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Q&A: How hard is graduate school?

Let’s bring some more Q&A to you! Today, I’m focusing on the following comment that came to my blog:

Not sure about the comment “what does not kill you”. I have seen several candidates suffer mental breakdowns.

This comment came together with the question from another reader:

How tough is necessary grad school?

At that time, I replied as follows:

There’s a big difference between building up some friction and being able to push through, and getting a mental illness. I’m not a psychologist, but I think a toxic environment, difficulties with an advisor etc. might be factors that can cause serious damage to a person’s health (mental AND physical), instead of the actual research itself. But maybe I’m totally wrong?

So, how hard is graduate school really? How mentally challenging is it? How emotionally challenging is it? How psychologically challenging is it? As always, let’s look at all different aspects – keeping in mind the comment I made previously: I am not a psychologist, so I’m not entirely qualified to even answer this question. Take my thoughts as an opinion, not as the book of law.

How mentally challenging is graduate school?

I must admit, I never really did a Bachelor’s degree. I went to university after passing the entrance exam, and did a program after which I received my Master’s degree (the “ir” title) after five years. I’ve been used to a high level of teaching from the beginning, so I can’t really comment on the difference in difficulty level between your typical undergraduate and graduate course.

Throughout all my studies, in Belgium, the USA, and the Netherlands, I encountered different types of challenges. In Belgium, the volume of material you need to study prior to exams is significantly larger than in other countries. When you start your studies, it is vastly intimidating. You need to memorize a lot of material. It requires a lot of time and good planning. However, learning how to chew through a meter’s worth of notes and course material has thought me how to be very efficient in my literature review, and how to study and memorize large amounts of material.

In the USA, the hardest part for me was adjusting to the new system and to the language. For some courses, I did not have the right background. Having to fill the gaps in my background on my own was challenging, and I felt lost and confused at times. Once I learned how to manage this problem, I could roll forward.

In the Netherlands, I only took one course, as the PhD program is research-only. I studied some topics on my own as well. The largest surprise and difficulty with the one course I took in the Netherlands was the way of examining: oral exam. I had taken oral exams frequently in Belgium before, but in Belgium you receive the question, get to prepare your answer, and then go into the professor’s office. In the Netherlands, the professor asks the question while you are seated in front of him/her, and then expects an immediate answer. This different way of carrying out an oral exam took me by surprise!

In terms of research, we must say that research is an entirely different beast from studying. You may be good at reproducing material, but for research you need to take one step more and actually figure out the research question, the tools you need for answering the question, and then get to the answer. It involves different skills, and sometimes it can be lonely (but that’s part of the other topics and challenges we’ll discuss in a moment). Prior to every major breakthrough in your work, you can experience a time of friction. You’re meddling in stuff, but it just can’t seem to move forward. I call this “building up friction” – you build up this friction until finally the whole thing starts moving forward again.

How emotionally challenging is graduate school?

Dedicating three, four, or more years of your life to your PhD is something. If your program is research-only, you can feel isolated and lonely at times. Make sure you have a strong support network of fellow PhD students, friends, and reach out within your field through conferences and other events. Your research is a long project you have to see through from the beginning of the end. It can feel like a large responsibility, which can be emotionally taxing.

Try to stay balanced: leave time for self-care, eat properly, exercise, and sleep enough. Get out of your PhD bubble from time to time. Don’t neglect your friends and family. If you approach your PhD with this attitude, you’ll be more resilient when the going gets tough.

How psychologically challenging is graduate school?

PhD students are vulnerable for mental illnesses. There is the crushing weight of all expectations on the students. There is the major taboo on mental health in academia. Combine this with the toxic environment of some universities where the egos of the different professors are constantly at battle with eachother, and perhaps the lack of time and support from a PhD supervisor, and you have a cauldron for difficulties. Many universities now acknowledge this issue, and have decided to make a positive change. If you feel you need to talk to somebody about these issues, look for possible options and support within your university. Don’t carry the burden on your own.

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