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Advice for grad students: own it.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Recently, the always brilliant Jeremy Yoder put up a fantastic post with some unsolicited advice for getting through grad school. Then, he (on the advice of the ever-infallible Scicurious), decided to make a carnival of it: “Knowing What I Know Now”. He put out the call for everyone’s best tips. I happen to have been thinking a lot about this lately, and am more than happy to share my experiences. What follows is a mix of advice and just what happened with me, for better or worse. Hopefully it helps.

Before I get started, though, let me explain where I am in this whole process. Right now I’m still in the thick of it. I’m three and a half years into my doctorate degree, with an approved proposal and my comprehensive exams looming around the corner. So this isn’t advice from a veteran, per se—it’s advice from a fellow soldier, down in the trenches right now, still fighting the good fight. Maybe I’ll have different advice in a few years, but for now, this is what I know.

First off: don’t start until you’re ready. I remember feeling the pressure junior and senior year of undergrad. Everyone was talking about what programs were best for what, what advisors to chase or avoid, what GPA you needed to get in—it was all anyone talked about. Have you figured out what schools you’re applying to yet? Have you contacted potential advisors? What research do you think you’re going to do? The worst was one day senior year when I went to the movies, and upon presenting my student ID to get a discount, the teller said “I went to Eckerd, too! Graduated two years ago. What are you majoring in?” When I said Marine Science, she cheerfully replied “ME TOO!” It was like a punch in the stomach. It really felt like those were my options: either get into grad school somewhere, or look forward to a dazzling future selling movie tickets. The pressure was on.

Trouble was, I was still very much lost. Yes, I had research experience, but of all the things my undergraduate research project taught me, the most obvious was that I hated counting mangrove leaves. I was not the extreme field biologist that my advisors were. Similarly, while I’d dabbled in a few other research experiences through volunteering and internships, nothing felt like it fit. I liked a few things, but did I like them enough to spend the next five years doing them? To bet my career on them? As senior year came and went, I made the scariest decision of my life: I didn’t apply to grad school.

Instead, I applied to jobs. I hoped that getting a little more experience before committing myself to a degree program would help me figure out what kind of scientist I wanted to be. The little tastes of molecular biology that I had gotten in my lab courses was enough for me to think maybe, just maybe, that was the field for me. In the end, I spent two years as a research assistant studying adenosine signaling in heart cells. Guess what? The biomedical field wasn’t right for me either. But by the end of it, I figured out where I did fit. I had found my scientific niche, somewhere in between field biologist and lab lackey. When I applied to grad schools, I did so with confidence and conviction. Keep in mind that through grad school, you become the world expert on something—make sure it’s something you want to be the world expert on.

Which brings me to my second piece of advice: find your niche. I was lucky enough to be in a program that required three rotations, which means I spent my first year at UH bouncing between three very different labs. Most people in the natural sciences start with an advisor, and stay with them until dissertation do they part. That’s ok and all, but before you make that kind of lasting commitment, spend a little time and get to know the lab you’re assigning yourself to. At minimum, fly out to your prospective university, meet the man or woman in charge, and talk to their grad students. While people often joke about the similarities between grad school and marriage, there’s a lot of truth in jest. Getting a PhD in particular is a huge commitment, and you don’t want to get several years in and realize you want a divorce.

Yes, you can deal with a bad advisor or an unsupportive lab, but do you want to? Are you the kind of person with an iron will that pushes through at all costs? Some people are. Some people are tenacious, headstrong, and absolutely amazing, and they barrel through no matter how bad things get. I’m not that kind of person, which is why I’m so glad that I got those three rotations to give my potential advisors a thorough screening. Simply put, without those rotations, I wouldn’t be in the lab I am in now, and I would probably be worse off for it. My advisor is a perfect fit. He lets me be creative and come up with insane project ideas, then reels me in and pushes me to actually get things done when it’s time. His co-PI is an amazing mentor, always there with the advice, aid, or encouragement I need even though I’m not his student. And the rest of my lab: well, to put it bluntly, my lab f*cking rocks. As cliche as it might sound, they really are like family to me. Sure, we don’t all get along all the time, but when push comes to shove we have each other’s backs, and support and drive each other to be the best scientists we can be. I have no doubt that my lab mates will be my friends and colleagues for years to come. The other people I have surrounded myself with—my committee members, other graduate students and post-docs—have been my champions, drinking buddies, guides and rocks to cling to when I feel like I’m about to drown. Without the generous support I’ve received to date from my advisor, other mentors, and fellow grad students, I don’t think I would have made it this far. Honestly, I don’t think I would have made it at all. This perfect mix of camaraderie, encouragement and occasional butt-kicking was exactly what I needed.

Figure out what you need. The best way to do that is to follow your passions and instincts. Maybe the lab dynamic isn’t as important to you as having a supportive group of family nearby. Or cats. Or gardening. Find what keeps you sane and helps you keep going forward, at work and at home. Get into good, healthy routines like eating well and sleeping enough. You can break these when you need to, like when that big grant deadline approaches too quickly, but then get back into them. For me, getting a place with a real kitchen was key. I needed to cook, and when I first moved to Hawaii, all I had was a hot plate. It’s funny how something as simple as an oven can make a world of difference.

I’m not going to tell you that grad school is easy. Maybe it will be for you. Most likely, it won’t. Learn to be flexible and adapt, because things rarely go as planned. You’ll be all ready for field season, and your target species will be MIA. Your genius experiment won’t work, or you’ll spend months in the lab trying to figure out the right protocol. It’ll take an extra six months to get the permits you need. Your key piece of equipment will break. You’ll be on the verge of the discovery of a lifetime, and someone else will beat you to publication. Or, if you work where I do, your lab will get randomly shut down for construction for ambiguous and often unreliable amounts of time. These things happen to everyone, and they can feel like impenetrable walls keeping you from your degree. They’re not. You’ll find a way around them if you’re willing to bend in the right ways, ask for help when you need it, and keep your head in the game.

You’re not necessarily going to feel like you know what you’re doing all the time. Hell, I haven’t. I spent the first couple years of my dissertation wondering why anyone let me into grad school in the first place. Couldn’t they see I was far dumber than the rest of these people? Had I really tricked them all into thinking I’m good enough for this? What is going to happen when they finally figure me out, and realize that I can’t cut it?

It’s called impostor syndrome. I wish I had some magic formula for how to shake those cancerous feelings of unworthiness. I don’t. But what I do know is that over the past year, I’ve really come to own my dissertation. I’ve buckled down, focused my research, gotten things done, and crossed that hidden threshold between newbie and senior grad student. Sometime in the past six months or so, when I wasn’t looking, my impostor syndrome went into remission. If I had to guess, I would say that I finally convinced myself, through actions, that I am the scientist I kept feeling like I wasn’t. I didn’t mean to, really. It all kind of happened by accident, a side effect of really making my dissertation my own. Maybe that was the magic cure all along.

So, that’s my last and best advice to you: Be confident. Take charge. It’s your project. It’s your degree. Choose it. Love it. Own it. And guess what? You can not choose it, too. There’s no shame in deciding that grad school isn’t right for you, or that you’re in the wrong lab, program, field, career—whatever. Trust yourself to make the right call. After all, the one thing you are definitely the world expert on is you.

Christie Wilcox About the Author: Christie Wilcox is a science writer and blogger who moonlights as a PhD student in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii. Follow on Google+. Follow on Twitter @NerdyChristie.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. EnvEdChris 7:51 pm 11/15/2012

    This reminds me of the #IAmScience tag that went rounds last year after ScienceOnline. So many people told incredible stories of taking charge when they felt it was right. Some folks went straight through, others worked the ticket counter until they found that thing that made them excited. Thanks for sharing, Christie!

    Link to this
  2. 2. Allie Wilkinson 2:01 pm 11/21/2012

    YOU hated counting mangrove leaves? I was the one you had count all the leaves!

    Link to this

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