15 Lessons from a First Year Grad Student
School is starting again! When did this happen? And I only just realized it because the new first-year graduate students in our program have recently started their rotations.
I remember what it was like to be a first-year. I remember all the mistakes I made. And I felt inclined to share the lessons I learned again to hopefully save some other first-year graduate students from putting themselves into the funk I got myself into! So here, you go!
**Originally published on my original blog, Unstoppable Grad, and then on The Fit Nerd**
After I completed my first year of graduate school, I escaped with relatively few physical and mental side effects. Let's face it, no one gets through unscathed. I do, however, feel like I learned a number of things about myself, but also about the process.
After I finished my first year, I shared my top 15 first year suggestions and life lessons to help ease you into graduate school.
1. Build a good social group now, because only they will help you maintain your sanity. This was one of the first things I did when I got to graduate school. I inserted myself into as many things as I could and totally was "that girl" who was loud and made her presence known because I wanted to make friends, and I can't tell you how important those people have been to my mental health as I've struggled through some really stressful times. Make this a priority, because you will need these great people more often than not during your first year, and no doubt throughout graduate school.
2. Don't take your stress out on your friends. We all get stressed, and sometimes that stress turns us into crazy people unlike our usual selves. But don't take that stress out on your friends. I've done it. You feel like an ass afterward. The best advice I can give is just let your friends know that you're dealing with a lot and if you feel like you will snap at that, apologize in advance or just be honest and let them know that you're going to be kind of quiet so you don't take things out on them.
3. Holing yourself up when you're busy and stressed does not help anything. I naturally gravitate toward studying by myself. My feeling has always been that I am good enough at distracting myself (I'm writing this blogpost right now instead of reading articles for my next rotation), and other people can often worsen that. But, when you're really freaking out and stressed, sometimes the worst thing you can do is hide and study by yourself. Trust me. It only amplifies you're stress, because you have so much time to spend in your own head going over your to-do list. Sometimes you need those people around to take those 5 minute study breaks and just gossip or laugh at a YouTube video. Sometimes those silly stupid study breaks with friends are the best medicine.
4. You will fail in your rotations, but that's okay. Oh my god, this is huge! I can only really say that 1 of my 4 rotations went fantastically. My first rotation, there was unforeseen contamination issues and a delay in a shipment that literally stalled me for a week and left me twiddling my thumbs. My third rotation, I literally couldn't get anything other than a PCR to work. (And then the next rotation student came in and successfully completed in 2 weeks what I couldn't do in 8). My third rotation, I could not for the life of me get a protocol to work that had been used tons of times before in the lab. Moral of the story - things won't work! But don't worry about it. Keep trying. Keep plugging away. 90% of science is perseverance and that's something you want to show that you have to your potential mentors.
5. Practice really does make perfect and there really are some things you just won't feel comfortable with for a while. There are some aspects of the scientific process that just take time to get good at. Some people are naturally good at them, and other people struggle. For me, reading papers analytically is challenging. I struggled through some of my courses this semester because of it. But, I think I unofficially earned the most improved award on our paper critique exams in bacterial pathogenesis award. So, that in and of itself shows how much doing something over and over again can definitely lead to your improvement. Even with something as simple as reading a scientific paper.
6. Imposter syndrome is a real thing. I'm eventually going to dedicate a whole blog post to this thing. People scoff at and laugh about imposter syndrome and how it's "so dumb." But, having experienced this for the majority of my first year and having still experienced this on occasion, I can tell you first hand that it's real and true. I do still on occasion feel like I don't deserve to be in this program. My peers are so smart, so analytical, so naturally able to do some of the things that I struggle with. I've often questioned how I got into this program alongside them. You have to trust in yourself and the process. Our program director, Lori, tells us all the time - "We admitted you for a reason and we know you can do this!" You have to trust in that and that will come. But I'm telling you that this is real and you're not alone in feeling this way. You'll have to find a way to cope, but if this is how you fell know that I was right there with you and it will get so much better. More to come on this later.
7. Don't compare yourself to other students - older or in your class. There's a reason why I put this lesson below imposter syndrome. They're linked. I felt like an imposter because of the people around me and my perception that I didn't measure up to them. They were so intelligent and made such good points in our bacterial pathogenesis class, often things I never had thought of. I felt like the stupid one who was just comedic relief. But, you know what, I realized the last dayin that class that I did have value and that I was explaining things to them that had come so easily to me. I am good at looking at oral presentations. I own techniques that I have been exposed to and can very easily apply and analyze them in the literature. I am good at the big picture. Other people don't have those skills, but are good at spotting missing controls or are more focused on details like the holes in an experimental technique. We all have different strengths and different weaknesses. So don't compare your weakness to someone else's strength.
8. Admitting you're struggling is never admitting weakness, but strength. Let me put this in perspective - I wrote a post on my old blog called "The Overly Confident Rotation Student". 'Nuff said. :-) But seriously, asking for help or clarification is never a bad thing. Even if you think it might be a stupid question, it is better to check just for clarification! **See post**
9. Plans don't often work out - so be flexible. I feel like this is generally a good life lesson, but it's never more true than in graduate school and especially in lab. Let me just say right now that you're going into science and stuff doesn't work. A lot. I can't tell you how many times I very diligently planned out my schedule trying to push things forward, only to have some unforeseen hiccup throw everything off and derail my well thought out plan. Planning is good and time management is great, but stuff is going to go wrong and you're going to have to back track, rethink, re-do. So, try your hardest not to get frustrated or deterred when that happens.
10. The older students in your department are the most invaluable resource you have. I don't know what else to add to this statement other than, please please please get to know the older students in your department. They're so beneficial. They've taken the classes you've taken before. They know the people in the department. I'm still rotating to find my lab when everyone else has already chosen (I'm being picky) and they have been incredible helping me to find my next rotation. Of course they tease me and always say stuff like "first year problems" or "oh you're such a baby!" but I love them despite their teasing because they're living proof that all this insanity and stress is survivable.
11. Seriously - enjoy the little things. The other day, a guy walked into our lab that I didn't know. I was listening to music and a song came on that I really liked. Let me preface the next part of the story by saying that nothing in lab has been working lately, so I really needed a pick me up. This song came on and I smiled, turned it up, and started dancing like an idiot at my bench. Like 7th grade dance moves. It was horribly embarrassing. And this guy walks by and goes, "Well that's looks enjoyable!" I can only imagine how embarrassed I must have looked. I was waiting on something that was thawing, so that I could repeat an experiment for the zillionth time with the billionth change I had made and that I had little faith would work. So, yes, I busted a move to a song I enjoyed for no apparent reason. It was awesome and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Embarrassment or not. So please, enjoy the little things.
12. A healthy lifestyle is not a priority unless you make it one. So, if you want it, you have to work for it. If you haven't gotten this from my blog already, I am adamantly against making the same mistakes I made in undergrad when it comes to my health and fitness. And if you don't recall, I posted previously, , about the atmosphere in academia and how health and fitness get put on the backburner. See this post where I address my experience with the attitude people have about fitness in graduate school. Even today, in my new rotation, I was asked how I keep myself motivated on my own, without someone to push you or a workout buddy to keep you accountable. I never know how to answer those questions. If you want it, you have to motivate yourself, because ultimately that commitment to yourself and your health is the only thing that will keep you on track. So if you want, work for it, and make sure it gets done.
13. Don't rush choosing a mentor. Take your time and choose the right place for you. I am in my fifth lab rotation. You're only required to do two. You're allowed to choose your permanent thesis lab after April 15th and 90-95% of my class did join their permanent lab. But I didn't. And you want to know why? Because I'm picky. I want to find a great mentor, with a project I'm excited about, in an environment that is supportive, enjoyable, and amenable to my getting my work done. I have found that in a couple labs, but there are extenuating circumstances to consider in those places. So, I'm still rotating. I'll find my thesis lab. It will happen, it just hasn't happened for me as easily as it did for some of my peers.
14. You'll never regret having a life. I have said since the moment I got into graduate school that I need to find a mentor that understands that I have a life outside of lab. It's as true today as it was last July when I started here. I have played sports, joined comedy clubs, completed fitness programs, chilled by myself reading and playing music, and maintained two completely distinct, very tight friend groups (both in and out of my department). Find something that works for you. Hell, find multiple things that work for you. Because nothing will give you longevity in your graduate career like having a distraction that you can turn to when school gets frustrating or science just isn't cooperating. Have a life outside of lab. You absolutely will not regret. But you will regret making lab and class your life when things aren't going well and your mental health is suffering. Please, if you listen to one thing I say, listen to this.
15. Be your own best friend. This might seem contrary to a lot of the other things in this list. But, what I'm trying to say is, nobody can fill the void of you supporting yourself. You have to be your own biggest motivator, cheerleader, and liberator. You have to give yourself a pat on the back. You have to allow yourself to have a break. You have to keep yourself accountable and motivated. Nobody else can truly do those things for you.
Well that's all for now! I really hope it was helpful! Let me know if you have any other questions!