6 Personal & Academic Challenges Grad Students Face

By Kaitlin Hurtado on June 26, 2019

While you may putting your undergrad experience behind you, you might not exactly be putting away all the stress-inducing challenges that being a student brings as you embark on your new journey as a grad student. Similar to your previous academic endeavors, being a grad student can bring a multitude of problems, and not just academic problems. Your grad student experience can have some similarities to your undergrad experience, but it can also have plenty of differences you will have to learn how to navigate.

If you are venturing out on your grad student experience, here are some common challenges grad student face and how you can overcome them:

girl writing in notebook

Image via pexels.com

1. Procrastination (your number one enemy from undergrad)

Old habits die hard, and your tendency to procrastinate your way through academics is no different when you are a grad student. While you may have coasted (or struggled) along because of procrastination in your past academic career, you should try to halt your procrastination in its tracks while you are a grad student. There is not a better time to get a good grasp on time management skills than the present, after all.

Your issues with procrastination can be tackled differently depending on the root of the problem.

If your procrastination stems from missing deadlines constantly or not keeping track of them, start working on ways that you can better keep track of your time commitments to give yourself enough time to meet all of your deadlines in a timely manner. Get a planner of some sort, whether it be a desk calendar in your study space, a traditional planner, or a digital calendar y0u can access wherever you go.

If procrastination comes from a lack of motivation or an excess of distractions, design your own study space to be the most efficient grad student you can be. Declutter your space and give yourself a chance to study with a clear head and space.

Establish motivation by determining your purpose – it’s not just the paper with a deadline in the very near future, but asking yourself why you are in grad school. It’s the larger meaning, but it also gives meaning as to why that paper is so important to complete.  Break down any deadlines you have into more manageable chunks, do a certain number of readings, then spend a few days on an outline, move onto the rough draft, and so on. Going at a larger project in smaller steps makes it a lot less intense when you do not have to rush to complete a project right before it is due all in one go.

With a handle on your procrastination, you can be one step further on limiting the challenges grad students face.

2. Feeling “stuck” in school

After spending so many years in school, spending even more in grad school can have you feeling like you are “stuck” in an endless cycle of classes, writing papers, and late nights of stress and studying. This can especially be the case when you enter grad school directly after your undergrad years, where you have little to no time to get a much-needed break from school.

Being a student for so long can seem like a definitive label to your identity, but it’s important to remind yourself that there is definitely life outside of being a grad student. While you should be putting plenty of effort into making sure that you are academically successfully, you should be putting just as much effort into finding your identity outside of school and remembering that identity.

Another way to get yourself out of the mindset of your identity of being ‘limited to school’ is to talk to others that have completed grad school and are now pursuing the next chapter of their lives and careers. They will understand the space that you are in right now and talking with them can show you just how life can be once you are done with your education. The guidance is not supposed to be some type of direct guide with specific steps to get where they are in life, but to show you how your grad school experience will be the stepping stone to where you want to be in life – both personally and professionally.

Keep your interest and passions in your life, spend time doing what you love alongside your studies. Set goals for yourself in different areas of your life so that you can put attention on different aspects of your life and identity as to not feel like your life is limited to being in school.

infographic about grad students

Infographic by Kaitlin Hurtado, via canva.com

3. Navigating a different type of student all over again

As you have gone further in your academic career, you have faced the challenge of reorienting yourself with each new advancement. From getting used to the shift of middle school to high school or from high school to your undergraduate years of college, the shift from your undergraduate studies to grad student can bring just as much confusion or disorientation. Depending on what route you are taking, the differences between your undergraduate experience and now can be completely different.

For example, you may have spent years as an undergrad at a specific university, but you may be a grad student at a completely different university. This means you are that “freshman” all over again in the sense that you have to get used to the university all over again. Finding the right study spaces, getting into your own routine again, finding a strong community within the university. Getting a “fresh” start can be a bigger challenge for others, but take the opportunity to expand your horizons, whether it’s to gain new friends or to experience a new area.

Likewise, if you are a grad student at the same university you spent your undergrad at, there are still some things that you will get used to. The grad community can be a lot different, in terms of academic expectations, social life, and the type of support or resources you have access to.

Whatever the case is, being a grad student will take a bit of getting used to. You will not have the benefit of living on campus in a residence hall of students going through your same situation, but you will have to seek out a similar opportunity on your own by forming your own community. However, think back to every time you have faced the challenge of being a “new” student, and how you’ve gotten through them successfully to get where you are now. Being a grad student will be the same!

4. Struggling to stay connected with friends, or making new ones

Regardless of where you become a grad student, challenges grad students face often consist of staying connected with the friends they made during their undergrad years and before. Grad student work tends to be a bit more lonely than your prior academic experience or a 9-5 job, where collaboration and networking were encouraged, grad school puts more emphasis on your solo work and ambitions. Do not let that scare you away from the idea of making friends or maintaining them during grad school, however, as there are still opportunities to make new friends and network both in and out of the grad student population.

If you are completing grad school in the same area or the same university as your undergrad, you may still have the benefit of having many of your friends and social circle in your area. Despite busy schedules, it will be easier to meet up if you are closer to them in terms of living situations. However, you do need to anticipate having different schedules despite being in the same area. Some of your friends may be pursuing grad school as well, but some others may already be in the workforce with their own plans. Communication and understanding of everyone’s situation is important. Sometimes people see school as the “easy” route, and others will see working as the easier route. Both hold challenges, and maintaining friends in a busy lifestyle can only be successful with an understanding of everyone’s situations.

If you are completing grad school in a new area, or just looking into making new friends, it may come as a challenge to you. Every campus is different when it comes to their grad student population and the support they have on campus. Look into your program and the campus news to see if events like grad student “mixers” are offered or socials so that you can meet other grad students. You may also find yourself struggling to make new friends depending on how big the grad student population is, but as with any friend-making situation, making good friends doesn’t happen overnight. Give yourself time to build a good support system around yourself, and don’t feel down when it is not coming as fast you want it to.

group meeting

Image via pexels.com

5. Financial issues

The “broke college student” mantra is not something that you can magically leave behind in your undergrad years. Challenges grad students face can often come in the form of financial troubles. These troubles can stem from a variety of reasons but also come with a variety of solutions.

Grad school is going to be challenging academically. There’s no getting around that. The more academically challenging grad school is, the less time you will likely have to work a job that can give you a steady source of income to fund your academic endeavors and lifestyle. It’s best to find a solution that works best for you. If you find that spending too much time working a job, let yourself be a student first and foremost to put more focus on your success. Try finding a healthy balance between pursuing your education and working hours, if you need to.

You most likely will not have access to the same amount of financial aid as you did for your undergraduate years. If you don’t get financial aid from your institution or from the government, do not hesitate to apply to outside sources for some much-needed financial aid. You will not get every opportunity most likely, but don’t be afraid to continue the search even when many of your applications seem unsuccessful.

6. Taking care of your mental health

Grad school is a high-stress situation, and you should not take that lightly when considering its possible effects on your mental health. It’s easy to get swept up into the routine of trying to reach each deadline, and just as easy to push your wellbeing on the backburner if it means you are “successful.”

It is essential to find a way that you can effectively decompress, whether it be spending more hours at the gym lifting weights or picking up a sport with your fellow students or picking up a new hobby that allows you to de-stress.

Most university campuses have some sort of mental health services available for their students, and there is no reason why you should not take advantage of them to take care of your mental health during a very stressful time. Even if you don’t find help in the mental health services on campus, look elsewhere for resources that can save you. This can be leaning on your support system for words of encouragement and to assure you in the goal you are ultimately pursuing, or a therapist that can allow you to work through any issues you find yourself facing. It’s also a great idea to reach out to your fellow grad students as they are going through the same experience as you and will be able to understand the troubles you are facing, something family and friends not familiar with grad school can offer.

These are just a few common challenges grad students face and how you can begin tackling them, but it’s important to remember that everyone’s grad school experience is different. Remember that you have a support system to go to when time gets hard and that grad school is the stepping stone to your greater aspirations. Best of luck!

By Kaitlin Hurtado

Uloop Writer
Hello! I'm Kaitlin, a fourth year Literary Journalism major at UC Irvine. I'm a writer on Uloop's national team and a campus editor for UCI.

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