The Unvarnished Truth: My 3 Graduate School Regrets

A street sign in front of a graveyard reads "OOPS!" symbolizing the blog topic of my graduate school regrets.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I loved earning my graduate degrees. I loved independent learning, I loved writing, I loved the puzzle-solving nature of my field (epidemiology), and I loved being a part of a community of people dedicated to improving the well-being of people everywhere. But, that doesn’t mean everything is and was wine and roses. Then again, maybe it does because every rose has thorns. I don’t have many, but I do have some graduate school regrets. I doubt that I’m alone, so let’s talk about the things I regret about my time as a graduate student.

1) I regret earning my Ph.D.

My first graduate school regret isn’t pure regret, I have mixed feelings about it. I loved the research and the writing, I went to a good school, and I had fantastic mentors. I was very blessed in that way. It’s what came after that gives me pause. What I didn’t consider was that earning my Ph.D. closed as many doors as it opened (perhaps more). Getting my Ph.D. meant that I was now overqualified for numerous master’s level positions that I would have enjoyed immensely.

Positions for Ph.D.s often have management, grantsmanship, and political obligations that master’s degrees don’t (check out Andy Stapleton’s video about research politics). These are activities that I hate. I was lucky that I ended up in a role that had fewer of these activities than usual but when I first started job hunting, I realized that the master’s degree holders had all the fun and less of the student debt.

2) I regret buying into the toxic productivity culture.

This started long before I got into my Ph.D. program but the academic environment amplified the toxic productivity a hundred-fold. It often seems like everything about a Ph.D. is a competition. Competing to get into a good college that will set you up for graduate school, then competing to be accepted into a great graduate program, and then getting funding, even competing for limited publishing space in an academic journal! It encourages constant comparisons with other students and even senior researchers. Is my writing as good as a 20-year professional? No? Then I need to edit it more. Am I putting in more hours than my lab mates? No? Then I better put in more or my advisor will think I’m a slacker. Did my analyses go haywire and now I have nothing for the lab meeting tomorrow? I better pull an all-nighter so I have something to show.

Somewhere along the way, I lost sight of the fact that not everything needed 100% of my effort all the time. From hours spent drafting the “perfect” five-sentence email to revising a methods section 27 times before daring to show it to my advisor (not hyperbole), I overworked everything. I felt guilty when I wasn’t working and exhausted when I was. I would get up at 2 a.m. if I thought I hadn’t gotten enough work done during the day. It was terrible for my physical and mental health. I was a poor friend, a mediocre spouse (at best), and an absentee family member. Toxic productivity stole a lot of joy from my life.

What I have since realized is that the extra effort didn’t give me the payoff that I thought it did. Working stressed and exhausted meant I was slower, less creative, more forgetful, and more likely to make mistakes. When I put healthy limits and balance back into my life, I found I was producing the same amount and quality of materials but so much faster than before. It took me too long to learn this lesson and it’s one of my biggest graduate school regrets.

3. I regret not focusing on the graduate school process.

I finished my dissertation in two years and my entire degree in three. Most students dream of finishing that quickly. Given the low income, the expense of attendance, and the opportunity costs of graduate school, it’s natural for graduate students to want to rush. Then you hear faculty say things like…when you get into the real world… It can make that time in your life seem like a way station or a staging ground for when the real thing starts.

The problem is that graduate school is the real world. That finite amount of time we have in this life isn’t on hold because we are students. So much of my time in graduate school passed by in a blur because I was so focused on the future that I didn’t appreciate the present. I regret not being mindful and valuing the process more because I can’t get that time back.

I hope that you learn from my mistakes as a graduate student. It’s my sincerest hope that your time in graduate school is entirely without regrets.

Wishing You the Best in Your Academic Success,

Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach.
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