15 Life Lessons I Learned in Grad School

Graduate cap and books

by Heather Kallevig

“Become a change agent.” The last sentence written on my final comprehensive exam. That was it. I had simultaneously completed grad school and set my goal for my future in one succinct statement. As I walked out of the room, I didn’t know what I expected this moment to feel like. Should I stand a little taller, no longer weighted down by computer and text books? Should my head grow bigger to carry my inflated brain? Should I be suddenly more empathetic, caring, or driven? Ok maybe the physical changes didn’t happen, but the mental ones may. I had just achieved one of my life’s most challenging goals, and I did it in under a year. I was now Heather Kallevig, Purdue M.A. in communications.

Grad StudentThere are many reasons we attend grad school. To learn, to get a better job, to take steps toward greater goals; the reasons are as dynamic as the students. And there are over 500,000 students who earn a masters degree every year in the US.

I myself attended grad school to send my life in a new direction. I wanted the opportunity to pursue communication, writing, and education in the nonprofit sector. Grad school gave me the opportunity to pivot from my five years as teacher to pursue a new career using the skills I possessed.

In my year as a student, I witnessed a dramatic transformation in my person. My interests, goals, and pursuits all changed. Looking back I wouldn’t give up a moment of it, even the painfully stressful ones. I learned a great deal from my books, but in this post I want to share a little bit of my life learning. Here is a list of the top life lessons I learned in grad school.

1. Dress for Success

Business CasualRemember when you were an undergrad and wearing sweats to class was stylish? This is not the case in grad school. Think of class as your job. You may be teaching as a TA or attending as a student. It’s important to stand out with your professionalism. Your teachers may one day be your greatest advocates on the job market. Show respect and dress to impress.  Business casual is a good rule of thumb.

2.  Make time every hour to leave your seat.

It’s very tempting when you have an extensive to-do list and you’re on a role to feel success from staying at it till it’s done. This isn’t good for your body or your brain. Numerous studies recommend getting up at least once every twenty minutes. One doctor describes the side effects of a sedentary life style “You stop breaking up fat in your bloodstream, you start getting accumulations of fat … in your liver, your heart and your brain. You get sleepy. You gain weight. You basically are much less healthy than if you’re moving.”

Whether it’s simply to stand, grab a glass of water, or move around your office, take time to leave your seat. Even if you get your recommended daily dose of exercise, you need to break up the sedentary lifestyle and move around too.

3.  Take a few hours off every day.

Even during finals week, when you feel you’ll never accomplish all that’s on your list. Outdoor YogaTake time off every day to do something you enjoy outside of school. This will keep you connected to your relationships and other hobbies. So whether you like sewing, swimming, running, blogging, or watching movies with friends, make time to write these leisure activities into your daily schedule.

  1. Popcorn does not quality as a healthy dinner but it works in a pinch.

Remember the good old-fashioned food pyramid? Well it still applies in adulthood. In grad school though, there may be times you forget about it. There were many days in the past year where I had popcorn for supper rather than a square meal. This is ok, just don’t make it a daily habit and try to slip a couple other food groups into your daily diet – think fruits and vegetables.

5.  Foster your relationships.Foster your friendships

The friendships you build in grad school have the potential to last forever.  These are the individuals who share similar interests and aspirations.  Take the time to get to know the people in your program, classes, and school organizations.  They become your cheerleaders during the hard days and the people who join you for margaritas when you succeed.  Make time for friendships and happy memories.

6.  Humans can consume an astounding amount of coffee.

Grad School Coffee CupsI never really considered myself a coffee drinker until grad school. Today, I enjoy coffee morning, later morning, lunch time, early afternoon…(You get the picture.) In the department, a pot of coffee invites more people than a keg attracts undergrads, and mugs are an outfit accessory. If you are not a coffee drinker, and you’re considering grad school, beware. The coffee bug will get you.

7.  You can live on an astonishingly small amount of money after having a salary.

When I started grad school I transitioned from a full-time teacher’s salary to a pithy TA salary. Don’t get me wrong, I was very thankful to be making any money while studying! However, I was amazed at how little I could live on, a mere percentage of my previous income. The reason? When you get to grad school, there is very little time to spend. Great way to budget.

8.  Your body is likely to change in grad school. It gets softer… Everywhere.

SittingRemember life lesson #2? Well, sometimes it’s hard to follow. Which is why by the time you finish grad school your body may feel a bit different. You keep telling yourself you’ll begin exercising again once Christmas break, spring break, summer break, or graduation comes, but the reality is it’s really hard to get to the gym everyday. Be a super hero and make time to exercise.

9.  Make time for the gym.

This is a feed off from lesson 7. I tried to make it to the gym at least once a week. Much less frequently than pre-grad school, but even that weekly sojourn on the treadmill made a big difference. If you can’t make it to the gym, at least take time to go for a walk once or twice a day. Studies recommend at least 40 minutes of walking every day. You can break this up into two 20 minute walks if it’s easier. Walking improves weight loss, gives you a chance to breathe fresh air, commune with nature, boosts your mood and relieves stress or anxiety. So make time for those daily outdoor walks.

10.  You’re going to need a stronger glasses prescription at the end of the year.

GlassesHave you ever heard of computer vision syndrome? It’s a real term coined by the American Optics Association to describe the stress, fatigue, and deterioration our eyes experience from prolonged periods of staring at a screen. As you can imagine this is a common and necessary part of grad school. So, take care of your eyes, look away from the screen every once in a while, and be prepared to change your prescription at the end of the year.

11.  Schedule relaxation time

43% of adults claim to suffer from negative health effects caused by stress. These effects include sickness, sleep deprivation, weight gain, and mood changes.  Grad school is certainly stressful, but you can combat its impact on your health by taking time to relax. It may seem silly to write an hour into your schedule for relaxation, but it really is necessary. If you do not schedule relaxation time, there are chances you may forget it. Whether you relax through yoga, meditation, walking, reading (non textbooks), or watching TV, make sure this is scheduled into everyday.

12.  Get to know your professors

Get to know your professorsThey’ll become your greatest allies. Teacher-student relationships are different in grad school than in your undergrad. Professors and student’s are more like colleagues, working together toward a same goal. Students work with teachers on research projects and community activities. If you are lucky, you are likely to find valuable mentors in grad school. Remember to maintain a level of professionalism, because these mentors could one day be valuable allies when you start to develop your future.

13.  Grad School is not an extension of undergrad.

Many first times in grad school have the misapprehension that grad school is simply a continuation of undergrad for two more years. IT’S NOT. There is a reason you only take three classes a semester in most grad programs. Your time is divided between classes, research, and TA positions. The reading is far more strenuous, and the papers seem impossible your first semester. (Don’t worry, you can do it.) Just be prepared for a Stressed Grad Studentnew level of learning that is nothing like your undergrad.

14.  No matter how many times you think you can’t, somehow you will always get things done.

This is the final and most important thing I learned in grad school. I don’t know how many times I burst into tears, hung my head, and sobbed, “It’s too much, I can’t do it!” Then had a surprising turn around and finished the project ahead of schedule. My husband might tell you this is my process – build up, break down, completion, and success. Believe it or not, this sentiment is common among grad schools, and everyone has had a time when they questioned whether or not they had the ability to get the job done. Most of them will tell you they did.

15.  You’ll learn what you are truly capable of.

Similar to a challenging sport, grad school shows you what you’re capable of. It challenges you, teaches you new and exciting things, and helps you learn your mettle. Finding a program that fits you and your interests is very important. When it works, grad school is a gratifying, life-altering experience. You will come out a different person, so thankful you took the time to survive grad school.  It’s likely you’ll do more than survive, you’ll thrive and gain the potential to “Become a Change Agent.”

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2 thoughts on “15 Life Lessons I Learned in Grad School

  1. Heather Kallevig says:

    Thank you! I learned to value good teachers. Thanks for all the help first semester. I learned so many important skills in your class, the joy of blogging being one!

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