Three Tips for Staying Grounded in Grad School
Three Tips for Staying Grounded in Grad School
by Kendra Redmond, Editor
After studying in three major cities in different countries, arriving in the small town of Ithaca, New York, was a culture shock for Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao. Although it was 2016, there was no Uber or Lyft, he recalls. “You had to call a number to get a cab.” As a first-generation, international student in the middle of nowhere, Cao felt especially isolated. A strict US visa policy for many Chinese students in STEM made it difficult for him to travel home, and during a lab rotation, he witnessed an advisor ridicule an international graduate student for mispronouncing English words. After just three months, Cao was ready to leave.
Simone Hyater-Adams knows isolation too. She went from historically Black Hampton University to the “hyper-White space” of the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) for a PhD program in physics education research. She immediately jumped in—doing research, running an afterschool program, TAing, and taking classes. But her confidence started to waver when she didn’t have the math background needed for a class. And she waited a long time before telling anyone. “If you don't trust that [people in the department] will know what you need and really give it to you, then you're not going to want to tell them,” she says. “They have the power to take what you have away.” Burned out and feeling inadequate, she contemplated leaving.
Why did Cao and Hyater-Adams stay? In part because they found communities that gave them a sense of belonging. With the help of his program’s graduate student advisor, Cao changed principal investigators (PIs) and went to a lab where he was valued and supported. Hyater-Adams took classes in ethnic studies, dance, and education and joined groups for people of color in those departments. “What made things really great for me while I was at CU is that I had little communities all over campus,” she says. Those groups were more affirming of her physics identity than the physics department.
The bottom line: Find communities inside and outside your department where you’re supported, valued, and free to be yourself. When research or life gets challenging (and both will), these communities will be a lifeline.
Work for a supportive advisor
During the worst of her isolation and self-doubt, a supportive advisor made all the difference to Hyater-Adams. “There was a semester where I kind of quit,” she says. “I was still in school, but I was just doing very, very little.” With her advisor’s blessing, she didn’t TA and only took one class—dance. “I don't think I would have stayed in grad school if I hadn't taken that semester,” she says. And that’s the semester her dissertation was born.
Cao knows what working with advisors on both ends of the spectrum is like. “I think the advisor–student relationship is one of the greatest reasons students have mental health issues during grad school,” he says. “A lot of students suffer because of a toxic relationship there.”1
When Zack Murguía Burton’s mental health declined to a life-threatening level, he didn’t have to worry about losing his grad student status or funding. His advisor told him to return whenever he felt ready to reengage with the program. And Murguía Burton did. “What was so critical to being able to reenter my PhD program and then take my qualifying exams in October, five months after being hospitalized, was the support of my PhD advisor,” he says.
To increase the odds that you’ll select a good advisor, Murguía Burton suggests talking to potential advisors, the grad students currently in their labs, and group alum. This can give you a good understanding of the group dynamics, he says. Although it shouldn’t be a student’s responsibility to find a good advisor—advisors should be trained and held accountable—given the current system, Murguía Burton advises students to do their due diligence.
Despite your best efforts, you could end up with an advisor that isn’t a good fit for you. Know that you’re not stuck. Plenty of grad students change advisors and research projects. Some even change programs or schools. Others leave grad school altogether. None of those choices signify failure. It’s your life. Do whatever you need to keep yourself grounded mentally and emotionally, says Hyater-Adams.
The bottom line: Invest the time to find a supportive advisor who’s on your side. That person will have a significant impact on your life and well-being.
Treat yourself as a person, not a lab rat
With the pressure to get research results and publish, grad students often think they should be in the lab 60+ hours a week. But that’s not sustainable, healthy, or good work–life balance. Embrace student orientation events and community events, says Murguía Burton. Continue doing the nonacademic things you love—chess club, cooking classes, or playing a sport.2
“Grad school is the perfect time for you to explore,” Cao says.3 There are not nearly enough professorships for everyone who earns a PhD, so use that time to investigate different career options, he says. Explore the career support your school offers outside of academia, join a management consulting club on campus, or take a summer internship. The opportunities are there, but you’ll have to talk to your advisor and graduate school staff and probably go outside your department.4
As PhD students, “It can feel like we're just so specialized and have no skills that are applicable beyond doing this very narrow scope of research,” Murguía Burton says. But using grad school as a time to explore interests and career possibilities can help you escape that mindset, he says. “There are so many opportunities and possibilities out there and so many ways to bridge to other disciplines.”
Hyater-Adams was revitalized by exploring her interest in dance and ethnic studies, and she eventually integrated them into her research on physics identity. Cao secured his current fellowship in part due to a policymaking opportunity he pursued in grad school. Murguía Burton is both an academic and a playwright helping to destigmatize mental illness. “Ultimately, it’s absolutely about our own mental health, our own wellbeing, our own happiness,” he says.
The bottom line: Grad school doesn’t define you. Exploring your other interests can keep you grounded and add richness, perspective, and new opportunities to your life.
- Zack F. Murguía Burton and Xiangkun Elvis Cao, “Navigating Mental Health Challenges in Graduate School,” Nat. Rev. Mater 7 (2022): 421-423, doi: 10.1038/s41578-022-00444-x.
- Zack F. Murguía Burton and Xiangkun Elvis Cao, “Let Graduate Students Do Internships,” Matter 5, no. 12 (2022): 4100-4104, doi: 10.1016/j.matt.2022.11.010.
- Xiangkun Elvis Cao and Gladys Chepkirui Ngetich, “The Need to Normalize Failure,” Nat. Rev. Chem. 7 (2023): 69-70, doi: 10.1038/s41570-022-00454-x.
- Xiangkun Elvis Cao, Xu Liu, and Yuanzhao Zhang, “Flourishing as International Students and Scholars in the US,” Matter 5, no. 3 (2022): 768-771, doi: 10.1016/j.matt.2022.02.004.
Get Help Now
If you or someone you know is in a mental health crisis, please seek help. The following resources are free and available 24/7 from the comfort of your home. Call 911 in an emergency.
- 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: Call or text 988 from anywhere within the United States for free and confidential help with a mental health crisis.
- Wikipedia's list of international suicide crisis lines: Visit Wikipedia's list of suicide crisis lines by country at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_suicide_crisis_lines.
- Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741741 anytime for free crisis counseling.
- Grad Resources, National Grad Crisis Line: Call (877) GRAD-HLP, and find resources for free counseling and more on the website gradresources.org.
- Support on Social Media: The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline will help you contact social media platforms directly if you’re concerned about a friend’s social media postings: 988lifeline.org/help-someone-else/safety-and-support-on-social-media/.
- Thrive Lifeline: Text (313) 662-8209 to access support from qualified crisis responders in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine). Learn more at thrivelifeline.org.
- Veterans Crisis Line: Call (800) 273-TALK (8255) and press 1, or text to 838255 for a free, confidential resource that connects veterans with trained responders, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Tip: Save a picture of these resources on your phone so they’re always within easy reach.
Set Up Your Mental Health for Success
If you have mental health challenges, establish a local medical care team (e.g., doctor, psychiatrist, therapist) when you arrive in your new location—or better yet, in advance. Look at resources offered by the school and providers covered by the health insurance you’ll get. Then reach out so you’re not at the bottom of a long waiting list when you need care.
About the ContributorstheManicMonologues.org), an award-winning play sharing the stories of people touched by mental illness. Murguía Burton was in his second year of a geological and environmental sciences PhD program when suicidality and psychosis landed him in the hospital for several weeks. He is a vocal advocate for disrupting the stigma of mental health. ElvisCao.com.