Good grad student advice from the Chronicle

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgA colleague of mine sent around this link to the Chronicle (behind firewall, boo!) for some advice on how to stay healthy, even perhaps happy, while working on your dissertation. See the ideas after the fold.

By author Piper Fogg:

  • Learn to recognize the signs of depression and anxiety and don't be afraid to seek medical evaluation and treatment. Consider various options -- such as therapy, medication, relaxation techniques, and other forms of alternative medicine. Familiarize yourself with the campus counseling center as well as off-campus options.
  • Follow your mother's advice: Eat a balanced diet, try to get enough sleep, and exercise regularly.
  • Find and nurture a social-support network. Make an effort to meet new people by getting involved in sports activities or a campus club. Friends outside academe can be especially helpful in giving a fresh perspective, while those on the inside can empathize and give practical advice.
  • Work on time management. Make schedules, figure out your most productive times of day, turn off phones, and shun e-mail, if necessary, and find a place that is conducive to working. Take breaks to relax.
  • Find allies in your field. They can help you navigate the world of publishing and help you make contacts to further your career. If you are unsure you want to stay in your field, contact scholars in related disciplines to see if a transfer might appeal.
  • Try to fix a problematic relationship with an adviser or mentor. Switching advisers, when feasible, can make a world of difference for some, while simply communicating better can help in other cases.
  • Find a dissertation coach or online support group if you are having trouble getting down to work. is one Web site where graduate students having trouble finishing their dissertations can find advice and support. The Chronicle has an online forum called "Grad-School Life" that includes a discussion focusing on dissertation and thesis support. See
  • Consider a break. A temporary leave to seek counseling or reassess priorities does not brand you as a failure, and taking time off to work outside academe could reveal new possibilities. Leaving academe altogether may be the best choice for some. Talk to advisers, mentors, and others about whether sticking it out is the right decision.

This actually reminds me of what a friend of mine in undergrad and I used to say to each other, and in fact, still say: "Remember to get more sleep, and eat properly." As if remembering was really all it took to make sure we did indeed get enough sleep and eat properly. That being said, my sister reminded me last year that my job should allow me to both eat and sleep, and that it is okay to do both. Something that I actually do need to remind myself.

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Great post!

However, I think the website in the second-last bullet is actually "". I took a look, and it seems pretty helpful.


[Find allies in your field]

This is a big problem in academics I think...too political. The system should not operate this way. What are smart rednecks supposed to do who want to work in academia? lesbians? conservative females? femme-nazis? normal people? abnormal people?

Is academia truly about free thought? or just political connections as in the business world?

Its why I am for direct government funds to graduate students...let's skip giving it all to those use it to make slaves out of us.

@Swish: Since humans are involved, there is no way to avoid politics entirely, but even so there are good reasons to find allies. Most obviously, if you want to be a postdoc (which is often a prerequisite for a tenure track job, even at a small liberal arts college) you have to find somebody to hire you, and other people in your field to write recommendation letters for you. Navigating the minefield that is publishing is also something where having the advice of a more experienced person is a plus, as Alice pointed out. If you are in a field such as experimental physics where large research teams are common, having contacts on one or more teams is helpful.

It's not even that hard to find allies, if you have a healthy relationship with your advisor. The advisor him/herself is an obvious candidate, and often it is in his best interest to help you succeed in your career (indeed, he may hear that one of his colleagues is hiring a postdoc, and reply that his student who is about to finish the Ph.D. would be a good fit for the job). If he collaborates with scientists at other universities, these scientists are also natural allies. Presumably you will attend at least one conference in your field, and among the people you meet there (who may be senior scientists or even fellow grad students) will be potential allies. So are other students or postdocs within your group or department.

Of course, if you have a toxic relationship with your advisor, things are that much harder for you. If you are in that situation, consider switching advisors, as Alice suggested.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 17 Feb 2009 #permalink


Yes there is a way to disinvolve politics entirely. Give grad students small grants who want to work for themselves. Since we are switching to a socialist society (bank bailouts etc.) no since playing capitalism in academia anymore.

If a person doesn't want to fit into a group, is law abiding, and has something creative to offer society. They should be allowed to pursue it without hassles.If we could ask Einstein, I think he would agree.

I am not saying giving lone wolves large sums of money is the way to go. That should go to those who work in collaborative groups. But if you don't fit in politically or ideologically there should still be a spot for you.

Publication from your work in that situation can then be used as merit for graduation and job placement. No graduation and no job. No need for a needling advisor.

Yes there is a way to disinvolve politics entirely. Give grad students small grants who want to work for themselves. Since we are switching to a socialist society (bank bailouts etc.) no since playing capitalism in academia anymore.

You assume, without good evidence, that plenty of money is available for such things. There isn't. Either there is a competition to determine who gets such funding initially, or at some point you come up for a renewal, where the choices are (1) compete against others who are up for renewal and/or initial funding or (2) be dropped from funding because you have reached the maximum allotted time for such funding. One way or the other, you are likely to encounter politics.

Actually, the system I just described already exists in most science and engineering programs in the US. First and second year students are generally on teaching assistantships (here the competition, if any, is for admission to the program). If the department needs and can support third-year TAs, they will support a few, but you are expected to have found a research group by the start of your third year, and those who fail to do so will probably either have to drop out or be steered toward a terminal masters degree.

You are more likely to find the sort of funding system you advocate in the humanities, but again, the competition for limited resources is brutal, and many people have to find outside jobs to support themselves. I know at least one such person myself: the guy who replaced my roof last summer is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Local U. who does construction work to pay the bills.

Finally, there is the not-so-minor detail that your Ph.D. thesis has to be a significant piece of original research. Which is not impossible to do as a student with no formal advisor, but being able to talk to someone who knows what has already been done is a big plus, and if you plan to do any kind of experimental work you will need access to a laboratory--this requires either an advisor, or substantial savings from your Wall Street job to equip your own lab. Einstein himself already had a Ph.D. or the equivalent when he took that job in the patent office, and he is one of the few people (even post-Ph.D.) to make substantial original contributions to science after 1900 without some research group affiliation.

If despite all of this you still want to be a scientist who has no affiliation with an advisor, your best bet is to be an amateur astronomer. Observational astronomy is one of the few fields where such people still make original contributions, mainly because it's a big sky and the pros can't possibly watch all of it.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink


Interesting info. Thanks for your thoughtful reply.