What graduate school has taught me so far.

It feels like yesterday that I told the Internet about my acceptance to grad school. In my time off after undergrad, I thought I was prepared and knew exactly how to handle my first semester, but it turns out, some things just won’t sink in until you’ve experienced them.

Here’s what I’ve learned the hard way this semester, and what I resolve to remember to do for the rest of my time here.

Start early, finish early.

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I once wrote a post called “3 Ways I can be a Better Grad Student”. When I wrote this, it was fairly early on in the semester and I thought I would start implementing those ideas right away. I didn’t. At all. This testifies to one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in grad school so far, which is to start early. You don’t want to be the sucker (me) who is scrambling with not only writing but also preparing presentations three weeks before final papers are due. I had my bibliographies finished in September, but waited until November to start writing. Folks, this is a very bad idea. I started early, but I didn’t stick with it. Start early, finish early. Your mental health will thank you for it.

Have people you can confide in.
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I had a pretty rough three weeks due to working on my papers at the last minute. My stress level was high and I was sleep deprived. Then, one of my papers got ripped apart, and I literally had an emotional breakdown in the bathroom. I was comforted by a couple sweet friends and (when I got home), my husband. I never thought I’d be the type to lose it over a professor’s feedback, but I did. Talking it through with my family and friends helped me realize that I had irrational expectations for myself and for the way I thought my professor would respond. In addition to having an emotional support network, having friends and family around that you can trust can be helpful if you need a fresh perspective on a paper you’re writing.

Strive for excellence, not perfection.
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Perfectionism isn’t healthy, but it is prevalent in academia. My work will rarely be perfect, even though I want it to be. I don’t strive for perfection; I strive for excellence. If I’ve done something to the very best of my ability, that’s as perfect as I can get.

Don’t compare yourself to others (unless you’re going to do something about it).
My first instinct when I got here was to compare my academic level to that of my fellow students. This can be a good thing, for the sake of personal and professional improvement, but I wasn’t comparing myself to better myself. I was comparing myself just to pick myself apart and not doing anything to better myself based on what I saw in my fellow students. I’ve realized that my colleagues are all at different academic levels, because we all have different knowledge bases and skillsets. And that’s okay. I started to take note of what I liked about my fellow students’ work (we all present our papers in seminar) and now I’ve started trying to improve my own work.

Take time to relax.
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I think it goes without saying that doing something relaxing helps our brains to reset and come back to projects with a fresh outlook. Get offline, unplug, spend some time disconnected from your computer, emails, obligations. Enjoy the vividness that comes from living in the moment.

Nurture your relationships.
Nurture your relationships with your fellow students, your professors, and your personal relationships. Make time to go out with friends or go to a professor’s office hours and try to get to know them. For me, this isn’t about networking, it’s about being able to feel like part of a whole.

Be thankful.
It’s easy for me to get stressed out, have an existential crisis, or feel insignificant within the larger scope of my department. I try to remind myself that I’m here for a reason, and that just me being here, in this teeny town, is something to be thankful for. I didn’t have to get accepted to graduate school, but I was, and I desperately wanted to be. I’m thankful for that and for how incredibly fortunate I am to be here.

Remember why you’re here.

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This comic might seem morbid, but it has a grain of truth. I’m here to make a difference — in my department, first, and then, when I graduate to the “real” academic world, within the larger context of academia. The contributions I make to my department might not come for a while — a conference presentation here, a published article there — but they’ll add to the department’s own contributions to academia through admitting X graduate student. I need to be proactive about making that difference here, as no one will hand these opportunities to me.

For more on grad school life, visit my Tumblr, where I blog and offer advice to those who ask about going to graduate school in art history. I also wrote this short PDF guide for prospective art history graduate students. For those of you who might be taking your first ever art history course, I wrote this guide.

I’d also like to say that I finished my first semester of grad school with a grand total of 19,588 words, 78 pages, and 202 footnotes! The papers I mentioned in an earlier post were some of the funnest projects I’ve worked on so far, and I can hardly wait for Spring 2013 to start — but I’ll enjoy a nice break in the meantime.

Have a wonderful holiday season!