Is It Possible to Apply the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy in Graduate School?

A reader asked me this question recently. Here’s what I told him:

  • Yes, but it feels different in grad school than earlier in your student career.
  • It’s about being able to focus intensely on what matters — mastering the parts of your field most relevant to your research — and not getting bogged down by everything else.
  • It’s about being able say: “I worked hard on something that matters this afternoon, now I’m done, let’s go find some good beer.”
  • It’s about being able to fall off the radar of people handing out time-consuming busy work, then popping back up suddenly and saying: “I just did something important. Again.”
  • Grad school done right is hard work, but also quite Zen — not in a sitting back and relaxing sort of way, but in a minimalist, focused, Shaolin Monk, living life with crystal clear clarity and few complications sort of way.

23 thoughts on “Is It Possible to Apply the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy in Graduate School?”

  1. Interesting post! I’m just starting my PhD (I’ve been doing a Doctoral Training Year so far with various skills courses etc), and would be really interested in some more posts on this topic. I’ve been trying to make myself stand out from the crowd (for example, through writing and releasing software like RTWTools ( and through contributing useful sites to the community (like – but I do feel a little like I’m doing too much and burning out.

    Any more posts would be great!

  2. These seem to apply equally well to working at a startup. There’s so much you *could* be doing, better to focus on the things that truly matter and then relax (vs. the usual mentality of working 80 hours a week and burning yourself out).

  3. As a new graduate student in Computer Science, I would love to hear more (and perhaps submit myself as a guinea pig), especially on points 3 and 4. Though I’m pretty good at avoiding busy work, I’m wondering how I can do that while I’m taking classes and still trying to figure out a proper research direction.

  4. More please! I am a struggling PhD student and I always thought you’d say it’s the same philosophy for graduate school. It’s interesting to me that you say there are big differences. Please give us more!!

  5. Also interested in applications of this to ‘non-perfectly-academic’ graduate programs – ie, how to be academically zen while having a job, kids, a spouse, family commitments, etc.

  6. Cal, does this apply to professional schools like med school where the workload is enormous and schedule very tight? My classes and labs start at 8am and end at 5pm. Just curious how would you handle that sort of thing. More information would be appreciated.

  7. I would love to hear more about how to succeed in grad school!

    I’m getting my PhD in physics. Quals are coming up soon, and I would really, really like to pass them on the first shot (you only get two tries…if you fail the second time, you’re out of the program). At the same time that I’m preparing for quals, I have to do research, TA, take classes, put some face time at various committee meetings and seminars, etc. How does one balance it all?

  8. Maybe a more basic question would be: does the advice you give for preparing for the SAT apply to preparing for the GRE in order to get into graduate school? What about those who feel they are not “innately” good at taking standardized tests?

  9. Cal,

    Please do write more about this. I’ve made it most of the way through my grad school career with a family, and have had a rough time at points, including bouts of deep procrastination (your term) — such as now.

    I’d love to hear more about how your advice could be adapted for grad school especially — and maybe even as a junior prof! — although I actually think you have covered that in your research method posts already.

    Thanks in advance!

  10. Just to follow up, I’d love to hear more along the lines that StephenY above asks….

    Personally, I guess I’ve just been waiting a long time for this (series of) post(s) without even knowing it!

  11. I do think grad school i freeing in that the info is more finely tuned. Less to spread yourself thin. I do have a family, work,etc but this work I enjoy! I do have busy work but I can see the worth in the task–thanks for more info!

  12. Looking over all these comments, I think its pretty good advice to look over all of the Study Hacks literature. I’m not a grad student, but I have used elements of Cal’s advice in the working world- focusing on a small, niche thing and get really good at it (maybe apply this to whatever field you’re researching); use autopilot schedules so that you dont waste time or energy thinking or fretting about when projects will get done; innovate, in some way, whatever field/project you’re in; and one more piece, that I think many people miss, treat yourself well (the treat your mind like a private garden, and the what makes people truly happy posts come to mind…)

  13. Seconding (thirding? fourthing?) the call for more on managing graduate school with other work/family commitments. I have been very nervous about grad school for exactly this reason.

  14. Cal,

    Once again you’ve hit on a brilliant theme that has struck a chord with many readers. I would love it if you could group what you think the most relevant articles for PhD/Grad students into a new category.

    As someone about to start their PhD, now more than ever your material is very important to me.

    Keep up the good work,

    – J

  15. Like everyone else, I would also love to know more about this topic. As an honours student, I have applied some of the zen valedictorian ideas like scaling back on commitments and this has worked well. However, a series of posts about navigating grad school and achieving a study / life balance would be much appreciated. Personally I find study takes over everything else. It would be particularly valuable to get some advice in this area as I am trying to / praying that I get into a Clinical Psych PhD next year. Thanks for all your thought provoking posts.

    Honourable Mentions


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