How to Survive Your First Semester of Grad School

Aug 18, 2016 | Publications

This article was originally published at Ideas on Fire on August 18, 2016.

First of all, welcome to academia! You’re joining a bunch of awesome, brilliant folks and grad school provides fantastic opportunities to develop your professional skills, connect with other smart and passionate scholars, and build a multifaceted career that fits your strengths and vision both within and beyond the academy. That said, many Grad School Rockstars members tell us that the first semester of grad school is the hardest. Whether fresh out of an undergraduate or master’s program, or returning to academia after a break, you’re about to embark on a long, challenging marathon. We want to help make it easier.


Academia involves more than a “life of the mind.” It involves bodies—raced, gendered, classed, and aging bodies that need care and attention from ourselves and others.

Take time from the very beginning of your time in grad school to get your self-care routine in place: the healthy habits, diverse support network, and boundaries that help you produce great work over the next 5–7 years while also taking care of yourself and your community.

Find the environments, interactions, connections, and activities that keep you healthy and feed your soul. Whether that is a daily walk around your neighborhood, clear 9–5 work hours, or a weekly potluck with friends, these are the practices that will sustain you through the marathon of grad school and beyond.


Coming into grad school, you’ll be meeting a ton of new people: fellow first-year students, people in your program farther along, professors, new friends, neighbors where you live and where you work on campus, journal editors, department chairs, and various administrators, among many others. This is a great opportunity to get to know new folks and forge new relationships.

Even if it isn’t your usual style, try to attend meet-and-greet events on campus during the early years. You’ll meet people with whom you later may run a student organization, organize an activist event, or co-author a journal article.

Meeting people outside your department is also important: learning from and with folks from other disciplinary backgrounds will allow your own work to be more nuanced, creative, and smart. You can also check out the diverse academic communities online, whether you’re looking to connect with fellow feminist media studies scholars, queer of color scholars, or disability studies scholars.

And finally, make sure you connect with people beyond the academy: they can provide some of the richest friendships and professional connections you’ll forge during these grad school years, and are often what remind you that there is a vibrant, brilliant, and creative world out there beyond the academy.


As a grad student, you’re going to be juggling a bunch of different deadlines, projects, tasks, and responsibilities.

Most projects—like being a teaching assistant for a class; preparing for qualifying exams; researching, writing, and editing seminar papers and a dissertation; submitting an article to an academic journal; and helping plan (or even just attend) a conference—are long-term, overlapping endeavors with lots of intermittent steps and collaborations with other people.

Trying to keep all of those details in your head at once is next to impossible (at least if you want to actually meet any of those deadlines). You need to develop systems to help you track all of those details—systems that fit how you naturally work best as well as the time, resources, energy, and skills you have.

Tailoring these to your life is crucial. So play around with tools and systems to learn about new ones, and see what you might want to adopt for your own life. For example, take a look at a few to-do lists systems, email management tools, notetaking programs, and social media scheduling platforms to find the ones that are going to work best for you.


You may have heard professors or fellow students emphasize the importance of writing in grad school. And they’re right. Academics do a TON of writing, and it begins the minute you enter grad school.

Developing a daily writing and reading practice early on can ensure you schedule enough time to complete all your projects, but also avoid burning out or pulling all-nighters before papers are due.

Find the time of day and environment you like to write the best. Schedule blocks of time to write on your calendar and protect that time the same way you would any other appointment. Academic writing is writing for the long haul, and the earlier you figure out the writing routine that works best for you, the more you’ll be able to enjoy your writing projects.

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