Breaking Through the Wall During Your Third Year of Graduate School

 In for grad students, PhD/Postdoc Blog, wellness

In my last blog, I discussed the benefits of taking classes outside of your field. However, I did not talk about the importance of the timing of when I decided to do this: my third year of graduate school. “Graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint.” I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this phrase or another similar one, yet as I approach the middle of my third year, this expression has begun to hold especially true. Just like runners “hitting the wall” during a marathon, third-year graduate students often get burnt out or stuck. This can be due to several factors, but it typically stems from the fact that students in most graduate programs have finished formal requirements (classes, qualification exams, etc.) by this point. You now have the liberty to use your time how you wish, and while this freedom is exhilarating, it can also be overwhelming to many students. So, how can you break through the wall while running this marathon called graduate school? Depending on what the cause of your fatigue is there are a few approaches you can take.


Research, Research, Research

When talking to other third-year graduate students, one of the consistent causes of stress was our perceived lack of time relative to our workloads. Even though we completed our required courses and passed our candidacy exams, we somehow still do not have enough time. Academia puts a lot of pressure on researchers to not only produce high-quality publications but also to produce large quantities of them. The publish or perish culture especially affects third-year students who have yet to publish their first paper. Although it can be challenging to fight self-doubts, maintaining confidence in your work is vital to true success. If you battle with uncertainty, read Karen’s recent post that discusses her experiences and how to combat these negative feelings. Imposter syndrome is the misconception that you are a fraud, which Sarah recently wrote about how to tackle. Another common factor holding graduate students back from research success is perfectionism. This self-imposed pressure to perfect every reaction or paper can lead to students becoming drained and constantly pushing off goals or deadlines. Yet, a skill that we must all acquire is knowing when to confidently say that what we did is enough. The temptation to procrastinate is also a nagging threat for graduate students as they progress in their research careers. With very few strict deadlines, it can be challenging for some students to stay motivated. I would suggest setting a schedule each day of what you want to get done. You must hold yourself responsible now that you do not have grades or exams as incentives.

On a final note, some of the most talented chemists I have met either published very few or no publications during their graduate school career. Publishing is important, but it is not the only measure of a successful Ph.D.

Work/Life Balance

After two years of juggling classes, teaching, preparing for qualifying exams, and any other requirements your degree has, your third-year of school finally allows you the ability to focus almost solely on your research. No more running to class at 8 am or studying for exams until the sun comes up; you now can set your own schedule of when to go to the lab and when you head to go home. Nevertheless, after two years of stringent schooling, many students lose sight of balance.

With a culture of shame in science, it is sadly too easy to feel guilty for leaving the lab before dark. Though you may be going home to read papers, make a presentation, or do other work-related tasks, many of us still feel the shame of leaving lab before our peers. An effective way to combat this is to find your pack, as Christopher talked about earlier this month. Supportive advisors, mentors, colleagues, and friends will help you fight off self-shame and guilt. Also, do not be afraid to just go home to relax! Burnout is real and affects many graduate students. You set an ambitious goal, work all day and night, and the stop when you cannot do anymore. Having balance can help you avoid this cycle.

My PI (Scott Snyder) tells every incoming first-year student that they need to have one hobby. When Scott was in graduate school he took up cooking as his hobby of choice. For myself, I like to paint on the weekends, an activity that I both enjoy and find stress relieving. I am also an avid traveler, which leads me into my final suggestion for work/life balance: take vacations! Whether for leisure or mental health, disconnecting from work for a weekend or longer will allow you to return to work energized. If you are looking for more advice about balance, please check out Zakiya’s post.

Approaching the Finish Line

Third-year marks the halfway point for many graduate students. This reality hits hard, especially when people constantly ask what you want to do after you finish your Ph.D. If you have a goal in mind, such as becoming an academic, say it proudly and use it to motivate yourself to get to the finish line. However, if you are still uncertain, do not worry, use this year to explore career options. You are approaching the finish line of your marathon, but you still have 13 miles to go, no need to sprint. For now, work on breaking through your third-year wall!

Until next month,


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