Getting Through Graduate School: Advice from Beyond the Battlefield
“If you could go back in time, would you do it again?” It’s a question I’ve been asked more times than I can remember. If I knew what getting a PhD entailed, would I still have gone for it? I wish I could tell you “Absolutely”, but the truth is more like “I don’t know”. What I do know is that going through graduate school is life-changing. It is an experience that is often rewarding. Other times, it makes you question who you are, what you’re doing, and whether you are good enough. I know that because I’ve been through all of that: the self-doubt, the despair, the anger. With time, drawing on my experience, and that of scientists around me, I collected bits of advice and shaped them into tools that helped me soldier on and make the best out of graduate school. I’m sharing them here, hoping they will help you as well:
Don’t get Discouraged
Even now as a professional, I still get frustrated and self-doubting when an experiment doesn’t work. Rather than fighting these feelings, I strongly urge you to simply acknowledge them. Then, tell yourself that this too will pass. Keep moving, even if it’s in baby steps. At a particularly difficult time in my Ph.D. program, my mentor offered the following analogy: Imagine you are driving and you happen to hit all the red lights. It will take you longer to reach your destination, but this doesn’t mean you’re a bad driver. The same goes for your research project. You may, and most likely will, stumble into some obstacles. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad scientist. You’re just hitting some red lights, but with patience and perseverance, you will get to your destination. This nugget of advice meant a lot to me at the time, and has become a mantra that to this day I repeat to myself.
Learn to Troubleshoot
An equally exceptional and scary thing about graduate school is that it teaches you to be self-reliant. Whether it’s planning an experiment or following a protocol, you’re mostly on your own. We all follow certain established protocols, but you’d be surprised at how many details are left out of the materials and methods sections. Don’t be afraid to deviate from protocols or establish new ones. More often than not, you will have to test many variations on approaches, and choose the one that best suits your needs. You will make mistakes, and that’s perfectly ok, as “mistakes are the portals of discovery”, according to James Joyce. Again, don’t get discouraged. Change variables, and try again, and again. This is how you learn. When my PCR doesn’t work, I’ve learned that the first variable to change is the annealing temperature. With time, you will amass a bundle of these tricks up your sleeve.
Ask Questions in Graduate School
Whether you’re in class, in the lab, or attending a seminar, ask questions. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed, no one will think less of you. This is what you’re in school for.
Document, Document, Document
Write down your work in every single detail, because NO, you will NOT remember, take my word for it. I made it a habit to write down, even what seems like boring details, and to date every scrap of paper I write on.
Learn the Ins and Outs of Methods
Don’t blindly follow the kit directions. Know what is in buffers P1, P2, and P3 in your mini prep kit, and learn what they do. This will be tremendously helpful when trying to troubleshoot an experiment.
Cultivate Good Relationships
Develop good relationships with your peers, especially lab members that you see and possibly work with every day. I know that some people will be hard to get along with. Try to not indulge in their insecurities, and don’t let them question your capabilities. You don’t have to get along with everyone. But you do need to be civil and respectful. Remember, you cannot control other people’s actions, but you are responsible for yours.
Network with professionals outside your department/school. These will be people you meet at invited seminars, conferences, and workshops. You never know—your paths may cross in the future, and some of these individuals may help you land a job or advance in your career.
Make friends outside of work, friends who won’t constantly ask you about your cell cultures or your data analysis. They will undoubtedly be helpful in giving you a different, unbiased perspective, especially when the going gets tough.
Every once in a while, pat yourself on the back. You’ve earned it. You’ve already come so far. Stay brave!
I leave you with this quote from the author Cheryl Strayed: “We don’t reach the mountaintop from the mountaintop. We start at the bottom and climb up. Blood is involved.”
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