This Week in Grad School (Jan 7, 2016)

Grad school is rough, so This Week In Grad School is here to take your questions! This week, we have questions about imposter syndrome [see note 1], loneliness, and how to get into a PhD program in the first place!

These questions were first shared on social media, so you'll be getting my advice plus advice from lots of other people who have been there!

A) Am I ready for grad school?


It’s incredibly common for students to feel unprepared for grad school—that’s what imposter syndrome is all about. As the above commenters noted (thanks for participating, guys!), people come in with all kinds of different preparation. What you did before grad school is way less important than what you do once you’re in it!

Take a moment to think—why did the program that accepted you take you? Ok so you had a low undergrad GPA and not much research experience. They’re pretty picky in their decision-making (that’s what that long and arduous process of grad school interviews is all about). Pull out a piece of paper and note down your strong suits: what are you bringing to the table? Why did they pick you?

Possible examples include:

  • personality traits
  • communication style
  • volunteer experience
  • passion
  • mentors who spoke strongly of you in your letters of recommendation

It may not be easy to make such a list, but don’t take that as a bad sign. If thinking confidently came naturally to you, you wouldn’t be struggling with this right now in the first place! For the next few weeks, try to note down any possible reasons you can think of about why they would have accepted you and why you’ll do well. (Hint: it can help to ask friends and family members to round out the list!)

Then, once you have it, work on believing it. When your concerns come up, remind yourself about this list.

Also, you might think about how you can best prepare yourself for grad school. A little preparation can really help calm your nerves. (Note: Don’t use overpreparation as a way to escape your anxieties. Everything in moderation, and you should work on your anxiety/confidence too.)

No, you don’t have to read 100 papers before you get started (how would you even know which ones to read?). But you can:

  • read some books about grad school (how about Surviving Your Stupid Stupid Decision To Go To Grad School?)
  • start looking at the professors who you could work with and get in touch with a few
  • email a few current grad students and ask them to get coffee or to skype (they can give you advice + you’ll already have some new friends)
  • think about your organizational/time management skills and start improving ones that could use some work
  • research your new city and anything you need to do to move
  • ask your undergraduate mentors about how to prepare
  • watch some YouTube videos or listen to some podcasts about the current trends in your field

Don’t forget about the self-care you can do in preparation for grad school:

  • get in an exercise/meditation/relaxation routine
  • spend lots of time with friends and family who you’ll have less time for once you start
  • start seeing a therapist to address the anxiety you’re already having
  • open up to your friends (including ones in your new program) about your concern

Please comment below: what would you advise for someone who feels unprepared for grad school even after getting in? (Please focus both on how to prepare and how to reassure oneself.)

B) Grad school makes me lonely


Grad school can be a deeply isolating experience. In fact, it’s one of the reasons for low confidence mentioned in my podcast episode 9 Reasons Grad Students Are Convinced They Suck.

Many programs actively take steps (at least in the beginning) to forge a bond among their grad students; unluckier students don’t have this luxury. But no matter how close you are to your new grad school buddies in the beginning, as everyone gets more invested in their project, you’re going to find less and less time for each other. You need to take steps to prevent the loneliness and to pull yourself out of it when you’re in deep.

When you’re just starting out in your program, try to attend the various social events that are available. There are lots of reasons not to:

  • you’d way rather stay in and watch Netflix
  • you already don’t get much time to spend with your significant other
  • you’re exhausted after your classes and lab

But for the vast majority of people (even introverts), you’re going to need social support throughout grad school, and you’ve gotta start cultivating those bonds now.

A few responses to the reasons above:

  • you can invite people over to watch Netflix with you (socializing doesn’t all have to be about standing around with drinks in your hands talking!)
  • bring your significant other! (mine actually found some great friends of his own in my cohort)
  • all those other people are exhausted too and think about the wonderful bonds you’ll form by complaining about it

It’s also important to cultivate relationships outside of grad school. Stay in touch with friends and family back home! Use, dating apps, and networking apps (did you know there’s a “tinder for networking?”) to find people you can talk to about stuff other than the tiny bubble of grad school. They’ll help put your problems in perspective and probably be endlessly impressed that you’re in grad school, which can be a big self-esteem boost [but see note 2].

If you’re a ways into grad school and you find yourself isolated, admit you’re lonely. People can be ashamed to admit this but if you’re looking for community, being vulnerable can be a great first step! I was incredibly lonely when I first moved back to San Diego after undergrad. If I had reached out to people, I bet I could have found a lot more community a lot sooner.

Much of the advice that people weighed in with is about finding people to work with and YES YES YES please do that! They said it so well that I have nothing to add, except to say that I’m not sure I would have gotten through the most difficult parts of my education without having a close friend I did a lot of working in parallel with.

C) How do I get into grad school?


The specific requirements differ for each PhD program so you have to check each program you’re interested in and then follow their requirements to the letter. But here is what many programs will look at:

  • GPA (via transcripts)
  • General Record Exam (GRE) scores – this is like the SAT but for grad school
  • letters of recommendation (3 minimum)
  • essays (about you, about your prior research, about your interests in grad school, or some combination)
  • prior research experience (having publications is a huge bonus but is generally not a requirement)
  • how you do during interviews

Some programs will require GRE subject tests (e.g. GRE Biology, GRE Psychology, etc.), but check if the ones you hope to go to do before taking these expensive and time-consuming tests.  

As mentioned in the first advice question in this post, GPA isn’t a determining factor, so don’t assume you won’t be able to get into grad school just because your GPA isn’t great.

Letters of recommendation are hugely important so if you’re an undergrad, make sure you start cultivating relationships with your professors early.

BoldAdulting will have a full blog post about the nitty gritty of applying to grad school and a post about how to prepare for interviews, but this list gives you a quick overview of what to be thinking about. If you have more specific questions about the grad school application process, please send them my way!

And please keep in mind that applying for grad school is a difficult process and can be extremely trying on emotions and confidence. So remember:

  • be gentle on yourself
  • accept that you may not get in everywhere you hoped
  • have a back-up plan (for if you don't get into a program that has a good fit and/or you decide grad school isn't a good decision for you)
  • start as early as you can
  • practice lots of self-care

And if you are in the “lucky” [see note 3] group who got into a graduate program or two, make sure to think carefully about which program you’ll choose (if any) and how to approach your entry into grad school for maximum career advancement and personal happiness.


1. Imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling unprepared for the job you have or for the one you're trying to get. It is RAMPANT in academia (and in many other places).
2. While others being impressed with what you’re doing can boost self-esteem, it can also be an imposter syndrome trigger. You feel like others wouldn’t be impressed if they realized how much you actually suck on the inside (or that your project doesn’t actually matter, or that you didn’t do well in your first year classes, etc.). If you’re experiencing this to an extent that’s interfering with your life, talk to a therapist, talk to a friend, or talk to me.
3. "Lucky" seemed like the natural word here but I'm very hesitant to use that word because we tend to dismiss may too many of our accomplishments as luck.