Why Graduate Students Complain and How to Stop

If you’ve spent any time around graduate students, you’ve probably noticed a consistent trend: Graduate students complain. I mean, they complain a lot. I have been in graduate school since 2014, first as a master’s student, and now wrapping up my PhD and I’ve seen students complain about the challenges, the professors, and how poor they are. If you’re in science they complain about how things are not working, if you’re in medicine they complain about studying. They complain about old white guys in academia and the resources allotted to their program for free booze. Is it just that we’re all entitled Millennials? Maybe, but I think there is more to the story.


1.       Graduate Students Focus on Results not Processes

Graduate training is about teaching you a process, whether it’s the mechanisms of business development or how to practice medicine. Yet humans, especially in our culture, are motivated by results. This can lead to major frustration when we want to publish our paper, complete our thesis, or get out there are start working with real patients. You went to graduate school to become something and it’s easy to start feeling like the training is in the way of actually doing the thing. When you fixate on results for too long, you can become frustrated with the stuff you’re doing that feels like it’s in the way of achieving your goal.

How to Change: Embrace the process of graduate school. Realize that studying and passing tests isn’t important in the “real world”, but seeing what is coming, creating a deadline, and then being prepared to deliver results is critical to every high-level job on the planet. If you stay focused on results and not process, this frustration will carry over into every area of your life, because life is a process.


2.       Graduate School is a Self-Absorbed Experience

Graduate school is all about you. You are working on your degree for your future and the jobs that you want. This is wonderful because it allows you to really grow. The problem is that self-absorption is very dissatisfying. Every truly happy human I’ve ever met on this planet spends most of their time serving a vision greater than themselves for the good of others. This includes doctors, missionaries, businesspeople, and stay at home parents. When your dream shrinks to the size of yourself (finish degree, get a good job) and you spend most of your time serving yourself, you are unlikely to be satisfied.

How to Change: Start serving other people. Deploy your skills from graduate school for the good of others. Volunteer to tutor at-risk youth, become a counsellor at the homeless shelter, or help a local non-profit build their business model to become sustainable. You’ll feel like you don’t have enough time but that’s the self-absorption talking. Find a way to serve others at the expense of your own immediate gain, I promise the energy you get from giving love will pay huge dividends.


3.       Graduate Students’ Perspective is Often Skewed

Graduate students are wildly privileged. You are getting advanced training from experts in a field that you choose to go into. Despite the increase in graduate educated adults, only 9.57% of the US population have master’s degrees and less than 1.5% have doctoral level training. If you have a graduate degree you are in the elite in terms of education and earning potential. Yet while I’ve been in graduate school one of my siblings made it from night-shift manager at Walmart to making a multiple six figure salary. Maybe you check Instagram and it tells you someone from undergrad who was a C student is on vacation in Thailand while you’re locked in a windowless room studying the endocrine system and going into $300k debt. If we’re so privileged, what the heck is going on?

How to Change: Stop comparing yourself to others. If you do not want to be in graduate school, quit. Don’t be a victim of the life you choose. You claim you want this degree, so earn it. If you’re doing it to satisfy your parents or because it’s what you think society says you should be, or you’re riding a wave of sunk cost fallacy, get out now and go get a job as a night-shift manager at Walmart - I promise they’re hiring. But if you want this thing then buckle down, stop complaining, and own your life choices.


I know that graduate school is hard. We work long hours, face huge obstacles, and it can be a frustrating process. For my part, I’m trying to not complain about my work or how my PhD is going. I realize that I’m in a process of growing, so I keep focused on serving others, like my family, and I try to maintain a humble and honest perspective. Please join me in making gratitude core to the graduate student’s DNA. It’s a truly amazing opportunity we have been given.