The #1 Mistake you are Making in Grad School (and it’s not your coursework or research)

Mistake:  The #1 mistake you can make in grad school is to let grad school happen to you.

The Solution:  Change your mindset.

I know that sounds so vague and intangible.  But it’s not!  I’m going to give you my tips for changing your mindset about grad school and move forward with intention.

You have probably heard that, when you start grad school, you will have to say goodbye to your friends, family, and free time.  Grad school will be so difficult, time-consuming, and life-draining that you won’t be able to catch your breath.  This is true for many, many grad students.  But it doesn’t have to be true for you.  Your experience in grad school all depends on your expectations for it.  

As a grad student, you typically fall into one of two camps.  First, is the group that freaks themselves out.  They think that they aren’t smart enough, everyone is smarter than them, or that their professors will expect them to know more than they already do.  The second group is the overconfident group.  They believe that they are completely ready for grad school and that it will be just an extension of undergrad.

While there are outliers, most grad students’ reality is actually somewhere between those two sets of expectations.  When I was in grad school, I learned that, yes, grad school takes a whole lot of time and a whole lot of effort.  But, when I took the time to look ahead, figure out my goals, and set a plan, I was able to find some time for myself as well.

If you are interested in how I did this, keep reading!


How to decrease overwhelm and stress in grad school


The Number 1 mistake you are making in grad school (it's not your coursework or your research) | The Academic Society | for grad students and new faculty in Math (and STEM)

Be intentional about your purpose in grad school

It’s easy to say that your purpose is to get a PhD or to do research.  And yes, that may be your overall goal or end result of being in grad school.  But what about this year, this semester, or this month?

Are you taking classes right now?  Is your goal to absorb as much material as possible or to get an A in your class?  Is your goal to narrow down a research area?

Are you in research mode?  Your immediate goal could be to read and understand 5 papers this month.  Maybe you want to prove or discover something new to bring to your advisor.  Do you want to present at conferences or seminars?

Are you applying for jobs this year?  A goal could be to complete your application materials by October.  You can research positions and determine the type of job you want.

Are you focused on your teaching practices?  Do you want to improve your teaching evaluations?  Or increase student engagement in your classes?  Perhaps you may want to start prepping your classes 1-2 weeks in advance.  Or be observed teaching twice each semester.

Making these goals are so important.  If you have specific actionable goals that you can reach for each semester, you can understand how to schedule your time and remain focused on the right things.


Make a plan

Once you have a couple of goals for the semester or month, how are you going to make it happen?  Come up with a plan of attack!  Make a schedule and create smaller tasks within your bigger goal.

If you need help doing this, I’ve created a workbook for you.  Click the button below to get the Grad School Survival Workbook directly to your inbox.


Determine your Non-negotiables

Figure out what your “non-negotiables” are.  Think about your immediate goals for the semester and determine what tasks need to be done to reach them.  These tasks are your “non-negotiables”.  

As a grad student, I took the time to figure out my top goals and non-negotiables before each semester.  When I was doing my coursework, my goal was to start my homework assignments the day they were given.  When I was writing my dissertation, I had monthly writing goals.

When I started teaching, my top goals were to get my students to enjoy my classes and get amazing course evaluations. (This was helpful when I was applying for jobs in academia.)  You just need to determine what your non-negotiables are for the semester.



Money can be a major cause of stress for grad students.  It’s no secret that grad students aren’t ballin’ out of control.  But what does help is if you can start being realistic about how much money you will make each month. If you are a PhD student you are probably being supported in some kind of way. Maybe you are a teaching assistant (like I was) or a research assistant. You may also have a fellowship that comes with a stipend.

If you are a Mater's student, maybe you are only partially supported by your department and you work as a tutor or have a part-time job.

However you are expected to support yourself, take a moment to think about how much support that is. Like the actual number.  Then come up with a plan for the month for how to spend that money wisely.

Are you noticing a trend?  I’m all about the plan!


This is perhaps the most important tip.  You have to change how you think about grad school.  No more saying how overwhelmed you are or how impossible everything feels.  Create a plan with actionable steps.  Speak words of encouragement every morning.  This is call affirmation.

Plan your week ahead of time.  I like to take some time on Sunday evenings to reflect on my previous week and figure out what I need to do the next week and then create a schedule/to-do list for the upcoming week.

I hope that these tips will help you create a plan for yourself so that you can go through grad school with intention.

To be walked through these steps, download the Grad School Survival Workbook!