A guide to the graduate experience at the University of Wisconsin–Madison
Thriving in Grad School
For graduate students, living well means being able to balance your academics with your physical, emotional, and social needs. While you are in grad school, it is important to eat healthily, exercise, rest, find effective ways to deal with stress, and feel connected with your community. This section highlights some opportunities to help you take care of yourself and live a more balanced life.
Additionally, the end of this section offers advice for partners and spouses of graduate students who are relocating to Madison with their graduate student partner.
Faculty advisors play an important role in graduate students’ academic journeys.
Through the interactive, self-paced micro-course A Graduate Student Guide to WorkingwithFacultyAdvisors, graduate students learn about the characteristics of functional and dysfunctional relationships withfacultyadvisors, strategies for communicating effectively and aligning expectations, as well as program grievance processes and Hostile and Intimidating Behavior resources.
Completing the micro-course takes about 20 minutes and is optional but encouraged for all graduate students.
As a graduate student busy with research and studies, it is easy to slip into bad eating habits. With Madison’s many food co-ops, health food stores, local farms, and several farmers’ markets, Madison is a great place to develop healthy eating habits.
For many graduate students, time constraints and budgets can be the biggest obstacles to maintaining a healthy diet, even though a healthy meal may be exactly what we need when we’re feeling stressed. It helps to plan ahead. Something as simple as cooking multiple batches on the weekend can keep you eating well during the week, while saving time and money.
Any student experiencing food insecurity can access free food resources on campus – read the next section on this page for an overview of what is available to you. Food insecurity can mean skipping meals because you can’t afford them, or it can mean not having enough access to healthy and nutritious food that allow you to focus on your academic and scholarly goals. If you find yourself in that situation, please take advantage of the food resources on campus.
Wellness Spotlight: Food assistance
By Elaine Goetz-Berman, Graduate and Professional Student Assistance Specialist
Being a graduate student can be a financially draining period of life, and many times it can be very difficult to make ends meet. This oftentimes can have an impact on the ability to afford groceries and a healthy meal. Below are options to connect you to the free food resources available on campus, and in the Madison community.
The Open Seat is a food pantry located on the UW–Madison campus (Room 4209 in the Student Activity Center) run by students, for students. Any student with a valid Wiscard is welcome to come and take part in the pantry weekly.
The Badger Fare Program provides a $75 deposit directly to your Wiscard that you can immediately use to purchase food on campus. The program is offered through the Dean of Students Office and is available once each academic year to students who are experiencing food insecurity or an unexpected life event.
The Campus Food Shed student organization houses fresh, free produce around campus for all UW–Madison students, faculty and staff.
The Food Recovery Network at UW–Madison is an organization of student volunteers who work to increase food sustainability and equity by recovering surplus foods from UW dining halls and delivering it to organizations in need.
Slow Food UW hosts Family Dinner Nights on Mondays and the Slow Food Café on Wednesdays during lunch.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) offers nutrition assistance to eligible, low-income individuals and families. Students can use SNAP at markets and dining halls on campus. To determine eligibility, contact Megan Vander Wyst at Second Harvest.
One of the most difficult aspects of graduate school is balancing academics with all of the other parts of your life. Below are some tips from graduate students for balancing school with family, work, relationships, and your own needs.
Balancing with a job:
Get a planner, and use it. Try time management techniques to improve your productivity during study time, such as the Pomodoro method, which schedules short breaks into longer, focused work sessions.
Pay attention to your goals for the future. Try to take positions that will work for your future career aspirations.
Stay focused. Remember your graduate degree – and the knowledge, skills, and development that comes with it – is your priority.
In graduate school, you will need support from your significant other, family, and friends. Maintain open lines of communication and make sure they understand your world and the time and work commitment that it demands.
Take time to spend with your significant other, family, and friends.
Have fewer, or more realistic, expectations.
Remember to ask yourself: What does success mean to me?
Take time to connect with peers – whether through your department, Graduate School events, or other student organizations. Social support from people who are in the same boat can help to manage stress.
Make time to do relaxing things, like cooking, crafting, or yoga. Don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself.
Pay attention to your mental health. During the winter season, some people may suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. It helps to get some ‘light therapy’: find reasons to get outside during the winter.
Creating community and support networks
As a new student, you may find yourself surrounded by unfamiliar people in a completely new environment. Yet finding and building a network of people you can turn to for support during graduate school is essential. Take advantage of this new beginning to make connections and build friendships. Here are a few ideas to consider:
Many programs host social events as part of their orientations for new students. Make time to attend yours to start forming relationships with others in your program whom you’ll likely see often throughout your graduate career. To meet other new graduate students outside of your program, attend the New Graduate Student Welcome reception in your first year.
Reach out to more senior graduate students in your program or department to build friendships and connect with people who can help mentor you and give career advice as you begin your graduate program. Plan to meet up for coffee, tea, or lunch, and start the conversation by asking about their experience in graduate school or what they like to do in and around Madison. You could ask what they wish they knew as a new graduate student, or look for suggestions of faculty and staff to get to know.
Connect on social media to reach out to your peers in a less formal setting. Many graduate students are active on sites like Twitter, Instagram, and research networking websites like ResearchGate. The Graduate School’s Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are also worth following to stay connected to what is happening on campus for graduate students.
When the weather is nice, plan an outdoor meetup to explore the natural beauty of campus and get acquainted with other students in your program or department. Propose a meeting at the Memorial Union Terrace to sit lakeside and enjoy the view, or as a starting point for a walk to Picnic Point. Meet up at one of the fields on campus for some frisbee, tennis, or other games. Alternately, if you’re not one to plan outings but are invited to a gathering by a peer or colleague, be open to the idea of attending and meeting new people.
Join a club, student organization, or community group to find people with similar interests that will give you a shared starting point for conversation. The Wisconsin Involvement Network is a great place to look for opportunities, and a Student Organization Fair takes place each fall and spring to showcase many of the organizations you can join.
Have conversations with others who share your interests, whether they are academic subjects, career goals, or hobbies that help you relax. Follow up after a class with someone who made an interesting contribution to talk with them further, or talk with someone about your hobbies if you notice a shared point of interest.
Finally, don’t limit yourself to the people in your classes or program. You may meet wonderful friends through your other interests or hobbies, in unexpected places like in the line at the coffee shop, or while volunteering in the community.
Over time, you’ll find that campus is a rich place to build relationships and get to know people from many different backgrounds and with varying interests. It’s one of the perks of being part of the Badger community.
Maintaining mental health
To maintain your mental health and emotional wellbeing during graduate school, it’s important to maintain connections with loved ones and build new support networks. In addition, practicing daily movement and exercise, getting plenty of sleep, eating healthy, and staying hydrated all reinforce mental health as well.
Meditation and mindfulness training is a useful strategy for many people who want to better manage their feelings and anxieties. The Healthy Minds Program from Healthy Minds Innovations is based on pioneering neuroscience research from UW–Madison. The program guides you through the four pillars of the science of training the mind.
It also administers the Child Care Tuition Assistance Program (CCTAP) for student parents. CCTAP provides partial financial assistance for child care (with a licensed or accredited provider) to income-eligible student families. Funds are limited and are granted on a first-come, first-served basis; the sooner you apply, the better. CCTAP typically covers 30 to 40% of child care costs per semester for qualifying graduate students. Consider contacting OCCFR to join the CCTAP mailing list, so that you are notified of upcoming application deadlines.
For emergency or back-up child care, the Kids Kare program provides reduced rate care at Little Chicks Learning Academy for UW–Madison students, faculty, and staff. If you are enrolled in CCTAP, you may use a certain amount of Kids Kare services each semester at no cost.
One of the best ways to find out what is going on in and around Madison is to sign up for the parent listserv through OCCFR. Send an e-mail to email@example.com to add your name to the Parent Support Listserv. You will receive updates on activities for children as well as special workshops and events for parents.
These tips come from former graduate students to help parents who are new to campus.
Introduce your children to campus. Take them to the Union, the library, and other places where children are welcome. Connecting your children to your experience as a student will help them understand what you are doing when they are away from you; likewise, allowing your classmates and professors to see you in the parent role may help them understand some of the demands you face as a student-parent.
Set up your class schedule and program plan as soon as you can. This will allow you to arrange childcare that meets your needs, and will reduce your stress from semester to semester if you can plan ahead.
Be up-front from the start with your advisor, professors, and classmates about your dual role as a parent and a student.
Spend quality time with your family. Use creative strategies which may mean redefining what “quality time” means with your kids.
Take advantage of the services offered by the Office of Child Care and Family Resources.
Find ways to connect with other parents on campus and introduce your children to other children of grad student parents. The Office of Childcare and Family Resources offers a listserv, and many departments have informal programs to connect parents with other parents. These networks will help you maintain perspective and provide a great social outlet to relieve stress and minimize feelings of isolation.
Take breaks from school now and then to dedicate some time to your children and vice versa; take breaks from your children to completely dedicate some time to your school work and yourself.
Community building helps with parenting; this can mean learning to negotiate and learning good communication skills (for example, with your advisor), which will help you as a parent.
For partners of graduate students
Moving to a new city with a spouse or partner who is starting graduate school can be a major adjustment. Often, partners of graduate students face certain challenges as they learn the lifestyle in a new city, state, or country, such as feeling that they lack a built-in support network that their graduate student partner gains through their academic program.
But rest assured, you are not alone. In addition to a friendly community in Madison, there are resources on campus and in the city that you can access. This section also provides some advice from others who have been in your shoes about the process of relocating to Madison, how to build support networks, and how to maintain a good relationship with your significant other in stressful times.
Immigration and visa regulations:International Faculty & Staff Services assists UW–Madison with all aspects of non-student immigration. The office is a liaison between UW and all government agencies involved in immigration.
Finding your way around in a new city: Check the Madison Metro website for information about bus routes and bus pass options. If you need to get around on campus, you can take the route 80 bus for free.
You may find that you need a car to get to a job on the edge of town or in a surrounding community. For information on registering a car or getting a Wisconsin driver license, visit the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) website. You may be able to find a good deal for a used car through a dealership or private seller. If you use an online listing service such as Craigslist to find a car, watch out for common scams such as a seller asking for money before you’ve seen or test driven the vehicle, or a listing that sounds too good to be true (it probably is). You can find estimated values of used cars on sites like Kelley Blue Book.
Like starting a new life in any place, many partners of graduate students find it challenging to learn how to get around, secure a job if they are looking for one, and start building a social group.
“When you come to any new place for someone else’s work or school you are at the disadvantage of not having a built-in community. Finding work was challenging. With work or other hobbies come connections and those take time.” -Amanda F.
Getting settled: Some students and their partners find it helpful to arrive in Madison a few weeks before classes begin. Once you’re here, take time to get acquainted with the area. In time, you may be up to finding community activities to participate in, perhaps through a local community center or something on campus. Other partners of grad students have found it helpful to host activities like social dinners and study groups to build a network of friends.
“We arrived early in order to spend a couple of weeks making the adjustment together. We walked around, helped one another navigate while driving, etc. Once classes started, we hosted study groups, so made friends that way. They are still our friends, 6 years later.” -Amy M.
Staying grounded: Many people find the nature trails and paths in Madison – not only around campus, but throughout the city – to be relaxing ways to get to know the natural beauty of the area. If you live in Eagle Heights, residents there recommend joining the activities at the Community Center and getting to know others in the community, many of whom are in similar situations.
Caring for dependents: If finding childcare is on your to-do list, start looking into options as soon as possible and sign up for waitlists. The Office of Child Care and Family Resources (OCCFR) at UW–Madison is a great place to find assistance.
Local libraries in the area offer an array of free programs for children of all ages, from infants to teens. The Madison Public Library has a number of locations, plus the surrounding towns of Fitchburg, Middleton, Sun Prairie, Waunakee, DeForest, Verona, and more also have great libraries.
Many student organizations, perhaps including organizations within your partner’s department at UW–Madison, welcome spouses and partners of grad students. Participating in university groups and events even if you’re not part of the university can help you feel tuned in with what is happening in your partner’s life, and gives you a support network as well.
You can also take initiative to plan group lunches, study sessions, or socials and invite people that you know through work, your neighborhood, or your partner’s graduate program.
It can also help to meet your neighbors. Generally, people in Madison are very friendly and open to meeting new people. Most neighborhoods have a community center or neighborhood association that can help you get to know people. Madison also has a number of community events throughout the year that provide a great opportunity to make new friends.
“Get connected at your local community center, find people on meet-up and call places you think are interesting and just ask questions. People in Madison are helpful and welcoming.” -Sólveig A.
You can also find people who share similar interests and hobbies and get to know them that way. The Wisconsin Unions offer social events and non-academic classes on everything from wheel pottery to dance. If sports are your passion, University Recreation & Wellbeing offers affiliate memberships. Madison also has a number of intramural sport associations.
“It’s important to find activities you enjoy for times when your spouse is studying or attending campus events. This will help you establish a social life and encourage you to explore Madison.” – Hyewon R.C.
The International Reach program hosted by International Student Services facilitates presentation opportunities for international students, scholars, and family members who are interested in sharing their culture, experiences, and perspectives to a variety of audiences both on and off campus. International Reach is a good opportunity for spouses or partners of international students and scholars to get involved with the campus and community.
If you are a parent, there are multiple online groups for parents in the Madison area that can introduce you to resources and activities in which you can be a part. Finding activities for your kids to meet other kids is not only a great way to expand your child’s network, but also grow your own network.
“Get to know your neighbors and other families for they become your support system when you have no other family in town.” -Rose C.
Maintaining a healthy relationship with your partner
There are a number of things that you can do to maintain a healthy relationship with your partner. Graduate school can be demanding and challenging at times, and your partner will likely experience times of high stress. Healthy frequent communication is key in keeping both parties happy in the relationship. Remember, not all of this advice might work for you. There are many different approaches people take to building and maintaining healthy relationships with one another.
“Make time for each other every day, whether it is over the phone, via text, or in person.” -Tim B.
Partners of graduate students suggest setting priorities together with your partner or spouse. Make sure that both of you are involved in making plans – whether it’s for your partner’s research or conference trips, or for the late nights they will be in the office or lab.
Graduate school gets busy. Many partners of former graduate student recommend scheduling time to spend with your partner, such as planning a date night where it is just the two of you.
“I think it’s important to get away together whenever possible. For a day, a weekend, or just for a movie/dinner date – leave the ‘graduate student’ world and remind yourselves that there’s another world out there to enjoy.” -Amy M.