11 Smart Ways to Rock your PhD: Advice from a Recent Graduate

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

If you’re starting a PhD or muddling your way through a PhD, you’re probably terrified, overworked, and underpaid.

Completing a PhD or a Master’s degree can feel like a calling—it can provide hope, better earning potential, pursuit of valuable knowledge, and self-fulfillment.

But academia isn’t immune to a lot of serious pitfalls.

Once you get there it’s really easy to feel disillusioned, dejected, exhausted, and aimless. That’s where I was a few years ago.

Luckily, I found solace in the online academic community.

I found camaraderie, authentic support, genuine shared experience, and some truly powerful advice.

Here is all the advice I’ve learned and heard throughout my seven years of graduate school.

I hope that anyone currently enrolled, recently finished with, or considering graduate school can use this information.

Here’s to helping the next generation better adjust to #PhDLife.

When choosing institutions:

Choosing an institution to complete your PhD (and spend the next 5–7 years of your life) is really important.

Unfortunately, due to the competitiveness of being accepted into any PhD program (especially clinical psychology), most of us tend to go where we are accepted, and fail to decline offers even if they don’t feel like a strong fit because we don’t have other options.

If you are only accepted into one program and don’t want to wait another year (that’s what I did), go for it, but if you have serious reservations about attending a program that doesn’t feel like a great fit just because you got in there, listen to your gut.

1. Pick a mentor who cares about you as a person as primary, and is a good research/clinical fit secondary.

  • While research and clinical fit is extremely important to developing your future career, I found that the interpersonal aspects of mentorship were what I needed most.

  • Most advisors will further your career, but not all advisors will help you set boundaries, listen to you, make time for you, and check-in on your well-being.

  • Choose an advisor who is invested in your personal growth and empowers you to pursue your dreams - not someone who wants a workhorse to help pump out their research.

2. Pick a mentor who matches your interpersonal or learning style.

  • I saw many people struggle because their mentor had a different style.

  • For example, if you need regular check-ins and you have an absentee mentor, you are going to have a really hard time finishing projects.

  • On the other side, if you’re craving independence but you have a mentor who wants to micromanage your decisions, it’s going to be really frustrating.

  • Pick a mentor who is going to help you maximize your strengths and fill the gaps in your growth areas.

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On Imposter Syndrome:

Imposter syndrome is also known as fraud syndrome, or the imposter experience.

It occurs when we feel inadequate despite substantial accomplishments. A lot of graduate students experience this.

Academia is a place of constant failure. You fail the exam, you don’t get the scholarship, you don’t get the grant funded, your research doesn’t turn out how you expected — the list goes on! Every single one of my published articles (13) were first rejected by at least one journal — and most of them were rejected by more.

3. You're not alone.

  • Imposter syndrome makes us feel isolated.

  • The voice in our head says we feel this way because something’s wrong with us, that we aren’t smart enough, not creative enough, or that we don’t deserve to be in academia.

  • Don’t buy into this voice — instead, seek out shared connections with others. I guarantee that so many other people feel this way.

  • Find people who are brave enough to say, “I feel like that sometimes too. It really sucks.”

  • Find people who will encourage you and help you tell that imposter syndrome voice to kick rocks.

4. Be kind to yourself.

  • Academia is a rough place. We are constantly bombarded with criticism. This criticism is meant to make our work better and stronger. Unfortunately, it is exhausting to constantly hear things we need to improve.

  • We get enough criticism from other people, we don’t need to criticize ourselves too.

But how to be kind to yourself?

A. Notice when you're being self-critical. The first step is to just notice. Notice when you're telling yourself a story that isn't helping you.

B. Soften your words. Changing the way we speak to ourselves doesn't need to be super fluffy and positive, just not overly demeaning. How can you approach speaking to yourself in a way that's more caring?

C. Try speaking to yourself like you'd speak to a friend. Most of us would be horrified if we spoke to our friends the way we speak to ourselves. If a friend has a hard time, we might say, "man, that's a really tough break. I hope it gets better." Say that to yourself.

#ImposterSyndrome #Academia #OvercomingImposterSyndrome

Photo credit: Academics Say

On Mental Health:

Graduate students are SIX times more likely than other people to experience anxiety and depression. Evans and colleagues (2018) found that 41% and 39% of graduate students suffered from anxiety and depression, respectively. That's an astounding number. We can probably conclude that graduate students need to work extra hard to take care of their mental health in graduate school.

5. Take care of yourself.

  • Basic routines are your friend. There is a reason why we teach people to take care of their basic needs first. I love the saying that people are basically plants with more complicated emotions. It’s true.

  • You need 1) food, 2) water, 3) some kind of physical activity/movement, 4) sleep, 5) sunlight, 6) breaks, 7) a safe physical space, etc.

  • These things are non-negotiable.

  • There is no way that you can produce anywhere close to your best work if you’re neglecting these needs. But we shouldn’t take care of these needs because they help us work more — we should take care of them because all of us deserve to take care of ourselves.

6. Taking care of yourself includes fun activities.

  • It is not humanly possible to be all work and no play 100% of the time.

  • If we never do things that fill our cup, we can’t live our lives — you can’t drink from an empty cup.

  • Do things that fill your cup. Go for a hike. Read. Binge watch Netflix (sometimes, in moderation). Laugh at funny cat videos. Do anything that helps you unwind.

7. Identify resources.

  • When you first start graduate school, identify resources for your mental health.

  • Know the crisis line number for emergencies. Know your nearest emergency room. Know where to go for student counseling.

  • You might even be proactive and schedule an appointment.

  • Identify professors or other leaders who are safe to confide in. Identify friends you can talk to when you’re struggling.

  • All of these resources matter and are important in helping you feel cared for and supported.

Photo credit: Academics Say

Other general advice


Legitimate quote from Mirae Fornander, a pre-doctoral intern at Kansas City Mercy Children's Hospital.

  • Universities are like a candy store. There is an incredible number of opportunities.

  • It probably feels like you need to say yes to every opportunity in order to have a productive career. You don’t.

  • Actually, it’s impossible to say yes to everything, and you’ll end up working on projects that make you want to tear your hair out.

  • Instead, say yes to projects that make you excited. Say yes to projects that help your career in the long-term (although there might not be enough room for all those projects).

  • Say yes to working with people who value your time and build your ideas, rather than tear you down.

  • Say yes to projects that fill your cup.

9. Avoid comparisons.

  • There will always be people doing more than you. There will always be people doing less than you.

  • You have unique special talents that nobody else has, just by being you. Focus on your strengths and skills, and how you can grow yourself to reach your goals.

  • At the end of the day and when you’ve graduated and are interviewing for jobs or advertising your skills, it doesn’t matter what Karen did in grad school, it matters what you did.

10.. Build your academic community.

  • Build your academic community not just to network, but to connect with people who know what you’re going through.

  • Take advantage of your institutional connections — but also take advantage of the big world outside of your institution/department/field.

  • You can connect for knowledge but also for fun and support. For example, Shit Academics Say and Lego Grad Student have the funniest memes about grad school that are totally relatable. They help us laugh and know that we aren’t alone.

  • I’ve also made tons of friends online who have helped cheer-lead me through some trying times. Find your people.

11. Have interests outside of your field of study.

Alek Krumm, pre-doctoral intern at the Fargo VA Medical Center, gives some sound advice.

  • It’s great to be passionate about your field of study (duh, because why else would you dedicate years of your life studying it), but it’s not balanced to put all your eggs in one basket.

  • Maybe you get together with some non-work friends for trivia on Wednesdays. Maybe you watch sports on the weekends.

  • Do things that help you be a well-rounded individual. Your academic identity is important, but other parts of yourself are important too.

Photo credit: ELGL

Honestly, it feels most important for me to tell you to own your skills. Own your shit!

You are a freaking rockstar just for getting into graduate school.

You are doing one of the scariest, hardest, most uncertain things.

And even when you don’t feel like you know things, you absolutely do.

I want you to know that I see you. I know how hard it is.

But you are also strong.

Get that degree!

Photo credit: Make a Meme

*Article citation

Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36(3), 282-284.