This blog roundtable is part of a series about graduate school – why do it, what is it like, and what to do afterwards. I encourage you to give your own opinions in the comments section, and if you disagree with a point made by the panel, voice your opinion! This is something a lot of my readers can relate to, so I’m hoping to hear from all of you. Note that these are the opinions of those involved, and do not reflect our institutions or departments in any way. For a full list of the questions, read the first post.

Sometimes graduate school feels like a marathon done while juggling. One of the panelists can attest to whether this is a good metaphor or not. I'll let you guess who 🙂

Graduate school can be a great experience. The chance to learn about an issue that you’re interested and passionate about, combined with the intellectual freedom and support to pursue that issue can be enlightening. However, at some point in your training, things aren’t going to be going well. That time between collecting data and having enough data to do preliminary analyses is particularly brutal – you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into the project but have very little to show for it. Usually that falls in the winter as well, so the 20 minutes of sunlight a day doesn’t help matters.

So I asked the panel: What if things aren’t going so well? What advice do you have for those who might having a tough time – either juggling multiple commitments, losing interest or falling behind?

Lets hear from them!

EpiGrad (twitter, website):

Ask for help. The department didn’t let you in because they thing you couldn’t cut it, and most professors aren’t out to look out their office at the smoldering craters that were once promising graduate students. Talk to your advisor. Have a mentor who’s not your advisor to talk about advisor-problems. One of the best things is probably to add time and slow things down. If you’re not ready, see if you can delay by a year, or a semester. In the grand scheme of things, its probably better to graduate a year late but with a good experience, solid understanding of your classes and a decent relationship with your advisor than stagger to the end near collapse – or quit entirely.

Travis Saunders (twitterwebsite):

I think it’s important to be very protective of your time.  It’s fine to say no to things, or to let people know that you’re willing take on a new commitment, but that you may have to reassess later based on your other time commitments.  Of course there are situations where you just won’t have enough time (comps, grant application, etc), but if your work or personal life is suffering over the long-term, then I’d suggest re-evaluating things.

If it becomes clear that what you’re doing simply isn’t working for you, then I’d suggest talking with a career counselor, or senior students/professors/mentors that you trust.  It’s 100% ok to switch labs or leave grad school if it’s just not working out.

Morgan Craig-Broadwith (twitter, website):

Grad school can be really stressful. I don’t mean you have a few bad days here and there. I’ve had friends lose hair, sleep, weight, begin panic attacks, suffer from continuous bouts of anxiety – I think you get the picture. I, myself, suffered a fairly significant breakdown. My suggestion for this is – slow down. Take your time. So what if you finish your Master’s in 3 years instead of 2. So what if you take longer to write your first manuscript.

I appreciate that there will be external pressures from your supervisor and school to finish at an acceptable time, but what is another couple of months in the grand scheme of things? I always like to think big picture – it helps sort out the small, relatively insignificant stuff.

Tim Brown (twitter, websiteLinkedIn, Material Physics Group Website):

During your graduate studies you will cycle through periods were you love your research to disliking it very strongly. This is natural. Keep at it. Try focusing on a different aspect of the research. I’m now in the phase of “after grad school” and trying to learn these very lessons. I guess it comes down to, do the best that you can. If you really are not enjoying your work, perhaps the focus can be altered with discussions with your managers, to something you would find more interesting. Make your own opportunities and be willing to adapt as needed.

Megan Carter (twitter, website):

I think you need to base this on priorities and impact on overall health and well-being. If you love what you do then perhaps you need to make sacrifices in other areas of your life to be able to finish. If you’re not interested anymore and the stress is negatively impacting your health and well-being, I would seriously consider calling it a day.

Atif (me!) (twitter):

The biggest thing is to not panic. Take a breath. Write down the big tasks you have to do. Take another breath. Don’t panic. Break those big tasks down into smaller, bite-sized tasks and then focus on those. For example – for your literature review – where do you start? This is going to be a huge chapter in your thesis summarizing the evidence in your topic area. Take a breath. Break down your review into themes, break down each theme into points you want to make, and then tackle one point at a time. Suddenly a giant chapter has become a series of small, attainable goals.

Having a good support network in graduate school is essential to getting through, and having people you can rely on will help you immensely. Graduate school is a tough, but ultimately rewarding experience.

Check back Friday for our next post: Is doing a Masters and PhD at the same school frowned upon? What about undergrad/Masters/PhD?