Ten years ago, as a high school student, I decided to become a scientist. Now, in the late stages of my PhD program, I want to reveal some (public) secrets to those thinking of entering graduate school, or in the early stages.
It’s about you. Graduate school is a personal journey. It is important to realize early on that the main role of your advisor is to enable your professional success. Their own success depends on this! It might sound strange, but you are not working “for” your advisor; you are working “with” your advisor. This requires more than experiments and papers; above all it involves your personal and professional growth. Make sure to keep this in mind throughout, and don’t be afraid to ask your advisor for more/different types of guidance.
Mentorship. The scientific apparatus is pyramidal, and this is especially noticeable in large research groups, with important consequences for mentorship. In a large group, graduate students rarely interact with their advisor. Instead they work under the supervision of senior colleagues. This type of environment works well if you have already a fair amount of research experience, clear research goals, and the skills/means/self-motivation to accomplish them independently. Choosing a mentor is more important than choosing a research topic (mentors are lifelong relationships, topics are transient!). Make sure that you are comfortable with the level of independence and the style of mentorship before you apply/choose a thesis advisor. It helps a lot to talk with current and previous members of the group, especially in casual/informal conversations.
Financial struggles. Graduate school in most institutions means that you won’t make much money (after all, we are here for the science!). Although this is not a secret, what might surprise you is that schools often advertise on their websites and during interviews a certain monthly stipend/salary, without really letting you know of fees that the institution takes, local/federal tax obligations, particular regulations for external fellowships, and other “hidden” costs. Before joining a program, make sure you understand your finances; you don’t want to deal with financial struggles while pursuing your degree.
Personal relationships. Many students move cities when getting into graduate school. As your “local” set of friends/family are not accessible anymore, especially if moving abroad, it can be hard to establish new relationships, even more when your research duties take most of your time and energy. It is important to give yourself the opportunity to explore your new environment and get to know people. It will take time and effort, but it will be worth it!
Mental health. Graduate students experience depression/mental health issues more often than the general population. Despite this public secret, most institutions (and academia as a whole) do little to alleviate the situation. This unfortunately means that you need to “look out for yourself,” which can be particularly hard when undergoing emotional stress. Try locating professional help (therapy, counseling) within/outside your institution. Check on with your peers. Mental health issues are still stigmatized, and thus some of your colleagues might be hiding their struggles.
Networking. Yes, it is important to network, but you should not feel pressured to do so. Many scientists are introverts and might feel ‘awkward’ approaching ‘strangers’ in meetings. A full-fledged conference might be over a week long, and thus quite “socially exhausting.” It is okay (even recommended!) to not attend all sessions. It is better to be selective: which talks are relevant to your work? Who would you benefit talking to? Chances are that you will attend multiple conferences during your graduate program, so it is fine if you missed “that” talk everyone is going to.
Changing your mind. Scientists learn to question everything, even their own life decisions. It is very normal to doubt your choice of joining a graduate program. It is important to recognize if being a graduate student makes your life miserable, in which case it is perfectly fine to leave your program. It is your own growth that is important, so you should not worry about what others might think about your decision. In fact, leaving academia is normal at any stage (even as a professor), and it can lead to a more fulfilling life. Academia is only a temporary component of your life; it is not your life.
Graduate school seems to be an endurance test, and this is true in many ways. But it can also be extremely rewarding, not only on an intellectual level, but in a very personal one. However, “the system” has been broken for a while (on this everyone agrees). It is our responsibility to fix it, no matter our career stage and our background; after all the “science community” is more about people than about “science” in the abstract.