Campus Wildlife Encounters: The Grad Student

As a new school year gets underway, one enigmatic creature will be reappearing on university campuses across the country: the graduate student (scholasticus laboriosus). Frequently mistaken for their cousins the undergraduates (scholasticus iunior) and faculty members (scholasticus beneficiarius), graduate students make up a vital part of the university ecosystem. Let’s learn a bit about the typical grad student’s habits and habitat, and what to do if you encounter a grad student in the wild.

Facts and Figures

Scholasticus laboriosus can be found year-round all across North America, though the size of their communities varies wildly depending on each region’s and university’s support systems. Within universities, graduate students are broken down into clan-like groups called departments; graduate students often form family-like units of 2-4 within departments, called cohorts.

There are a few physical characteristics that will help you identify a graduate student: the dark bags under their eyes; the semi-permanent expression of existential dread on their faces; the hunched back, otherwise unusual in creatures their age, from carrying several pounds of books for years on end. Clothing can also help you identify whether you are in the presence of an undergraduate or graduate student: while both can be found wearing old band t-shirts and leggings, the typical graduate student will do so only on weekends or holiday breaks. When undergraduates are present on campus, graduate students usually dress in slightly worn professional clothing, often 3–5 years out of fashion.

Graduate students are incredibly flexible creatures. They can create functional habitats out of any space, from rented house to shared basement apartment to library cubicle (you can often find a graduate student napping on a library couch using a stack of undergraduate papers as a pillow). This resourcefulness is necessary, since graduate students can rarely find a livable wage in any North American habitat.

Graduate students can carry up to 30 pounds of books on their backs, sometimes for half a day, as they trek from classrooms to offices to libraries and back. They can be highly possessive of books and territory alike, preventing fellow graduate students or faculty members from looking too closely at their data or becoming highly agitated when someone else is occupying their favorite window seat in the coffee shop. In the more collaborative departments and cohorts, graduate students will share territory and books, and even give each other feedback on their written work. Research shows a strong correlation between these positive, collaborative relationships and less terrible mental health, which is a constant danger for the graduate student population.

Graduate students are foragers by both nature and necessity: campus events with free food are great opportunities to spot grad students, because the fruit and veggie trays supplement what is often an otherwise nutritionally questionable diet. Since graduate students are cash-poor, their typical diet consists primarily of coffee, coffee house pastries, rice and beans, pizza (sometimes part of the free food at department meetings), noodles, and on the weekends or while grading, bottom-shelf alcohol. There is a subset of vegan graduate students; the only real difference in their diet is the lack of cheese. Like their cousins the vegan undergraduates and vegan faculty members, the vegan graduate student will usually inform you of their dietary restrictions during your first encounter.

If You Encounter a Graduate Student

Chances are good that if you spend time on a university campus, you will encounter a scholasticus laboriosus. Typically graduate students are docile, and your interaction with them should be pleasant. However, graduate students can be very easily provoked if one of their triggers is activated. These dos and don’ts will help keep your interaction positive.


  • Wear a mask. Graduate students put up with a lot of bull, and many of them don’t have good health insurance. Do not give them one more thing to worry about.
  • Purchase coffee or a meal for the graduate student. A well-fed graduate student is less likely to become skittish, and as stated above, graduate students will always be excited about free food.
  • Bolster the graduate student’s self-esteem by confirming that they deserve to be in their graduate department, that they are smart and capable. Relationships between faculty and graduate students, though close, are often fraught, and these positive comments will go a long way toward rebuilding whatever emotional damage has been wrought by the graduate student’s most recent feedback from a professor or advisor meeting.
  • Follow their lead. If the graduate student responds to your opening “how’s it going?” with complaints, let them complain and validate their feelings, whether you can confirm the truth of their situation or not. If the graduate student is feeling good about their life that week, then celebrate with them. Don’t bring realism where it isn’t wanted, and don’t bring false positivity when complaining or venting is needed.
  • Ask what the graduate student is researching, and act interested in their answer. Asking a follow-up question will put you on the graduate student’s good side indefinitely.
  • If you are an undergraduate student of the graduate student, read the syllabus.


  • Ask when their grades will be posted, if you are an undergraduate. Grading is the lowest priority on a very long to-do list; it will get done when it gets done.
  • Ask what they’re working on if you’ve asked more than 2 or 3 times already. Write it down the first time, so as not to give the impression that the graduate student’s work does not matter or make sense.
  • Ask how their writing is going. If it’s going well, the graduate student won’t want to jinx it. If it’s going poorly, asking this question may send the graduate student into a spiral, which will make the writing situation even worse.
  • Ask them to join any kind of committee or group that requires a time commitment of greater than one hour per month. This will only lead to feelings of guilt for the graduate student.
  • Speculate on what kind of job the graduate student will be able to get after they finish their degree. This is just hurtful, and the graduate student cannot be held responsible for whatever action they take against you if you do so.
  • Ask when they’re graduating. Just…don’t.

If the graduate student becomes agitated by your presence, the best course of action is to stop talking, buy them a coffee (or alcoholic drink, depending on the time of day), and walk away. Allow a cooling-off period of between 24 hours and 6 months before you approach the graduate student again.

With A Little Help From My Friends

My cohort rejoiced last Spring when all three of us passed our PhD comprehensive exams. We were ABD! We were finally free to read only what we wanted to read! But that joy quickly turned to melancholy as the Fall semester plodded on and we saw each other less and less, each of us immersed in trying to get our individual projects off the ground. And on my end at least, seeing folks from my department less often and having fewer hard deadlines meant that my productivity slowed to a crawl.

I don't want to

Dissertating is a lonely task. Gone are the days of having a seminar room full of classmates all reading a shared set of texts, working through similar problems, studying together and giving each other a leg up when one classmate stumbles. Unless you’re in a large program or very lucky, no one will really understand what you’re working on as well as you do. And when no one else is reading what you’re reading, whom do you ask for help?

The whole experience can be quite solitary and isolating. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, for the sake of both productivity and mental health, it is vitally important that the process not be this way.

This semester, I am happy to report that my cohort has found a way to beat the isolation and get out of our lonely hermit-holes while also encouraging ourselves to actually write something on a regular basis. One of my cohort-mates pointed out that if we needed regular progress check-ins and deadlines, it would be much easier to be accountable to each other than to an adviser. So at the end of last semester we agreed that this Spring, we would send each other new dissertation pages every two weeks. They don’t have to be polished pages—they can be total crap—they just have to be in everyone’s inbox every other Friday. And on the alternate Fridays, we get together for happy hour to catch up and decompress.

I certainly haven’t produced all good writing this semester. Nor have I produced that much: my first submission to the group in January was just an outline of a chapter (and my chapter organization has since changed drastically, so…). But at least I’m writing, which I hadn’t really done since October. And the more I just sit down and actually write something, anything, I hope the more good ideas and usable pages I’ll generate.

Ron Swanson_typewriter

We talk about the necessity of support networks for graduate students all the time; it’s really vital to maintain family contact and friendships outside your work as much as you can. But the support of people who are in the trenches with you, who really understand what you’re going through even if they don’t know the ins and outs of your specific topic, can make all the difference. Many universities, including mine, have dissertation accountability/support groups that work across departments and colleges, which can be incredibly helpful if you’re struggling to find motivation to get moving on your writing projects. But I hope that you’ll also find support, commiseration, and accountability when you need it within your own cohort as well.

Four years of coursework and intense exams really bonded my cohort and brought us close. There’s no way I would have gotten this far in my PhD work without them, and there’s no way I’m finishing without them either.

The amazing SEE cohort

Living on a Grad Student Budget

PhD comics_Reimbursement

“Three to five weeks” – originally published 4/13/2011

It is all too easy for graduate students to reach a financial breaking point. No matter our field, we are all overworked and underpaid, even those of us who are lucky enough to be funded with assistantships and covered by university health insurance (thanks, union!). Focusing on our academic work, which we all want (and our professors expect) to be our number one priority, becomes incredibly difficult when we are wondering how we’re going to make rent, pay the credit card, and eat three meals a day this month. Sometimes, you don’t actually manage to do all of those things because the funds just aren’t there.

Of course the ideal solution to this problem is for all universities to pay graduate students what they’re really worth, and graduate students across the country have been unionizing and striking for a living wage…but that’s a whole other can of worms.

You don’t need me to tell you that making a budget is important, or that you should do your research and find cheap housing, because you are a grad student and thus a Very Smart Person. Instead, let me share a few (maybe less obvious) tips and tricks that have helped me stay afloat through four years of living on a half-time stipend.

  1. Grocery shop smarter: I literally cut my grocery budget in half when I stopped shopping at the close-by, convenient Hy-Vee (the midwestern Kroger) and started driving a bit further to Aldi. The name brands may not be snazzy and it might take an extra hour per month of your time to bounce between stores, but not paying for convenience saves you a heck of a lot of money.

    I will say that in my case, this was made possible by greater mobility: our city bus stops at Aldi, and after my first couple of years I bought a car, which allows me to shop where and when I want; I usually go to three different grocery stores. Not everyone has this option. But wherever you shop, sign up to get their weekly ads in your email; cut coupons, sign up for the store rewards program. Plan your meals around the sales and the seasonal (cheap!) produce.

  2. The drinks are free at home: This one might be the hardest. Turning down social events for financial reasons is embarrassing. There are multiple blog posts out there about how to do it without feeling like crap. I am definitely guilty of saying no to a night out without explanation, because usually the explanation is I’m broke and tired and I’d rather fall asleep on the couch with my glass of $3 wine from Aldi.

    night cheese
    But cohort bonding is important, and venting about that one guy or that awful class over drinks is a key component to said bonding. Real friends will understand if you tell them you’re trying to save money, and they’ll be willing to accommodate you. Try hosting happy hour at your home once a month — you provide a couple snacks, everyone brings a bottle or six pack of their choice, and you can have just as much fun as you do at the bar for a fraction of the cost.

  3. Treat yo’self!: I’m not trying to tell you that you have to be a buzzkill in order to avoid crippling credit card debt. If you feel like you’re living the Spartan lifestyle constantly, you’ll end up depressed, or spending $150 on an impromptu shopping spree, or both. When you make a budget for yourself, set aside $50 or $60 per month for fun stuff — a fancy coffee, drinks with the cohort, concert tickets, whatever. I have a coffee maker at my desk in the department offices, but last weekend I bought myself a $5 fancy latte because it was raining and working on a Saturday is no fun. And that latte really did help!

    mimosas tys

  4. Meal plans are your friend: Now when I say meal planning, I do NOT mean prepping an entire week’s worth of meals in a weekend, nor do I mean locking yourself into a set meal schedule for the week. I just mean taking time to look in your pantry and at the weekly grocery ads, and then planning 4-5 days worth of meals around a similar set of ingredients, so that you can use stuff up instead of letting that half jar of marinara rot in the fridge.

    I keep a list of meals for the week on my fridge, which I can rearrange to cook different days according to my mood or how much time I have on my hands. About 2/3 of the recipes in my regular rotation are from Budget Bytes, a food blog devoted to affordable meals (she breaks down total recipe cost by ingredient) that are also actually good. I usually cook enough that the hubs and I can take the leftovers for lunch the next day, which means 1) we can pack lunches instead of buy them and 2) the lunch-packing is easy because the meal is already prepared!

    I know it sounds like just one more chore on your laundry list of s%*t to do, but even a half-hour of planning on a Sunday afternoon can save you a lot of food waste during the week — which also saves you money.

  5. Seriously, don’t be afraid to ask for help: Sometimes you do everything right and your bank account still comes up short. When we moved into our current apartment last year, my parents gave me a fairly hefty loan for the security deposit. I was super embarrassed to ask for it, but my mom was so understanding, having been in the broke-grad-student situation herself, and paying her back over the next 6 months was much less depressing than seeing interest pile up on my credit cards. Not everyone has friends or family who can render financial aid, but if you do, ask.

    And if you’re in Classics or a Classics-adjacent field, make use of The Sportula! Named for the dole that Roman patrons gave to their clients each morning, The Sportula is a student- and junior-faculty-run organization that distributes microgrants of up to $300 so that “students from working-class and historically looted communities (like the ones we ourselves come from) don’t fall through the cracks left by traditional scholarship programs; all too many of which have a poor understanding of what our lives are *actually* like and what we *actually* need” (description from their website). This organization is seriously incredible; if you don’t know how you’re going to pay your utility bill this month or buy the new critical edition your professor insists you use, send them a microgrant request. And if you find yourself in a financially stable position down the road, give back by donating to their cash fund and helping some other broke student make it, too.

I know the strategies I’ve suggested here take mental energy and time, but you’re probably already spending that mental energy worrying about how you’re going to make it through the month, and living off the free food from campus events will only cover you so far. Channel that stress energy into taking steps toward saving and making your budget work for you: when you get freaked out, go look at the grocery ads, or set up a small monthly transfer to your savings account, or find a dinner recipe that uses only what you have on hand. And say yes to brunch with your cohort every once in a while — you’ll be glad you did.

How to Get Work Done in the Summer Without Hating Yourself (Maybe)

phd comics summer

This summer, I’m trying something new: work-life balance. It’s not easy at all, especially given my tendency to be far too ambitious about how much I’ll accomplish in the summer. I usually write myself a to-do list a mile long in May, and then beat myself up in August only over accomplishing half of it. I know I’m not the only one with this problem, and I know I’m far from the only graduate student who feels guilty whenever they take time off from working, but then also guilty while working for not taking more time off — the grad school catch-22. This summer, my first as an ABD-status student, felt like a great time to hit the reset button on the cycle of overworking and guilt-tripping myself.

Given the to-do list I’ve set myself for the summer, it may not sound like I’ve cut back all that much. I am a co-organizer for a graduate student conference my department is hosting in October, so I’ve been working on putting that together with my fellow co-organizers. I’ve been finishing up a special author project and researching possible dissertation projects (my prospectus is due in September), which has involved a truly absurd amount of primary and secondary reading — much of which still lies ahead of me. I’m also writing a bit for the CAMWS GSIC blog and traveling with my husband for his summer research project. I have a half-time appointment as a research assistant for one of my professors that will run for six weeks through midsummer; I will also start my 2019-20 assistantship at the UI Press in July. Yikes.

oprah yikes

If you are a graduate student reading this, you likely have a similar line-up of jobs and projects keeping you busy (and guilty) these summer days. For us, summer “vacation” is usually anything but. It’s so hard to break out of the mentality that we need to be working all the time, especially when that expectation is handed down (tacitly or explicitly) from an advisor or other authority figure in your program. I certainly haven’t stopped feeling guilty about my measly progress on my to-do list yet, but I have gotten a liiiiittle bit better at finding balance since the semester ended. Mostly I’ve done this in three ways:

1. Lower expectations. Looking at a half-done to-do list in August, when the semester is about to ramp up again, is possibly the most depressing experience of my graduate career to date. Back in May when I started to make my usual, absurdly long to-do list, I forced myself to cut back and focus only on the essentials: finishing my special author project and choosing my dissertation topic. For the former, I set incremental deadlines during the summer to force myself to work semi-consistently. For the latter, I compiled a stack of books from the library and have started to work through them one by one.

I haven’t given myself any other school-related to-dos for the summer. Even though there are conferences I want to submit abstracts for in the fall and papers I want to revise into articles that I can submit to journals, I forced myself to formally recognize that those are secondary, even tertiary, priorities for this summer. I have reminders about those things written down in a separate place from my official summer to-dos. If I don’t get to those things by mid-August, it’s okay — I won’t have to be disappointed by those unchecked boxes on my list.

2. Set boundaries and protect them. So far this has been the hardest part of my attempt to find balance, but I think it’s the most important. I usually don’t set myself any kind of schedule over the summer, so I end up working very inconsistent hours. This month, I am spending 9:00 am to 4:00 pm in the library on weekdays, working on academic work and blog writing. I am not working after 5:00 pm this summer, period (no matter how much I may “want” to, or guilt myself into feeling I need to!). Instead I’m spending the evenings with my family and friends, trying out new breweries, re-learning to knit socks (my last attempt four years ago ended in disaster), and catching up on my movies and Netflix watch lists.

I’m also trying to keep work out of the weekends as much as possible. I know this one won’t last for much longer; once my assistantships start up, there simply will not be enough hours during the week to get all my work done. However, when that happens, I am still going to do my best to contain work to only one weekend day, leaving the other free for relaxation. Sure, I could get more done if I spent Sunday afternoons in the library, but isn’t the whole point of summer that you don’t have to spend Sunday afternoons in the library?

3. Schedule the fun! My official to-do list isn’t just about work: it includes reading one book for fun, getting back into a regular yoga habit, and several knitting and crochet projects. The purpose of summer is to give our minds and bodies a break from the brutality of the school year, to relax and refresh ourselves — why not treat those as goals and activities equal in importance to whatever academic work happens in the summer? Checking a box on the official to-do list when I’ve finished knitting a baby blanket or reading a fun book makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something important, because I have: I’ve spent time on something that renews and refreshes me.


I am not good at loosening up and letting go of things. My work to-do list and the guilt trips I put myself on for not being productive enough follow me everywhere. So this is not an “I did it and you can too” list of easy steps — this is me, as one workaholic to another, saying that I think it’s possible to be less of a workaholic and still feel good about your summer productivity. I may not get as much done this summer as I would by working evenings and weekends, but I am much less likely to hate myself and feel like I’ve wasted my break come August. And though I have snuck in some weekend reading once or twice, I already feel more relaxed than I usually do at this point in the summer. Here’s hoping I can keep it up — and here’s hoping you can, too.

PhD Comps, According to Parks & Rec

Life news for those of you who haven’t been listening to me complain for the last several months: I just took my PhD comprehensive exam last Saturday. In my program, that means a six-hour essay exam on passages chosen at random from a massive reading list of the Greek and Latin canon. It was an exhausting process, but what better way to work through the emotions and fatigue than with Parks and Rec? Behold, my comps process:

Beginning of the Fall semester, knowing I have MONTHS to prepare:

want to not do things

Beginning of the Spring semester, realizing just how long the reading list actually is, and that three months is not enough time to read everything:

too much responsibility

Wondering why I decided a PhD was a good idea in the first place:

didn't think this through


yes but I don't want to

What encouragement from my family and friends is like:

brilliant talented musk ox

When professors expect me to do classwork in addition to preparing for the comps:



made an iphone.gif

When prospective graduate students visit and ask if I like what I’m doing:

I like saying no

Acknowledging the possibility of failure and being kicked out of graduate school:

this is a fun conversation

Trying to work on a Plan B if kicked out of graduate school:

0 percent sure what to do

Deciding that having to leave graduate school might not be so bad after all:


Trying to learn all the things while still being a decent human, having friends, getting enough sleep, keep up with classwork…:

super chill

Whenever someone tries to get me to care about anything other than comps:

not interested in caring

This exam justifies eating and drinking whatever I want, right?

treat yo self

Inevitable emotional breakdown:


Pep talk with my cohort:

because we're smart.gif

Spending Spring Break cramming for the exam:

everything hurts and I'm dying

One last moment of total despair:

I'm dead

Psyching myself up on the morning of the exam:


When your cohort members show up with Girl Scout Cookies and candy to get you through:


Finding a question on a topic I reviewed just two days ago:

andy oooooo

In the homestretch of the exam, no longer in possession of enough brain power to write the last essay:

not cranky

Finally turning in the exam:

need to lie down.gif

Time to celebrate! Nunc est bibendum!

party time

Second guessing everything I wrote the day after the exam:

completely flustered

Waiting for pass/fail results:

i want it now

It suddenly dawns on me that if I pass, I will have to write a dissertation:

too lazy and stupid to write