the doctor is in

I defended! I still can’t believe the big day has come and gone.

I thought about writing a lengthy narrative reflection of my time in graduate school, the best and hardest experiences, and everything I’ve learned that wasn’t about brains. But you don’t want to read that and I don’t want to write it. One of the things I learned was to use bullet points whenever possible, and to be concise. Well, concise on the scale of me.

So instead, here are three things I’m glad I did, and five things I’d travel back in time and tell myself in 2013 that would have saved me a heck of a lot of stress.

Three things that I’m glad I did, in no particular order:

  • Being organized and writing everything down. I didn’t try to memorize my calendar or to-do list or reminders. It’s 2018, we got apps for that. It saved so much cognitive effort that I could then put towards the stuff that actually mattered, and helped me not miss deadlines. Plus then you look so smooth when people ask questions.
  • Kept my CV up to date. A specific, and very important, subset of writing things down. Whenever I did something noteworthy I marked it down on a ludicrously exhaustive list I keep just for me, and then I never had to try to reconstruct my work when I went to make focused resumes. There were already enough things to do in the graduation/job hunt process – I’m glad I saved myself that.
  • Having non-work outlets – specifically, creative, exercise, and social. Much of grad school (and post-grad school work for former grad students) is knowledge based – it doesn’t actually produce anything tangible and involves a lot of sitting at a computer. It’s been a valuable contrast that my hobbies either result in creating an actual thing, mostly fiber crafts, or a big event, even though there’s lots of writing and knowledge work in advance of mystery parties and plays/rehearsals. Besides the physical benefits of exercise, tennis forces me to step away from everything else and just go whack little felt balls around a green box for an hour. And both my creative hobbies and tennis have become social outlets themselves, with different people than my friends that I see regularly. It can be tempting to neglect socializing on the altar of productivity, but that is such a terrible idea. Not only will you burn out from the frantic pace and isolation, but then your friends will have drifted away. I’ve seen this happen to to many people and I’m glad I put in the effort not to.

Four things would have told myself five years ago, in no particular order:

  • Be your own advocate. A lot of people are invested in your success – your advisor(s), other mentors, students in your lab or program or school, administrators, friends and family, and so on. They want you to succeed, but they’re not keeping track of the details of your work and life like you are. (Details which you know intimately on account of having written them down!) If you need help, you have to ask for it – the only person watching out for you is you. Keep track of your paperwork, follow up on lost emails, ask for help when you hit a dead end. The people around you gave you an offer to grad school and invited you into their labs because they thought you had potential, and if they’re worth their salt (see next point) they’ll help you, but only if you let them know you need it.
  • Pick a lab based on who you will be working with – your advisor and the rest of the lab – not what you’re working on. I got so, so lucky that I stumbled into a great working environment when that wasn’t one of the criteria I was naively using. You can find fulfillment with a wide variety of research questions and tools (that are related to your general interest), but if you dread going to campus every day, you’re not going to be a productive scientist, let alone the fact that you’re unhappy and that itself is a problem. (And this is true for non-science positions too!) Of course, what constitutes a good advisor and lab varies from student to student, but my main point is just to have thought about what works for you. Which brings me to…
  • Protect your mental health. Slow down, reflect, ruminate, and most of all, talk to people. If something is causing you problems or stress, see if you can eliminate it. For me, this means taking the time to slow down and think and talk precisely at the busy periods in my life when I don’t feel like I have that kind of luxury. Burnout and isolation make you less productive, not more.
  • Especially if you are interested in non-academic or non-research careers, what you do outside of lab really, really matters. This includes participating in career-building programs, volunteer programs, student government or committees, and even fun stuff that is completely unrelated to your professional interests. You build important non-technical skills like project management and event planning, develop a network (in an organic way that doesn’t feel like “I’m networking!”), and learn more about what you like enough to keep doing after graduating. I did this, but early in graduate school I didn’t fully appreciate how important it was.

None of these are groundbreaking or particularly controversial insights, and most of them aren’t even specific to grad school. But the process of coming to consciously recognize them qualitatively changed my experience of grad school and life outside grad school, not just improving it, but moving it to a different and better category altogether. In retrospect, it took me about 2.5 years to learn how to do grad school properly, which left me 2.5 years of being a student where I could really take advantage of this meta-knowledge.

I hope that by hearing about my experience, you can reach that point sooner, and to leave yourself the time to go to the next level of understanding of working and learning since you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

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