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Things to Consider

5 Challenges Grad Students Face (and How to Overcome Them)

October 2022

Adding graduate school onto your plate of life, which may already include a full-time job, a family and financial challenges, can make, well, a very heavy plate to carry around. With a Ph.D. attrition rate at 50% or higher,¹ the pressures that grad students feel is very real. It takes an intentional effort, and both personal and institutional support, to find balance and succeed in grad school.

Overcoming the challenges of grad school

The pandemic

While most things have returned to some sense of normalcy, the effects of the pandemic and subsequent closure of every college campus in America can still be felt. Students and institutions faced numerous challenges, and college students of all types, including grad students, continue to face ongoing repercussions.

  • Financial issues. While financial issues can significantly impact one’s grad school experience at any point during their pursuit of a degree, students who lost their jobs or had a partner lose their job during the pandemic, may have trouble financially continuing with their graduate studies. Also, many graduate students receive stipends for teaching courses while in grad school, and the pandemic put many of those roles in jeopardy. Research your post-pandemic financial options to make sure you can afford the program long-term.
  • Program viability issues. Graduate level research can be difficult to complete online. Lab work would be nearly impossible and would have been paused. Not being able to complete research for a thesis created a significant obstacle for both students and institutions alike. With campuses reopened, hopefully many of these issues have self-corrected, but make sure you communicate with faculty and program advisors.

Imposter syndrome

This is a phenomenon that can affect any graduate student but tends to disproportionately affect underrepresented and first-generation students. What is imposter syndrome? It’s a term used for someone who is worthy of their position but fails to believe they deserve it, and it’s fairly common within the grad student population. You apply to a program you want and have been accepted. When you get there and see the other students you’ll be working with, a sense of intimidation and self-doubt comes over you and you start to wonder whether you really deserve to be there. That kind of self-doubt affects your performance and potentially the outcome of your program. To combat this, don’t isolate yourself. Network with fellow students and professors for support and reassurance.

Procrastination and time management issues

It can be overwhelming thinking about all the tasks you have to complete during grad school, in addition to your family and/or work responsibilities, if those apply. It’s easy to get that deer-in-headlights feeling when grad school responsibilities seem insurmountable, whether in combination with other life responsibilities or just on their own. It’s important to stay organized, stick to a schedule and compartmentalize tasks to make them more manageable.

Writing a thesis/final papers

You won’t find too many grad students out there who are genuinely excited to write and defend a thesis paper. While not all grad programs are thesis-based (a factor you should consider during your research process), all grad programs carry a heavy work load with them that will require many hours of work, including writing papers. While you may be technically aware of this going into your program, the reality of the situation may cause much stress and challenge your aptitude when it comes to completing the program. Stay organized and make sure you have reliable and qualified people to proofread for you.

Isolation

Feelings of isolation amongst grad students are common for a number of reasons. It can be related to imposter syndrome, where someone who doesn’t feel like they fit in will naturally isolate themselves from peers and mentors. It can also just come from dealing with the overwhelming amount of work and responsibilities that come with grad school (especially if combined with other life obligations.) Missed social engagements and spending hours alone studying or writing can lead to feeling of isolation. This is certainly one of many contributing factors to the growing mental health crisis amongst grad students. Staying connected to people within your program and outside of it’s important to combat these feelings.

It takes a village

The pandemic restrictions are mainly relieved, and while there may be some longstanding repercussions, it’s important to communicate with your department head, advisors, mentors and financial aid department to find a workable solution for your situation. Most institutions are willing to work with students in order to help them succeed in their programs.

Universities are acknowledging the hardships that grad students face, the toll that it takes on them and the implications for both students and institutions if these issues aren’t addressed. Many institutions are fostering growing teams of support made up of professors, faculty, alumni, student support groups and mental health professionals to help students deal with the gamut of challenges they’re facing as they try to pursue a degree in higher education.

Addressing the various challenges that pop-up during grad school before they snowball into something overwhelming will make obtaining your degree more manageable. Self-doubt, feelings of isolation and time-management issues can sabotage your hard-earned program acceptance and efforts. It may seem small, but paying attention to those “microaffirmations” given by professors, other students, family and friends and ignoring any microaggressions that may be aimed at you, helps your overall mental state and allows you to see things more clearly. Finally, as mentioned above, staying organized by addressing one task at a time and carving out scheduled time for individual responsibilities on your calendar will make the heavy load of responsibilities feel less daunting.

The bottom line

The challenges that grad students face have real consequences when it comes to whether a student will complete their degree or not. Remember, you’re not alone on your grad school journey, no matter what the challenge is that you’re facing. There’s no shame in asking for help.

1 Almost 50% of All Doctoral Students Don’t Graduate – Statistics Solutions

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