you certainly are no stranger to the challenges and triumphs of the journey. And certain situations exclusive to grad students will seem all too familiar.

Things Only A Grad Student Would Understand - fact

On your way to Ph.D., you are not alone on the battlefield. All over the globe, students sympathize with you. So here are the eight things that, as a grad student you will relate to. 

1. You Start Asking Your Boring Self: “Am I Still Normal?”


Your friends keep full-time careers. They spend time with their family and enjoy rest and recreation on weekends. While “work-life balance” looks good on them, Ph.D. students like you delete the term from your vocabulary.

Your weekends are spent reading, researching, completing mountains of paperwork, and beating deadlines. Also, your midlife independence is filled with even more responsibilities! You work, clean, budget, and study like clockwork.

Sometimes, your schedules drive you crazy; sometimes, you feel in total control of them. As such, your graduate school life becomes a breeding ground for stress and anxiety. You develop what seems like a love-and-hate relationship with grad school.

In retrospect, you see your life made a 180-degree turn, and you need to commit to it! It’s all about that goal. 

But you should also live life in the present because it’s time that you can’t take back! These tips are useful in enjoying a better work-studies-life balance that, in turn, will make you more in control. 

  • Adopt a deliberate attitude toward making time for family and friends, even if it’s just a short walk in the park. Taking a breather from talking about and working on your graduate studies means recharging your mind and body for the challenges ahead. 
  • Take a step back, take deep breaths and relax whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed. A five-minute mindfulness session will feel like a much-needed nap. 
  • Remember that while graduate school may seem like it’s the be-all and end-all of your life now, it isn’t! This is only a phase in your life that you can conquer with patience and perseverance. 

And you’re still the person you were before plunging into graduate school – a normal individual with unique interests, circumstances and aspirations!

2. Your Life In Two Words: Study & Research

Are you constantly finding yourself in search of new materials to study? Do you spend countless hours researching or reading your notes to sleep and dream about them in your study area? If you are nodding with excitement and frustration, you truly are a graduate student!

grad student would understand

Signing up for grad school means doing what it takes to achieve your academic goal. You don’t mind the smallest spaces as long as it’s a great spot for studying. You take simple joys in buying cheap highlighters and a new pack of sticky notes.

In a graduate study, you read and write at all times, learn and digest different perspectives, knowledge, arguments, and methodologies.  Whether it’s a three-page or 15-page research, you want the best results.

Doing all these lets, you know your way to the library even with your eyes closed. Your overdue books need another subscription plan. Stacking your reference books becomes a skill, and you can’t help but create your mini-library every semester. You now have a mastery of setting SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely) goals and achieving them!

With all the reading you must do, you will benefit from the SQ3R method! You will find that reading feels less of a chore and more of a quest for knowledge with it. There are five steps in the SQ3R method, namely: 

  • Survey – Get an overview of its general content. Skim the sections, topic headings and introduction, and the summary paragraphs, if any.
  • Question – Turn the headings and subheadings into relevant questions (i.e., with the most impact on your purpose for reading). Write down these questions and determine the possible lessons you must learn from the chapter/section. 
  • Read – Read the chapter/section to seek answers to your questions actively. Write down the answers, too, but be sure that these are in your own words, not the author’s words. 
  • Recite – Set aside the reading material and recite your answers, again in your own words. You will be more likely to understand the content and keep it in your memory bank. 
  • Review – Go over the questions and their answers, review your notes to get an overall idea of the content, and write a summary. The summary should contain how each information fits with other information and its significance, applications, and implications. 

You will take a little longer to study and read with the SQ3R method, particularly during your first tries. But stick with it, and you will find that your reading comprehension and retention significantly improve! Your reading notes also become excellent study guides, so cramming isn’t in your vocabulary anymore.

3. Your Favorite Hashtag: #nosociallife

Some priorities take a back seat because you devote yourself to grad school. Your social life is on hold, too, or at least, it takes on a different meaning. Socializing for you will generally mean studying with fellow graduate students. Befriending the librarian and debating academic-related issues becomes “socialization” for you.

It’s not uncommon to miss out on family reunions, birthday gatherings, and friendly meet-ups. Perhaps you notice you rarely return family phone calls. Your chat boxes with friends turn into deserted areas. All these will, at one point, make you feel isolated and disconnected from the rest of the world.

Remember: It’s healthy to take a breather. Have a couple of beers with friends after a project is done. Reward yourself with whatever makes you happy, whether it’s a hobby or sleep because it will fuel your enthusiasm for the next objective! Besides, you’ll be in the same grad school routine the next day (and the many days after), anyway!

4. Your Sleep-Wake-Eat Cycle is Disrupted

Many graduate students compromise their basic human need to eat and sleep, which isn’t healthy! They sleep 3-4 hours, and in between, they ask themselves, “Have I eaten today? Or was that yesterday?” To curb your hunger, you grab microwave-easy snacks with zero nutrients.

sleep cycle

According to research, it is possible to perform well without ample rest, but getting less than six hours of sleep for two consecutive nights prevents you from functioning optimally. Similarly, a healthy diet can make you perform at your best!

Don’t make week-long all-nighters your new way of life. Get enough sleep at night and always eat healthy meals daily. These are life’s non-negotiables.

But these are easier said than done because bad habits are hard to break! Societal expectations, behavioral psychology and neuroscience make changing to a healthy lifestyle challenging. 

Fortunately, there are effective ways to break your bad habits and become healthier! 

  • Think about the healthy habits you want to pick up and their benefits. You will be more motivated to pursue good health when thinking of its positive aspects. 
  • Set small goals that you can easily achieve and build confidence from their achievements. Going cold turkey isn’t always a good idea – the relapse struggle is real – so starting small is key to your success. 
  • Substitute your bad habits with good habits, one habit at a time. Develop better study habits instead of cramming; keep nuts, seeds and other healthy snacks instead of eating a bag of chips; focus on one task instead of multitasking. 
  • Don’t be in a rush to change your bad habits but also set a reasonable time limit. Experts say it takes 2-3 months before new habits can hold.

5. People tell you, “Oh, I Thought You Were An Undergrad!”

grad student would understand

Graduate students are commonly mistaken for “just students.” You believe you deserve more recognition, so you get into the details of your level and specific area of study. Clearly, people do not know how terrifying graduate school can be.

And when someone acknowledges (and applauds) you for being in grad school, you feel a sense of pride. Even if you sometimes question your existence in the academe, you need the validation that success is on the way, which will all be worth the hardship. 

But while it’s natural to seek external validation, you must beware of seeking it to an unhealthy level! Otherwise, your self-confidence and self-worth can take a beating, not to mention that criticism and disapproval become debilitating. Indeed, it would help if you learned to validate yourself so that validation from others becomes the icing on the cake. 

Here are the ways that self-validation becomes part of your life, even beyond graduate school: 

  • Accept yourself as a unique person and celebrate your progress, success and strengths 
  • Encourage yourself without waiting for others to do so 
  • Be mindful of your feelings and accept them instead of dismissing them as unimportant 
  • Prioritize your needs while also being considerate of others 
  • Treat yourself with kindness and generosity 
  • Accept responsibility for your mistakes, improve on your flaws and realize your limitations

6. Coffee Is Your New Best Friend

For a grad student, coffee is a life source. Coffee gives you that boost to jumpstart and make it through the day. Being the world’s most popular psychoactive substance, it is what you need to be awake and alert to beat deadlines. Coffee boosts cognitive performance and lessens the risk of depression, as several studies have revealed.

Most grad students know all about caffeine concoctions from the French press, espresso, frappe, and everything else in between. They know the best and cheapest coffee shops! They’re your perfect coffee shop reviewers and critics. Ask them, and they’ll give you the best recommendations! 

But as with all things in life, drink your coffee in moderation. If your coffee intake leads to sleep inefficiency, you’re not making the most out of this energy-boosting drink.

This leads us to the question: How much coffee is too much? Experts say that up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day may be the safe limit for healthy adults. This is equivalent to about four cups of brewed coffee. 

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has also stated that caffeine in its liquid and powder form can be toxic even in small quantities. Taking a single teaspoon of powdered caffeine, for example, is akin to drinking 28 cups of coffee in one go! Serious health issues, even coma and death, are possible in this case. 

The bottom line: Limit your coffee consumption to four cups per day so you can enjoy its benefits to the fullest.

7. You Are Broke—or Getting There!


Most graduate students are professionals who have bills to pay. And while some get grants and scholarships, many rely on student loans. If you’re like many of them, you may be living on a super tight budget.

So when your colleagues invite you for beer or shopping, you politely decline—and those who have a clue know exactly why. When grad students say they’re broke, they truly are!

But you don’t have to be a chronically broke graduate student either! You can have more personal control over your finances with these tips: 

  • Separate your needs from your wants. This is the first step in creating a personal budget that you can actually follow! 
  • Track your spending using your budget, find small ways of sticking to it, and save for the rainy days. 
  • Understand your financial aid options, including student loan policies. Talk with your fellow students about their experiences and the financial aid staff about these matters. 
  • Ensure that your student loans are spent on needs only, not on wants, or paying off personal debts. 
  • Pay in cash, if possible, since credit card fees add up over time, not to mention that the bills are a headache to monitor. 
  • Use the free resources, including the student support services offered by the university. Many of your basic needs may be partly addressed by these resources, too, such as shelter, transportation, health and wellness, and even food.

8. You Think Of Quitting A Couple Of Times—But You Never Do

The idea of quitting will come to you at one point. Unimpressive academic scores are setbacks that drive you to call it quits. You might have cried yourself to sleep as you think about how much you worked and still failed.

But you just don’t quit. You go back to your goal, be re-awakened with your motivation, and refocus on what makes you want to complete graduate school. No criticisms, rejections, or cynicism can break you. So, you take a deep breath, dry your tears, and go over what you did wrong so you can correct it.

With that said, there’s nothing wrong with taking a break either since it doesn’t mean you’re quitting! Most, if not all, graduate schools have milestones that students are expected to meet and time-to-completion deadlines. You can work within these timelines while enjoying life outside of graduate school. Your objective is to make satisfactory progress in meeting the milestones, and you will find wiggle room in the timeline with the right support, too. 

Committing yourself to graduate school is much like a life-long contract. You are in it for more than just career advancement; it is your gateway to enhanced knowledge, broader perspectives, and deep insights that you can use to contribute to society.

Dr. Jared Goff
Chief Editor