How to Make it Through the First Year of a Ph.D. Program in One, Albeit Frazzled, Piece

This post was taken from the GradMatters Blog at Tufts University Graduate School.


The first year of a Ph.D. program may be tough, but at least you don’t need to worry about this guy.

Everyone from a National Football League rookie to a fresh-faced wizard at Hogwarts knows that the first year in a new place or situation can be a drag. One day the crowd is cheering your name…and a day later you’re picking grass out of your teeth. Doctoral students face challenges during their first year, too. And while these challenges have nothing do to with (we hope!) tank-like defensive ends or wizards with a mean streak, these obstacles can increase the difficulty of the first year if students are unprepared.

In this post, Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) students and students from the graduate programs in the School of Engineering share tips for not only surviving, but flourishing in year one of a Ph.D. program.

Get A Head Start (You’ll Thank Yourself Later)

The first weeks of a doctoral program—like a rocket’s reentry into Earth’s atmosphere—can be loud, bumpy, and disorienting. Students are moving into new housing; getting to know the geography (Where is the library? Where are the best places to eat?); meeting with their advisers; speaking with fellow students; and figuring out the local mass transit system.

These first few weeks are also an ideal time to get a head start on your graduate work.

One tip for the first year of a Ph.D. program? Read early and read often. Photo by

“I was shocked at how much work the first year involved,” said Danielle Rosvally, a Tufts GSAS drama Ph.D. student and Shakespeare scholar who writes regularly about graduate student life through her Daniprose blog. “I would advise students to read early and read often. The more you can get done early in the semester, the less you will panic at the end of it.”

Adds Grace Giles, a GSAS psychology doctoral student interested in how nutrition influences mood and cognitive behavior.

“Try to stay one week ahead of course readings and assignments. This will allow you to stay on top of your work and give you leeway for any unexpected extra work involving your research.”

Matthew McMahan, a GSAS drama Ph.D. student whose research interests include historical avant-garde and French farce, suggests taking a similar approach to writing papers.

“I wish someone had told me to start writing my term papers as I research. By the end of the semester, I was burnt out and my mind was not as sharp. Furthermore, it was a task in itself to shift through the mounds of notes I took, some of which I hadn’t seen in months. If you write as you are encountering the research, you will have more to work with when it’s time to write the paper.”

GSAS English Ph.D. student Joelle Pedersen also suggests going ‘old school.’

“Annotate your readings with small sticky notes. It sounds silly, but it’s so much easier to find references in class that way,” said Pedersen, whose research area is nineteenth- and twentieth-century century fiction. “Also, start at least one of your final papers ahead of time, and try to turn every paper you write into something that you could potentially present at a conference. There is a conference for virtually every paper topic and this kind of publishing will garner you respect in the future.”

Luke Mueller, a fellow GSAS English Ph.D. student, stresses a slightly different approach to assignments.

“Don’t look ahead unless you have to,” said Mueller, who is interested in lying and truth, phenomenology, and questions of privacy and power in British literature. “Don’t over think everything. Just live through the process one day at a time and work on the problems that need solving. Before you know it, you will have made significant progress.”

Lay Down the Law…With Your Friends and Family

The “Fresh Prince” was right…parents just don’t understand. But when it comes to pursuing a Ph.D. program students need to make sure parents and other family members “get it.”

Will Smith is an academy award-nominated actor; a multiple Grammy award winner; and the man who, in 2007, was named the most powerful actor in Hollywood by Newsweek.  But, to us, Will Smith will always be “The Fresh Prince” who, with “DJ Jazzy Jeff,” rapped about how “parents just don’t understand.” Many Ph.D. students can relate to the frustration the young Will Smith feels, as first-year students often deal with parents—and other family members and friends—who don’t really understand what the student is doing. Therefore, it’s best for doctoral students to have a much-needed conversation with family and friends early on.

“I had to put my foot down with friends and family who are outside the academy and force them to understand the gravity of my situation,” said Danielle Rosvally. “Once they knew that this is a job, a life choice, and a valid career path, and not just about getting a fancy piece of paper, they were a lot more forgiving and understanding about the things that I had to do to make my life work. Instill this understanding as quickly as possible and you will save yourself a lot of headaches in the long run.”

Still, there are many times when family life is the priority (especially for Ph.D. students with children) and there’s a need to balance it all. The best way to achieve this balance? Find a system that works for you.

“In the beginning, it was hard to balance my family life with graduate school; doing all the work that is required of a graduate student while giving my family the attention they deserved” said Matthew McMahan. “The first thing I did was to excise all of the activities that I considered frivolous. I wouldn’t watch television before 6:00 pm, and I stopped going onto Facebook and mindlessly browsing the Internet. I also started waking up earlier to maximize my time so I would have more of it in the evening to spend with my family.”

Think Outside the (Culinary) Box


While the television program “Top Chef” may not be in your future, cooking for yourself is a great way to save money and eat healthy. Photo by

Doctoral students, like everyone else, need to eat and drink (usually coffee…ludicrous amounts of coffee). This need for sustenance often becomes a matter of dollars and cents, since many students are the epitome of the “poor graduate student.” But it is possible to eat and eat well on a grad students’ (nonexistent) salary. All it takes is planning, a good bike, and a really big freezer.

“I came back to get my Ph.D. after having spent a number of years working in industry. The financial adjustment was a challenge at first,” said Noah Daniels, a computer science doctoral student researching computational biology, machine learning, and programming languages. “I dealt with the financial challenge by figuring out how to economize. I bike to Tufts whenever possible, even though I live in Waltham*, so I didn’t need to buy a university parking permit. My wife and I save a lot on food through a farmer’s market we joined, and we recently bought a year’s worth of meat from a local farm. Yes, we have a half steer, half pig, and many rabbits and chickens in a chest freezer in our basement!’

Danielle Rosvally agrees with the merits of buying in bulk as a cost-saving measure.

“Get yourself a box of paper from Costco and feed off that until it dies,” she said. “It’s the cheapest way to print stuff.”

Be a ‘Working Stiff’

Working nine-to-five might not have worked for Dolly Parton and company, but for many first-year graduate students it’s the only way to go.

You probably can’t jump on a private jet for a weekend in Paris at the Louvre, but it’s a good bet there are some great museums near you. Make sure to take a break from your Ph.D. studies and go to a museum, blog, or hit the road for a run. Photo by

“Treat graduate school like a nine-to-five job as much as you can,” said Grace Giles. “Focus on your research and schoolwork, but make time for your personal life. Go for a run or go to a museum.”

Danielle Rosvally agrees with the importance of having a life away from the books, classroom, or lab.

“My outlet is blogging, but I know other people who take classes in the circus arts or go to the gym regularly. Everyone needs something at the end of the day that isn’t work. At the same time, I have realized that graduate school is a full-time job. Don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise.”

Adds Joelle Pedersen, “I set a pretty strict work schedule during my first year. I committed to reading six to eight hours a day and then allowed myself to put down the books and spend quality time with my fiancée, family, and friends without being distracted. I found that a few hard, focused hours of work was way more productive than trying to work with the television on and a Bruins game in the background.”

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