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Surviving Graduate School

Artwork by Khalid Mokhtarzada

This article addresses the subject of surviving graduate school by focusing on maintaining self health through remaining conscious and practicing mindfulness.

Dear Doctor Life Advice,

I just completed my first semester of law school and it has been a very stressful time for me. All throughout my life I have been a top student and I always felt like the smartest person in the room. Now, that has changed and I have had a really difficult time adjusting.  I knew law school was going to be hard but I thought if I worked really hard I would be a top student. So I studied every day and worked harder than I have my whole life. Our grades just came out and I pretty much am in the middle of the class! Everyone here is really smart and I’ve never felt so mediocre. To top it all off, my roommate, who goes out and parties all the time and barely studies, is at the top of our class.

My family and friends from home don’t really understand the situation I’m in, especially my boyfriend.  During finals I was studying 12 hours a day and the stress almost destroyed my relationship with my boyfriend. He just doesn’t understand that I don’t have time to deal with a relationship during finals. I am always stressed out and during finals I had a couple of breakdowns when I just started crying for no reason and I snapped at my boyfriend and my mom.

I am really disappointed and questioning whether or not I made a mistake even coming to law school. I am worried that if I don’t do something to deal with all this pressure and stress I am going to get worse. I figured you might have dealt with similar issues while in medical school and was wondering if you had any recommendations on how to deal with all this stress?

Signed: Lost in Law School

Dear Lost in Law School,

This is a very serious issue which is familiar to me personally.  Graduate school by its nature is extremely challenging and what you are experiencing is a common reaction.  There are two distinct sets of issues here that we’ll address.  The first set contains the issues you are facing in school, and the second set contains the issues you’re having with your mental health and your loved ones.

Issues with school:

I am very familiar with the feeling of dropping down from the top of the class to average.  You need to be conscious of the fact that when you were in undergraduate school, you were not competing with other law school students. The sample of students you competed with back then came from a large range of backgrounds and had a large range of goals.  Their strengths and weaknesses were much different from yours. Remember the rigorous process you went through to get into the law school? Most likely, you dealt with difficult classes and exams, followed by a long application process.  Getting accepted into law school in itself is a major accomplishment. The majority of your competitors did not even make it that far, and the group of students that you started law school with are very similar to you.  I bet every single one of your classmates is used to being on top of his or her classes too,  so being in the middle is actually just fine.

The trick to this is to not compare yourself to other students, and focus on your own accomplishments.  I’m reading your question from an objective point of view, and I see that your performance in law school is fine.  True, you are not at the top of your class; you need to learn that you don’t have to be anymore.  You did all that to get into law school. Now what you need to focus your energy on is literally surviving it. I can tell from what you wrote that you are doing exactly that.  You are working hard, and passing your classes with decent grades, which means you are going to graduate. When you start looking for a career after law school, you need to find a way to stand out from the rest of the crowd. Being at the top of your class is only one way to stand out.  There are a variety of other ways to make yourself unique.  Your extracurricular activities are going to be weighed heavily in your resume.  Make sure you attend to them.  Go back and read your application statement for law school; in there, you’ll find the reasons why you decided to take this path.  Keep those reasons in your conscious mind, and join organizations and interest groups that appeal to you.  Those are the places where you will shine, and where you will find connections and opportunities for your future careers.

Let’s face it, your roommate sucks! I don’t remember anyone flying through my medical school without much effort, but I do remember people who have the natural ability to memorize everything they read, and I remember how much I simultaneously admired and envied them.  Again, the trick is to not compare! Your roommate may be great at passing tests, but that is irrelevant to you.  What you need to do is find out where you shine, instead of wasting energy on making comparisons in which you come out inferior.

In short: stop comparing yourself to others, consider your average grades a success, find out where your individuality lies, and let it shine!

Issues with your mental health and your loved ones:

I think these issues are actually harder to deal with.  First and foremost, let’s talk about your mental health.  You’ve had a couple of “breakdowns” where you were so upset that you cried. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with crying. Just because you allow yourself to be upset, it doesn’t mean that you “broke down.” Crying is cathartic and is an essential characteristic of human survival. From an evolutionary standpoint, if crying was detrimental to us, it would have been eliminated by now.  From a spiritual standpoint, if crying wasn’t good for us, we would not have been given the ability to cry in the first place.

You need to make your mental health your top priority. If you are truly having mental breakdowns, then you will not succeed in law school no matter how hard you study. Find ways to improve your mood and reduce your worries. Most graduate schools these days have interest groups in conscious living with mindfulness.  These ideas are both based on the philosophy that each individual has the ability to heal within his or her own being, and teach you ways to get through difficult times. You need to learn how to live in the moment rather than getting swamped by regrets about the past and worries about the future. Look at law school as a journey in itself, not just as a means to an end.  One of my personal favorite books on this matter is the book The Power of Now written by Eckhart Tolle. Tolle gives you exercises in helping your mood and anxiety in stressful situations that may even feel unbearable. Of course, if you try these paths and you are still having a hard time, then you may want to use the counseling services that all graduate schools provide. I know that this actually feels like assigning you more work.  You can’t look at it like that.  You need to make a conscious decision to take care of yourself and follow through with your well-being, or you will burn out.

Law school is an excellent place to find out who really loves you. Your family, friends, and boyfriend may not understand what you are going through.  Honestly, there is no way for people who have not been through grad school to understand what it’s like. Just know that you do not need them to “understand” what you are going through, you just need them to be there for you and support you. My guess is that if you have loving parents, they will support you; the same is true with siblings. Your family loves you regardless of what you can and cannot do for them.  Friends and lovers are a different story; you may find that their love for you is conditional and based on what they get from you.  As heartbreaking as it sounds, this is how you are going to find out who is going to stick by your side, and who is going to let go of you. You also have the power to make a conscious decision to let go of those who are too demanding and not supportive. Meanwhile, you are making new friends that understand exactly what you are going through. When you are done with law school, you will have a brand new social circle consisting of those who supported you all through the process, and those you met along the way. Trust me, you will love them all.

The key to surviving law school is to never forget that your health is your number one priority.  Practice conscious living and mindfulness and make them a way of life.  Incorporate these ideas in your school activities as well as in all your relationships and moments to yourself. You will find an inner power that you never knew existed, and you will strengthen your self confidence and sense of self worth.

Words to live by: “You are so much more than what you are experiencing right now.” Dr. Jim Turrell

Best of luck in this arduous process of growth,

Doctor Life Advice

Sayeh Beheshti, M.D.