Grad school can be difficult and isn’t always a breeze; sometimes you don’t want to deal with something that isn’t working right. It has taught me how to cope with rejection and most importantly how to recover from “failure.” I’m about 100% sure at some point in your graduate career you will feel failure of some sort—especially when experiments don’t work… But hey, if everything worked the first time, you’d get a PhD in one year (side note: that would be awesome). Sometimes, I took critiques from my early years in grad school personally—they hurt, and I became anxious and frustrated. The constant repetition and the feeling that what I was doing was insignificant were tough. But as I pressed through, eventually all my worries, doubts, fears, and all those criticisms faded away. I had to mature and overcome my frustration and realize that in each failure there is a valuable lesson. And as long I continue to be persistent, there is a chance that I can attain the successful science career that I still dream of and be happy with my definition of success. Now I see clearly that “failure” is a normal part of grad school or at least it is for us non-perfect folks. Today, I can say that graduate school has made me a much better scientist, and I value the training/education that I have been fortunate enough to receive up to this point.
Advice: Keep your head up, cling to the will of pushing forward, and most of all, look at the bigger picture. Success has to be hiding around here somewhere; it’s just up to you to find it.
When I began grad school, feelings of anxiety and insecurity had me thinking that I was only getting results —at least that’s what it felt like. I continued to work for results and quickly started to recognize that there is not an end to this undertaking when I worked that way. So, grad school taught me to focus on the fine detail and how to be decisive. It is vital to be careful and painstakingly careful, particularly meticulous and scrupulous. There is a world of difference between an “ng” and a “µg”. Being one “0” off can throw off an entire experiment. Thoroughly planning each element of your work is crucial. After all, the main goal of most scientists is to publish peer-reviewed articles. And why do an experiment ten times when you could only do it three? The time you spend working is valuable—more valuable then gold in my opinion. I’m just saying, in a million years, gold will still be here, but most likely you won’t.
Advice: Realize that there has to be an “end” to the story. Well, there is never really an end to any story. Your project could go on indeterminately and a new graduate student could pick up the slack. My point is that focusing can be your motivation and light at the end of the tunnel. So ask yourself: What experiments do I need to do now and in the fastest amount of time in order to publish and graduate? Plan your experiments thoroughly and cover your bases. With this focused approach, you can quickly shoo away nay-sayers and disgruntled reviewers.
As grad students, we must have the capability to clearly express our ideas—in person and in writing. I have learned that grad school is nothing equated to undergrad. Specifically, you are entirely on your own—communication is fundamental. Keep in mind that there are different levels of communication (i.e. your lab mates, your adviser, your specific scientific community, and with the community at large). During a co-op I did a few years ago—my supervisor told me “you have to be able to talk to everybody — from company executives on site for a visitation to the gruff guys out in the sun all day covered in motor oil — because you need all of them to make this plant as a whole run properly.” This lesson still applies to my science and our science community here today. Each level of communication requires a slightly different approach in the way of speaking and conveying the information. They’re all important, both for us as individuals and for moving our research forward. Just think, you wouldn’t write a job cover letter the same way you would write an NSF grant. Believe me when I say it would be a bad feeling when you have discovered something new or interesting and can’t clearly communicate the significance of your finding to your peers. Precisely for that reason, grad school “forces” you to cultivate certain character qualities and develops you into a more enlightened and stouter person. It forces you to seek answers and to speak up, to absorb information more quickly, to put your own pride aside, and to apprehend that you are all in it together to advance scientific research with a common goal to better human life.
Advice: Grad school “forces” you to strive for answers and to speak up. So don’t sit quietly confused; be loquacious. Remember, write and communicate for your audience whether it’s a room full of cursing sailors or a nursing home– communication is KEY to your success so use it wisely.
Grad school develops you like a ripening fruit on a branch full of seeds, each eagerly ready to grow into its own tree someday. Basically, it’s about the journey that shapes you into the productive PhD, not the destination. Try to enjoy your journey and be grateful for every lesson along the way, even the bad ones. Never be afraid to ask for help or to give help to those in need. Offer up your expertise and network– you never know where these interactions could lead. Don’t try to do everything alone; it’s okay to depend on your friends and family to help you through tough times and to keep you motivated. Be social and get out of the lab from time-to-time, enjoy the sunlight and a nice road trip. Keep in mind that persistence and attentiveness, time management, writing/communication skills, analytical/critical thinking skills, and creative problem-solving are chief. Try to become the person that an undergrad or perspective graduate student can look up to. Finally, the moral of this story is “focus on your nested goals” – to be victorious you must find glory in the little things. And in my opinion PhD is a million little things carefully put together to make your bigger picture. Remember that your primary goal is to get a PhD, but your little goals along the way; the year, semester, month, and week aren’t to get a PhD, but make visible steps towards that ultimate goal. So hammer away at the mountain called PhD– knocking off little bits at a time.
“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” -Benjamin Franklin