Navigating Graduate School as a First-Generation Student


Last week, the Office of Student Life hosted a first-generation graduate panel with a diverse group of first-gen students as panelists. The event gave other students and staff the opportunity to hear from their stories and experiences on what it means to be a first-generation graduate student. More than anything, it was an opportunity to begin creating a community and identifying a few strategies needed to navigate academia and higher education.

As a first-generation graduate student, I understand the challenges and struggles that come with navigating graduate school. Often times, people tend to assume that if someone makes it successfully through their undergraduate degree, they will make it through graduate school at a “level playing field”. From experience, I know this is not true. 

Therefore, we want to share with you some of the key strategies identified during our panel discussion that are part of the graduate school hidden curriculum:

1. Identify mentors: As we mentioned last week in our mentorship blog post, academia can be very difficult to navigate without the proper training and guidance. Identify potential mentors among faculty, staff and/or student body that can help you through your professional and personal development. 

2. Connect with local and campus resources: There are many organizations at JHSPH that aim to support minority groups across campus. In addition, Source, JHSAP, and the Office of Student Life provide resources to help students and trainees navigate, academic, personal, and professional environments. 

3. Create a community and support network: One of my main fears moving across the country and starting graduate school was that I would not find a “community”. Thankfully, I was wrong. Finding faculty that can support you within your department and other departments, is key to your success in graduate school. Also, finding friends that you can count on not just for studying. Graduate school can become very lonely, you will need cheerleaders and sometimes you will play the cheerleader role. 

4. Remember your support system back home: As first-generation students, we’re the first to navigate these spaces. However, it doesn’t mean that you have to take all the weight on your shoulders. Although my mom doesn’t really understand my research on macrophages, she’s always cheering me from far away and understands when I’m having a hard time. Know that your family, friends, and former mentors from back home are only a text, call, or email away.

You got this! You did not get this far to only make it this far.

Manage the Overwhelm

by Jessica Harrington, Director

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Buried, defeated, and inundated are three words to describe what it means to feel overwhelmed. Given the many requirements of masters and doctoral programs, students often express their feelings of overwhelm during the academic year. The following tips are adapted from an article on what to do when feeling overwhelmed. See what resonates with you today.

  1. Practice self-acceptance and speak with compassion toward yourself.  An example from the article, “I would prefer to be able to get more done in a day, but I’m going to accept what I’m realistically able to do.”
  2. Regain a sense of your time. How are you spending it in ways that reflect your priorities or not?
  3. Manage assumptions and expectations. The article asserts that we often create rules about what others expect of us that may or may not exist (ie I must return emails immediately, someone will be angry if I say no).
  4. If your definition of success is based in perfectionism, consider redefining it based on what’s reasonable.
  5. Find time for self to unpack mental overwhelm and reflect without pressure.

Remember to reach out to JHSAP and/or Student Life whenever support is needed!

Prepare for the Midterm Hump

By Jessica Harrington, Director

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Don’t watch the clock; do what it does. Keep going. -Sam Levenson

We’re almost halfway through third term (insert smile or deep sigh or both here).  For many, this means deadlines and midterms (exhale). Here are 3 tips for navigating this busy time:

  1. As you’re preparing for whatever is on your schedule, consider doing a 3 minute body scan to relax and focus.
  2. Before a test, consider making a few power poses to aid in a confidence boost.  
  3. Confront negative self-talk with positive truths. Example: I never do well at timed exams.  Positive truth: It’s true I haven’t done well at timed exams in the past, but I’m open to doing my best today and focusing on the test in front of me.

Here in Student Life, we encourage you to keep going; you’re almost there!

Mentorship and the Importance of a Healthy Mentor-Mentee Relationship


Have you ever thought about the ripple effect of mentorship? Did you know that 90% of people that are mentored want to mentor others? 

As a first-generation student, mentorship during my career has had a great impact in my professional and personal life. The guidance I have received from faculty, staff and peers over the years has been vital in my training and education. 

Academia can be very difficult to navigate without the proper training and guidance. It can also be a very lonely place when you feel like you are the only one going through certain situations. Before I started my graduate program, one of the most common advices I heard at conferences and from other graduate students was on finding a good mentor. I’m sure you have heard this and know by now of the importance of having a good match with your advisor/PI. However, creating the “perfect” mentor-mentee relationship in graduate school can be tricky and sometimes difficult. 

This post isn’t dedicated to telling you how to find the “perfect” mentor. Instead, it was created to give you some insight on how to cultivate a healthy mentor-mentee relationship.

1. Know it’s worth to build a healthy relationship: You don’t want to have a miscerable time during your graduate program because of your advisor. Although it may not be easy at first, it will pay off over the years. Your relationship with your mentor will be important for your graduate years and even after you earn your degree.

2. Have an open dialogue: Be up front about what is going on with your research. Your advisor/PI has been in your shoes and they know that it means to be a graduate student. School happens, personal problems rise, experiments fail. Be honest (don’t make excuses) and he/she will understand better what is going on in your professional and personal life.

3. Learn to accept constructive criticism: Your advisor/PI wants the best for you, be receptive to their advice and learn how to take criticism. At the end, they are trying to help you prepare for your future career.

4. Show gratitude: Be respectful of your mentor’s time and efforts. Advisors/PIs appreciate when you have a clear agenda in mind, show up on time, and be honest about progress and challenges. Remember, it’s a two-way relationship.

5. Continue the mentorship cycle: For some of us, mentorship can be a form of giving back and self-care. It’s a way to give back to your community, inspire younger generations, and pave the way for other students to come. 

Be Healthy & Spread Love Through Random Acts of Kindness

By: Shekeitha L. Jeffries, Assistant Director

The month of February marks the 2nd month of this decade as well as the start of the 3rd term for students at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Did you know that this month is known as Black History Month? All across the world the achievements of black people will be honored to commemorate the positive impact they’ve made through history.  This month is also dedicated to Heart Health, an initiative coined by the American Heart Association to encourage individuals to learn about risk factors for heart disease and to encourage healthy lifestyle.  We’ll also celebrate love on February 14th, and we’ll embrace Random Acts of Kindness day, on February 17th

Photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels.

Random Acts of Kindness day, also known as RAK, started in 1995. It is celebrated by many individuals, groups and organizations worldwide to encourage acts of kindness.  Research shows that by being kind to others, increases your overall happiness, reduces stress and helps to improves heart health. Stay healthy this month and spread love through random acts of kindness, which can include:

  • Sending someone a handwritten note, thanking them for being in your life
  • Buying coffee/tea for the person ahead or behind you in line
  • Helping a classmate, colleague with a project or assignment
  • Making dinner for a family in need
  • Volunteering at a local food bank or shelter

To help you get started with your acts of kindness, print out the kindness bingo card. Mark off your act of kindness, by completing a line vertically, horizontally or diagonally – you choose. When you have completed four acts of kindness in a row, pat yourself on the back! You just made a difference in someone’s life!

Be sure to snap a photo of your acts of kindness, and tag the Office of Student Life on Instagram and use hashtag #RandomActsofKindnessDay.  

How to Manage Competing Priorities

By: Shekeitha L. Jeffries, Assistant Director

An article published in the US News & Report states that saving money is a great thing to do. However, according the article, if we save time, we may also save our health and sanity.

Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile from Pexels.

Graduate students may find it hard to manage their time, school work, as well as other personal commitments.  You may have other obligations in addition to your role as a graduate student – such as being a spouse, a parent, caregiver for a loved, teaching assistant or e-board member within a student/professional organization. These various roles can be very rewarding, yet stressful to manage, as you take on additional responsibilities. However, research shows that learning how to manage your time, activities, and commitments can make your life easier, less stressful, and more meaningful.

Here are 3 strategies to begin managing your priorities:

  • Strategy #1: Create SMART goals. Establishing SMART goals, will help you clarify your ideas and help focus your efforts more succinctly.  Your goals are is your personal road map and will help to ensure that you can accomplish what you want in life. To get started, use the goal setting worksheet and identify your personal, educational and career goals.
  • Strategy #2: Prioritize Commitments/Tasks. To prioritize your commitments and tasks, you must determine which things to tackle first.  In order to stay organized and accomplish all commitments/tasks at hand, you will need to arrange them by urgency and importance. Consider using the Eisenhower method, a task management tool, that will help you categorize your tasks/commitments more efficiently.
  • Strategy #3: Organize Your Digital Calendar. To organize your digital calendar, review your daily activities and break them into categories such as personal, family, school and work. Designate specific colors for each category, so that you can easily identify them in your calendar. By utilizing a digital calendar, you will be able to have access to your schedule at all times. To get started use this calendar template make a list of your reoccurring monthly, weekly, as well as your daily tasks/commitments and begin plugging them directly into your calendar.

Please keep in mind, that no matter which strategies you use, in order to be effective  – consistency is KEY. Don’t wait until you have a meltdown to begin managing your priorities, start TODAY!

Academic Guilt: Stay Out of the Trap


Graduate student guilt? Oh yeah, I am sure you’ve heard of it and even experienced it by now. It is the guilt that many of us experience when we are not constantly working on school related assignments, writing our thesis/dissertation, conducting experiments, reading articles, etc. It is the guilt that we feel when we are spending time with our friends instead of responding to those emails or working 24/7. 

I’m trying to relax but I know I could be working

Just this past weekend, I found myself feeling “guilty” for spending time with a friend I had not seen in a long time. I suggested going to a coffee shop so we could chat and afterwards I could work on my thesis while she read a book. Am I a bad friend for suggesting such activity? Maybe not. However, I realized that probably I deserved some time off after writing and working all week.

Why do we experience graduate student guilt? Perhaps, it has to do with the structure of graduate school. There is not a set line of instructions that tell you how much time is required for reading, writing, working – there is not a 40-hour work week or 9-5. In addition, flexibility really varies among the different degree programs and within each student individually. We are in a stage where we are responsible for the balance between being a student and being an adult. On top of that, we are faced with the expectation that academia comes with busyness, high demands, and the need to work 24/7. 

Although graduate student guilt is very common in academic, below are some tips that may help you lower those guilt feelings:

1. “Busy” is not a merit badge: We often find ourselves being prideful of our busy life to measure up against others. We get it, we know everyone is smart and busy in graduate school. Instead, focus on taking a positive attitude towards those opportunities given to you and focus on those concrete goals.

2. Plan your breaks: My first year at JHSPH, a 5th year PhD student told me “Weekends are sacred and I don’t work during that time”. Although I have not been able to execute his advice, it is important to schedule breaks just like you schedule your class time. It will become part of your routine and you won’t feel as guilty. 

3. Ask for help: Some great advantages of graduate school are the collaborations and relationships you make with others. If you are having difficulties completing a task at a timely manner, ask for help. We understand people are usually busy but oftentimes they will help (or at least explain it to you).

4. Remember, you are a person: It is okay to take breaks. It is okay to take time for self-care. It is okay to spend time with friends and have a life outside of school. Your mental and physical health are important. Don’t take them for granted. 

Begin Again

By Jessica Harrington, Director

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Although no one can go back and make a brand-new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand-new ending.
-James Sherman, Rejection

Welcome to another term and a new year! Here are some tips for a good start (or to encourage you to keep going in case you’ve already started!):

  1. Simplify. Webster’s definition of simplify says, “to reduce to basic essentials… diminish complexity.” Author/blogger, Leo Babauta, offers another definition to consider for everyday life: “It [simplify] means getting rid of the clutter so you are left with only that which gives you value.”  Babauta’s post, Simple Living Manifesto: 72 Ideas to Simplify Your Life, elaborates on suggestions which may benefit busy grad students in particular. Some of my favorites from the list: learn to say no, limit media consumption, be present, learn to do nothing!  If you get a moment, take a long glance at the post and see what inspires you to declutter physically, mentally, and emotionally. When you find yourself overwhelmed this term, just take one moment to simplify.
  2. Show your body some love! Over the years, I’ve learned that while public health students value the public’s health, they are prone to forget to nourish their own bodies through exercise and nutrition.  Consider this list of workout apps and check out the PDF copy of The Good and Cheap Cookbook by Leanne Brown  (note: thank you to the JHSPHer who suggested the cookbook!!).  
  3. Make A Plan to Manage Distractions and Resume Work!  Focus is a necessary component in the academic journey and distractions are inevitable. One researcher suggests those who make a “ready-to-resume” plan may be able to bounce back from distractions and return to their work more efficiently. The plan doesn’t have to be a lengthy list. The article notes, “Even a minute’s work will do, to note where you left off, and where to resume, what challenges are left, and/or what actions (you) must postpone but resume later.”
  4. Learn to Think Fast and Slow. Given that students live at the pace of an eight week term, this interesting excerpt from Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is a reminder to be deliberative in our thinking especially in problem solving. It’s important to know the difference between reacting and responding.
  5. Build in time to pause from technology. Most of us are aware of how detrimental it is to stare at our screens for hours on end.  The Time Out app (also suggested by a student) is another mechanism that provides prompts and reminders to pause. Give it a try.

Relax with a Good Book

By Jessica Harrington, Director

Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay

Some books leave us free and some books make us free.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Reading has been proven to help reduce stress.  During the academic year, students may forgo their love of reading due to hectic schedules. Winter break is a great opportunity to read something other than textbooks and articles. For ideas, visit NPR’s Book Concierge and Good Reads Best Books of 2019.

In addition, here are some of my favorite books: 

  • Self Help: I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough” (Brene Brown)
  • Motivational: Enjoy Every Sandwhich: Living Each Day as If It Were Your Last ( Lee Lipsenthal)
  • Memoir: Born Bright: A Young Girl’s Journey from Nothing to Something in America (C. Nicole Mason)
  • Suspense/Sci-Fi: Dark Matter (Blake Crouch)
  • Creativity Workbook: Hand Lettering for Relaxation: An Inspirational Workbook for Creating Beautiful Lettered Art (Amy Latta)

Whether you choose to relax through reading or some other means, we encourage you to make self-care a priority! We look forward to connecting with you in third term. 

Navigate Holiday Stress

Sheila Brown has released this “Happy Holidays Christmas Ornament 3” image under Public Domain license.

Congrats! You made it through the first two terms and now it’s time to celebrate. It is that wonderful time of the year where you may get to spend time at home with loved ones, eat delicious food, and hang out with old friends. It is also that time of the year when people around ask, “How is your research going?” and “What’s next after you graduate” or “Why don’t you visit more often?” And so it begins… Trust me, you are not the only one feeling overwhelmed with all these questions. Although most of the time we appreciate family members and friends caring about our progress, there are times when we appreciate having a physical and mental break from school. Some of us are still working on an answer to, “What is next after you graduate?” It’s ok not to have all the answers. We may want to make our friends and family proud, but it’s important to take care of our mental well-being. Here are some recommendations on how to navigate and handle holiday stress:

1. If you are experiencing grad school guilt: It is okay to take time away from work. We understand some things need to be done such as working on your thesis, applying for fellowships/grants, working on a publication. Yet, taking a break is okay. Whether it is a few hours, days, or even more than a week. You deserve it. You have worked non-stop for two entire terms. Enjoy your time off. 

2. If you are experiencing stress from overwhelming questions: Maybe some of your loved ones do not understand your research and/or the process of graduate school. However, you do know that they care about you and want to know how you are doing. While it can be difficult to not find those questions annoying or hard to answer, try to remain calm. Most of the time they are trying their best to connect with you and understand your life as a graduate student. Be patient and don’t take your stress on those you love the most. 

3. If you are experiencing stress from doing “too much”: Set time aside for yourself. Yes, we understand this is the time your family and friends want to do everything with you and include you in all the plans. However, it is okay to say “no” to an invitation. The holidays are a great opportunity to enjoy quality time with others but also time with yourself. Please remember to relax, recharge, refocus. 

Try to enjoy your holiday and destress. There will always be work that needs to be done and questions that need to be answered. Enjoy your time off, don’t feel guilty, and take care of your wellbeing. For additional suggestions, check out JHSAP’s 10 tips for holiday stress management.