Top Tips for Surviving and Thriving at Penn

Posted by Megan Dolan, '19 on February 21, 2019

If we are being entirely honest here, graduate school is really hard. The hours are long and in my program, we are constantly balancing student teaching and Penn coursework. While professors strive to make assignments that will overlap with our student teaching commitments, there is no doubt that this program is a ton of work. However, as I pass the midpoint of my program, I want to share some tips that have helped myself and my fellow graduate students keep going through the year.

1. Get sleep. This seems pretty obvious, but is definitely worth mentioning. Sleep is the easiest and most basic way to care for your health, mental and physical, and make you better able to be a successful graduate student! If you are not well-rested, you cannot be the best student or the best teacher you can be, which doesn’t serve yourself or your students. As people working in mostly elementary schools, my program has a never ending rotation of illnesses acquired from our students. Getting sleep is your first line of defense against getting sick and your key to a speedy recovery. No reading is more important than your sleep, and I think my professors would back me up on that!

2. Communicate with your professors. When struggling with a concussion during the summer, I went in to my professor’s office hours just to let her know what I was going through. She encouraged me to figure out what I needed from each class to prioritize my health and helped me communicate with my other professors to get what I needed. I was so nervous to talk to her about it, but she was so helpful and encouraging and told me that I needed to do whatever was necessary to prioritize my health. If something is happening that is getting in the way of you doing the best you can do in your classes, then talk to your professors! They can’t help you if they don’t know what is going on.

3. Collaborate with your peers. One of my favorite things about Penn GSE is that the environment is incredibly collaborative! During my entire time in the program, I think there are only 4 or 5 assignments I have turned in without discussing them with a peer. Working with peers can mean studying with them, editing each other’s papers, or workshopping lesson plans. They are going through the exact same program and classes as you, and they are the greatest resource. As a future teacher, learning how to collaborate with coworkers will greatly benefit myself and my future students. We are all working to be the best teachers we can be and serve all our students, and being competitive is counter to this mission.

4. Take a time each week for yourself. This can mean something different for everyone. For me, it means that I don’t do any work on Saturdays. With my friends or by myself, I take Saturdays completely off. Friday nights and Sundays I can worry about the lesson planning and homework piling up, but not Saturdays! Have I had to compromise sometimes and work a little on Saturdays? Yes. But I work to prioritize Saturdays as my day. Often I take this time to explore the city: go to a museum, the zoo, or Winterfest on the Delaware River. Even if you do not have the time to take an entire day for yourself, schedule one day a week where you play basketball at Pottruck or one night where you let yourself watch Netflix for 4 hours straight. Figure out what you need to relax and let your mind take a break, and commit to doing that at least once a week!

5. Seek out and ask for the support you need. This could be getting coffee with a friend or exploring the options at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). CAPS provides individual counseling and a variety of different groups, some serving specifically graduate students. If you are feeling overwhelmed and taking a break and a breath don’t work, stop and take the time to prioritize your mental health.

Overall, graduate school is about balance. Find your own balance between your grad school commitments, taking care of yourself, and having some fun in your life! When you have a hard day or week, which will happen, take a deep breath and think about what you need. And don’t forget that you are here for a reason. Everyday I am learning so much and am excited to enter the world of teaching in a few short months! Taking care of yourself and maintaining balance in your life will ensure that you are getting the very most out of your Penn GSE experience!