Many people find the first year of the PhD excruciating (economics in particular ), especially those in programs like mine that may cut a number of their students based on their coursework performance. This leads people to offer advice along the lines of what I quoted below:

I’d suggest reading the full thread and the replies to get a sense of how prevalent these feelings are. In retrospect, Prof. Cunningham’s well-intentioned advice didn’t deserve my flippancy and I also don’t mean to disregard the experiences of others who’ve struggled. To that end, I should state upfront that I’ve been known to be “unnaturally chill” even when objectively struggling, to paraphrase a friend from grad school. This is often beneficial and I think it comes from being very in touch with my personal values, things far more difficult and important than grad school giving me perspective, and a view that alarmist advice like this is counterproductive at best and toxic at worst.

First, I’ve been in academia now for over five years and I have yet to run into a grad student who I felt wasn’t working hard enough: effort is never why students fail. The admissions process is random and biased and flawed, but it reliably overselects on work ethic. I worry that telling prospective or current students that they will fail if they aren’t ready to commit all their waking hours to a subject they’re really only just sinking their teeth into will be self-fulfilling with deterrent effects on people with underrepresented or non-traditional backgrounds and less entrenched in the self-preserving microculture of academia.

Second, if you have outside options, appreciate them and if they lead you to assess your priorities, let them. Ironically, a lot of first year material is dedicated to the adverse consequences of informational asymmetry so it’s funny for economists to willfully restrict their information set.

To turn Dr. Cunningham’s advice further down the thread against itself, “living in reality is rule one.” Academics are prone to career tunnel vision and judgment of those who don’t have the same academic aspirations so as PhD students inevitably absorb an academic myopia through osmosis, their definition of success needlessly narrows. It happens subtly, but it can be powerful and when not considered mindfully, toxic. Being in tune with your personal values is part of countering this. The academics I least respect are very bad at this.

Combine this with well-documented proliferation of stress-related mental health problems of grad students and an unforgiving market for professorships and you’re needlessly setting yourself up for a greater and largely manufactured fall later on, if not in the first-year cuts, then later on the job market or on the tenure track. Having experienced many successes but also much more failure than the typical student in my position, I see some of my lifelong high-achieving peers’ inability to consider or relate to doing anything less than excelling at the task or objective put in front of them as a weakness.

Third, for those with less research experience, it is ridiculous to expect to feel so passionate about the field that you cannot imagine doing anything else. First-year economics material in particular is dense and theoretical and surely removed from the stuff that drew people to pursue a PhD. A lot of it is fascinating, but it’s undoubtedly the vegetables of the PhD training process. Feeling less than totally committed to spending six years of your 20s to 30s at below-market wages when your only exposure to academia is being examined on upper hemicontinuity is—it cannot be said enough—extremely sane. First-year course material is unlikely to directly inspire your eventual research agenda; it’s healthy to maintain a longer-term perspective and remind yourself that what you do in first year isn’t the job.

Fourth, conditional on passing, your coursework grades don’t matter. I find this is difficult for some of my peers to internalize, but it really doesn’t (except in Chicago apparently). Sure, some professors will have a better impression of the top performers, but that’s a pretty tenuous and intangible reward for overexertion and will be forgotten and replaced by progress on your research anyway. The relationship between the two is weak; I have first-hand experience with this and know of full professors arguing this point internally to reduce the mental burden on first-year students.

Finally, it leads one to view their cohortmates—who should be sources of support and future collaboration—as potential adversaries. This was reportedly the case in some programs that waived the preliminary exam requirement conditional on meeting thresholds for coursework performance. This should probably be familiar advice, but its triteness doesn’t make it untrue: I would not have made it through first year without the collaboration of my cohortmates.

I can have a competitive streak at times, but I also spent first year purposefully trying to reject the incentives to view cohortmates as competitors. For example, whenever possible, I tried to share my typewritten notes with my classmates ahead of midterm and final exams. Spending entire days producing them, there was of course a part of me that felt people were freeloading off my work. But refer to points 1 and 4: no grad student isn’t working hard enough and the odds that the usefulness and quality of my notes would come back to haunt me so directly that it proximately caused my failing the program are negligible. I think getting over the trepidation to help others at personal cost is healthy in any context even if not strictly Pareto. What made it really easy was my classmates doing it first and reciprocating. Culture is endogenous.