Tips for thriving in graduate school
Photo by Maria Errico September 13, 2021
New graduate students receive wealth of guidance from UD community during orientation
Call your family. Brush and floss your teeth. Get enough sleep. Communicate with your professors, advisers and department chairs. Network by sending cold emails to professionals whose work you find interesting. Build a support system. Join student organizations both within and outside your field of study. Go to on-campus events. Find mentors. Hang out with your friends. Hit the gym. Go for a walk or a run. Watch a movie. Maintain a work-life balance. Do not compete with your classmates; they are your teammates. Attend conferences. Set boundaries. Celebrate accomplishments. Reward yourself with pizza, ice cream or whatever makes you happy. You deserve to be here.
Although Ellen Bloom, Safiyah Mansoori, Patricia Hurley, Ted DeConne, Mike Axler, Ye Shen and Shaili Patel have unrelated backgrounds, are not all enrolled in the same program and employ some different tactics, they are generally on the same page for how to deal with the rigors of graduate school. Participating in a University of Delaware New Graduate Student Orientation student panel at the Trabant University Center on Aug. 24, the septet of UD doctoral students imparted the preceding tips, advice and encouragement — gleaned from their respective experiences — to the incoming graduate students in attendance.
Communicate and set boundaries
“A lot of people say graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint, and I didn’t understand what that meant until I didn’t have any boundaries with my work,” said Mansoori, a College of Health Sciences student. “I would just keep working really hard all day. I really wanted to live up to the expectations of what a Ph.D. student should be like.”
By speaking with her adviser about feeling overwhelmed, Mansoori gained a better understanding of the expectations of a doctoral student and was able to overcome the feelings she was experiencing.
“They [advisers, professors and department chairs] do actually care about you and want you to succeed, so they’ll help you through it,” said Mansoori.
DeConne, a College of Health Sciences student, said he likes to accept many challenges and kept engaging in more and more projects when he first enrolled at UD.
“I reached a point where I just became overwhelmed by the work, and eventually I had a conversation with my adviser telling him I was taking on too much, and then we whittled it down to a manageable workload,” said DeConne. “In order to avoid that feeling, having that conversation earlier would have been very helpful.”
Take a break and reward yourself
Realizing that focusing all of her attention on being the best researcher and constantly feeling the need to exhibit her dedication is unsustainable, Mansoori has since made sure that she takes time for herself and the people she cares about. By becoming friends with people in her lab and joining student organizations, such as the iBuddy program for international students, she developed a diverse on-campus support network.
DeConne relieves stress by lifting weights and watching movies, and he said maintaining a work-life balance helps him avoid making mistakes. Shen, a College of Education and Human Development student, celebrates wins, asks for help and told the students if they communicate well with their department, everything will work out. Patel, a College of Arts and Sciences student, advocates sticking to a schedule and making sure it includes time with family and friends. Axler, a College of Health Sciences student, utilizes a habit tracker to make sure he keeps up with regular well-being activities and treats himself when he reaches academic benchmarks.
“You have to eat your vegetables in order to get dessert,” said Axler. “I like to try a new ice cream place every weekend. For me to have that reward, I have to put in my time during the week.”
Get involved and meet people
Hurley, a College of Engineering student, relaxes by running and hanging out with her friends. She said a great way to meet people in other departments and strengthen one’s support network is to get involved with clubs and organizations, which are offered for social, professional, religious, cultural and other purposes. Bloom, a College of Engineering student, also enjoys meeting people from other departments and regularly shows up at events outside her discipline.
The student panel was part of a daylong program, hosted by the Graduate College, designed to ease the students’ transition to UD. The attendees were provided with additional recommendations for success, words of support and other relevant information from faculty and staff representing various segments of the University. They learned about graduate research at UD, met the Graduate College team, were apprised of essential community services and participated in some interactive activities.
In his welcoming remarks, UD President Dennis Assanis advised the students to engage in research and scholarship, no matter what program they are enrolled in. He also encouraged them to explore all that the University and the surrounding states have to offer and to begin forming lifelong friendships with each other.
Pursue your passions
Words for Nerds champions Madeline Henrickson and Sai Patkar spoke about the program that helps graduate students bring complex research to the public, and the keynote address was made by Federica Bianco, who wears a variety of hats — and gloves.
An assistant professor with both the Department of Physics and Astronomy and in the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration, as well as a resident faculty member with the Data Science Institute, Bianco is also a professional boxer. UD’s fighting astrophysicist was initially concerned that her time in the ring would be perceived as her not being serious about her academic pursuits, but she has no regrets. Although her mentors told her to specialize and do one thing really, really well, she said it would make her miserable not to do all she does, including boxing.
Conquering COVID challenges
Louis Rossi, dean of the Graduate College and vice provost for graduate and professional education, told the students they are joining a diverse community that is a microcosm of the world with learners from every inhabited continent except Australia. Rossi acknowledged the additional challenges posed by COVID-19 and emphasized the need to keep everyone safe by wearing masks and following all of the related protocols.
“Earning an advanced degree is the most challenging intellectual endeavor that most people will ever experience, and you’ll grow in ways that will surprise you, so I imagine when you graduate you will be a very different person than the person you are right now,” said Rossi. “I’m hoping that when someone asks you what you were doing during the great pandemic, you’re going to say, ‘Well, I was at the University of Delaware doing the greatest work of my life, and I was meeting with people who changed my life.’ ’’
Mary Martin, associate vice provost for graduate and professional education and associate dean, explained that the Graduate College team serves the role of connecting academics, professional development, campus services, financial services, engagement opportunities and well-being initiatives for programs that are unique and special for graduate students. As a visual symbol of being a graduate student and being connected to all that UD has to offer, each new student was given a carabiner: a metal ring with one spring-hinged side that is used especially in mountain climbing as a connector and to hold a freely running rope.
“I ask that you clip that carabiner on your backpack so that others see you on campus and recognize it and know that you are a graduate student,” said Martin. “Reach out, meet other students and introduce yourself to them so that you can build a network of friends, not only within your program, but outside your program.”
Following the presentations, the new students were given a chance to forge connections by participating in a scavenger hunt, attending a resource fair and meeting members of their individual colleges. For those who may have been feeling out of place at UD or could use some more motivation, Hurley assured them they are in the right spot.
“Just the fact that you are sitting here means you went through the admissions process and you deserve to be here,” said Hurley. “So just keep that in mind whenever you’re feeling like you don’t belong or you’re not doing enough. There is a reason that you’re sitting here today.”