Tips for grad students on managing change in order to thrive (opinion)

June 10, 2024
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We’ve all heard the saying, “The only constant is change.” Yet few experiences embody this truth as intensely as graduate school.

Graduate students navigate a distinct period of intense transformation and uncertainty. They face rigorous academic demands, often juggling research, teaching and coursework. On top of that, they must adapt to evolving social dynamics, strive to establish a sense of belonging within their community and confront the formidable question of what lies beyond graduation. Every aspect of this journey represents a profound change, making it an exceptionally complex period in their lives.

Transitions, however, don’t have to be a constant source of anxiety and frustration. With the right tools and mindset, such shifts can become a catalyst for personal and professional growth. Change management, a strategic approach often used by organizations during major transitions, can empower individuals to embrace change with confidence. The same principles that enable organizations to navigate large-scale shifts can be equally transformative for graduate students facing personal and academic transitions.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for managing change, the Prosci ADKAR model, a proven framework that organizational leaders use, can provide valuable guidance for graduate students. ADKAR stands for: Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement.

  1. Awareness. Recognizing the need for change is the crucial first step. That could mean acknowledging the need to better manage your time to balance research, teaching and coursework, or realizing you need to develop specific skills such as data analysis or programming to excel in your field.
  2. Desire. Once you’ve identified a need for change, cultivate a genuine desire to embrace it. That could involve finding the motivation to network with professionals, step outside your comfort zone or tackle a challenging research topic that aligns with your career aspirations. It’s a crucial step, and without it, change would be impossible.
  1. Knowledge. Armed with awareness and desire, it’s time to gain the knowledge and skills required for change. That might involve taking courses, attending workshops, seeking mentorship or immersing yourself in relevant literature and online learning communities.
  2. Ability. The ability stage is where you put your knowledge into action. For instance, if you’ve completed coursework on project management, you might lead a team initiative, utilizing those principles to guide the project to success. Experiential learning gained through the application of knowledge will help you feel more confident in your ability to navigate through the change.
  3. Reinforcement. Finally, focus on making the change sustainable. Seek feedback from advisers and colleagues, participate in professional development, and celebrate your successes—all of which can help you stay motivated and continue to grow.

Embracing Growth Through Change

All this said, while the ADKAR model offers a structured approach to managing change and can be very helpful, it doesn’t encompass the full spectrum of challenges and emotional nuances encountered in graduate school.

For example, one of us, Roshni, vividly remembers the profound adjustment when she moved to a new country for her graduate studies. She found it to be a complete upheaval. The biggest challenge wasn’t just adapting to a new city but adjusting to a completely different academic culture. Back home, she was accustomed to rote memorization, but here in the United States, graduate school demanded critical thinking and independent research.

Her early lab experiences further highlighted this disconnect. In the beginning, she felt like a fish out of water. While her peers seemed to handle lab equipment with ease, she struggled with the basics. Such moments made her question her place in graduate school.

Yet, those challenges significantly spurred Roshni’s growth. In fact, when we start to see change as a key part of our growth, we really tap into something transformative. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, it forces us to rethink who we are and what we believe and challenges us to push the boundaries of our comfort zones. But it also lets us find new strengths, build new relationships and become more adaptable. Embracing these challenges is how we truly advance and grow as a person and in our careers.

Managing Change Through Community

This isn’t something you have to do on your own. Building a strong community can be a game-changer when it comes to finding your footing during times of change and will help you weather the ebbs and flows of the process.

In graduate school, where everything is in flux, being part of student organizations or affinity groups can make a big difference. They’re not just about having a network or networking, though that’s a definite perk. They’re about finding your people, those who truly understand the distinct challenges and shared experiences. Affinity groups, in particular, offer a safe haven to connect with others who “get it.” This sense of belonging can be a game-changer, especially when everything else feels up in the air. Knowing you are not alone and leaning in to support one another can have profound impact on your wellbeing.

But don’t stop there. Step outside the academic bubble and into your community. Volunteer, attend local events, apply what you’re learning in the real world. It’s a chance to broaden your horizons, give back, and maybe even discover a new passion.

Finding the right community might take a few detours, but the connections you make will be worth it. They’ll challenge you, support you and, ultimately, help you thrive in the exciting chaos of graduate school.

Asking for Help

In the midst of change, it’s easy to feel tempted to go it alone, even when surrounded by a supportive community. However, it’s worth repeating that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a testament to your wisdom and resilience. Everyone, from new employees to professionals on the job for several years, encounters challenges that require guidance. Everyone experiences an adjustment period. Whether you’re learning a new technique, navigating complicated tax laws or adapting to a different cultural environment, you can find resources and people available and eager to help you. Reaching out not only opens doors to solutions you might not discover on your own, but also strengthens your connection to the community around you. However, connecting with others is just one part of successfully managing change.

Cultivating Self-Compassion

Equally important is cultivating self-compassion. It’s important to give yourself permission to be imperfect—allowing room for messiness and mistakes, and treating any failures or discomfort with the same kindness you’d show a good friend. Recognizing the courage that it takes to step outside your comfort zone will enable you to meet the inevitable ups and downs of life with grit and grace. This self-awareness is helpful not only for navigating graduate school but is also highly valued in the workplace. Employers recognize that people who can gracefully handle complex changes and learn from them are invaluable assets, contributing significantly to the long-term success and leadership of the organization. Make sure to intentionally incorporate rest and rejuvenation time.

Creating Supportive Institutional Environments

Graduate school presents undeniable challenges, requiring resilience and adaptability from students. However, it’s equally important for leaders of higher education institutions to play their part, as well: to cultivate supportive environments that normalize struggles and encourage help-seeking. Think about it: a strong community where students lift each other up. Classes that not only teach subject matter but also the skills to navigate change and uncertainty. A culture of open conversations where challenges are shared and solutions found together. That’s the kind of environment that nurtures not just scholars, but well-rounded leaders.

Preparing future leaders isn’t about throwing them into the deep end and hoping they swim. It’s about teamwork, about providing them with the tools and support they need to confidently tackle whatever comes their way. When we do that, they won’t just survive graduate school transitions; they’ll thrive. They’ll leave their mark on the world, not out of sheer grit, but because they were empowered to reach their full potential.

Dinuka Gunaratne (he/him) is the director of career development and experiential learning at Northeastern University-Vancouver and a member of the board of Centre for Educational Research in Counselling (CERIC).

Roshni Rao is assistant vice provost of doctoral and postdoctoral life design at Johns Hopkins University.

They are both members of the Graduate Career Consortium, an international organization comprised of higher education professionals leading career and professional development for graduate students and postdocs since 1987.



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