Thriving in Grad School

Working with advisors

Two people seated at a desk with computers converse with one another.

Faculty advisors play an important role in graduate students’ academic journeys.

Through the interactive, self-paced micro-course A Graduate Student Guide to Working with Faculty Advisors, graduate students learn about the characteristics of functional and dysfunctional relationships with faculty advisors, 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.

A student puts produce from a refrigerator into a plastic bag to take home.
Students pick out produce from the UW Campus Food Shed at 333 East Campus Mall. The Campus Food Shed project aims to redirect some of the surplus produce from several of UW–Madison’s agricultural research endeavors, and freely provide the vegetables and produce to UW students, faculty, and staff.

Eating right

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.

More food assistance resources can be found on the Dean of Students Office list of food resources and through the United Way of Dane County.

Achieving balance and dealing with stress

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.

Balancing relationships:

  • 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?

Managing stress:

  • 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

Two students stand in a classroom having a conversation.
Graduate students take part in a workshop at Union South held by the Graduate School Office of Professional Development. Campus events are a great opportunity to make connections with others and build a sense of community for yourself at UW–Madison.

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.
  • All students can attend various events around campus and events for graduate students. Find an event that interests you, register to attend, and then talk to someone new before or after the event. Students of color and first-generation students can also connect with one another at events hosted by the Graduate School’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Funding.
  • 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

An instructor rings a chime during a mindfulness meditation exercise
Mindfulness meditation can be a useful strategy to better cope with stress and anxiety.

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.

Recreation and Wellbeing also offers in-person meditation sessions that students can join.

Tips for graduate student families

Two adults and three children sit around a table in their home, smiling for the camera.
Parents Noah and Noël Ash, both UW–Madison students, are pictured with their children at their family’s home in University Apartments.

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.