Graduate school thus far has been an adventure for sure. There has been ups and downs, a real rollercoaster effect. In fact, I would be lying if I said that I never wanted to quit (I may still joke about it to this day). Is it because grad school is hard? Of course! But I think that it is more than that. In part, I believe it is because I had no idea what grad school involved. As a first-generation college student, I had no clue what grad school was or why it was necessary (or not necessary). Nor did I know that in the sciences you get a Ph.D. for FREE... yes for FREE. In fact, they pay you! It is crazy, right?!?!? Then why doesn't everyone get a Ph.D.? Is it because you must be a super genius? NO-not all. I mean you have to be a good student, but by no means a genius. So why is the world not all walking around as Ph.D.'s? It is because it is HARD (duh, right?) or takes a long time (YES!)? But it is much more than academically challenging, it is also mentally, emotionally, and physically challenging. It takes so much more than I ever realized, in fact it takes all of me. But this does not mean it is not worth it, nor would I take it back. This experience has been unlike anything I have ever done or will do. It has come with amazing opportunities and will (hopefully) open even more doors in the future. But I think that you must really want to get a Ph.D., to truly appreciate the opportunities. If you are just doing it "to do it" you will find yourself beyond stressed and utterly unhappy. Science requires a love of what you are doing or, at the very least, a belief that what you are doing matters. As I reflect back on the last three years, I wish there were things that I would have known before coming to grad school. Things that I really cannot change, but that knowing them would have prepared me for the road ahead. I thought that others would benefit from knowing some of these things, so here are 5 things that I wish I knew before committing to getting a Ph.D.
1. Graduate School is a Lifestyle
I cannot not emphasis this enough! You do not simply just go to school. When you are in undergrad you go to classes, study hard, and maybe do some extracurricular activities. You get fall and spring breaks and summer off. Not downplaying the accomplishment of getting a bachelor’s degree, because it is an amazing accomplishment and it is hard. But you do not live and breathe it, you may worry about a test or a project but there is still Netflix binges and nights out (maybe more then we all want to admit).
Graduate school is completely different. It is hard to put into words, but it is basically just one continuous semester on the same subject. You do not get blocks of time off. In fact, most of the time it takes the university being closed, and honestly this is my favorite time to work because no one is there! This sounds horrible, like forced labor, right? It really is not. You can still take a personal day or a vacation, but it is not an outlined, scheduled thing. These times off are to be worked out between you and your PI (i.e. boss), the person you do research for, and honestly are hard to enjoy because self-guilt often creeps in. "I should be working.." "I am never going to get any data if I take time off.." "now I am behind schedule.." It is often hard to ignore the guilt and sometimes you find that you are your own worst enemy.
But while on the topic of time off and amount of time spent working, I highly recommend you confirm expectations with your PI before entering a lab. All labs are run differently and the expectations varies from lab to lab. There is no right or wrong and it is important that you find a place that fits your expectations of grad school and an environment that you can grow in. This is so very important and is different for everyone. For example, I have 2 young kids and needed a boss that understood that sometimes things come up unexpectedly (illness, injury, cancelled baby sitter, etc.), luckily I have just that! I would never had made it this far if I had a boss that was not flexible (and trust me they are out there). The understanding and flexibility my PI shows me, makes me work even harder because I appreciate her understanding that "life happens".
Now back to science as a lifestyle. You will live and breathe your science. You simply do not go to school for 8 hours and shut off after you leave. Not to say that there is no work-life balance, but I will be honest in saying that it is sometimes extremely difficult to maintain. You will find yourself thinking about your upcoming experiment or reading journal articles way later into the night then you anticipated. Simply put -- you will have moments or days or weeks where you are completely consumed. It is truly impossible to avoid. I mean this is all you do for years and years, and you are invested in it. Plus, unlike undergrad, you do not simply graduate, you have to make "a contribution to your field". *Cue pressure* So not only am I living and breathing my science, but it must mean something too? This can quickly lead you down a rabbit hole. BE AWARE OF THE RABBIT HOLE. Make sure you surround yourself with people who can get you out of said hole.
Grad school is so much more than research. This is where the lifestyle part comes in. There are certain expectations that are placed on you as a graduate student. You must attend departmental events and host speakers. Attend seminars and social events. You are expected to volunteer in student-run activities and recruitment weekends. While also juggling research, classes or qualification exams, teaching loads (if you are not on RA), and mentoring of undergrads. Additionally, you have to go out and disseminate your science if you ever want to establish a professional network. This involves attending scientific conferences and presenting your research, all the while trying to figure out how to pay for said conference (and why is it so expensive, honestly do we have to charge $500 to attend a conference where all (or most) of the presenters do it for free??). You will quickly find that your schedule looks busier than a doctor’s office schedule during flu season. And you will ask yourself, "how can I do this all? There is simply no way". But you will find that not only can you do it, but that you are probably good at it. My advice: One day at a time.
But as a mom, this was hard for me to get use too. Not only because I had no idea that it was a thing, but because my time is already ready filled with school drop off, dance, and swim lessons. I did not come to grad school to find myself or make friends (not to say that I haven't). I came to get a Ph.D. and I thought that meant research and classes. I did not want to stay late on Friday's to socialize or take recruits on "a night on the town". I must say that I am lucky to be in a department that respects that I have a family and does not demand my time when my family needs it. But I think that it is important to be aware that these kind of events and requirements exist and know that you do not just "simply go home" at the end of the day.
2. No One Outside of Academia Will Understand
When I first started my program, we had to take an "Intro to grad" course that was aimed at helping us adjust to being grad students. During this class, we were provided a paper to read that was advise on grad school. Within this document was a statement that at the time seemed utterly ridiculous. The paper stated something like "You will begin to find that no one outside of academia will be able to relate to you or you to them". This seemed virtually impossible. Why would that happen, it is not like I am going to magically be a different person? I am not going far away or undergoing some miraculous transformation. But little did I know, that there was nothing more accurate in that entire paper than that statement.
How does this disconnect happen? I think it is caused by several things. First, you do change, not that it is a bad thing, but you do not undergo a process like getting a Ph.D. and not experience some level of growth. Besides everyone changes over time. I think another factor is what I discussed in my first point. You are grossly consumed on a specific topic and sometimes it is hard to shut that off. Other individuals in academia often do not notice this in you (or understand it because they are also consumed in their science), but to those outside of academia it is extremely apparent that you are not 100% "there". Your priorities no longer match your college friends or your cousin that was your childhood friend, your lives are in different places. The fact is that you are losing similar interests. Once again I do not think that this is unique to academia, people "grow apart all the time", but I do think that it is more of an apparent severing then you may have experienced in the past. You do not fade apart, you just hangout one day and realize that you are probably not going to hangout again. Kind of like when you have a baby and that "party friend" never calls again. These things happen all the time.
Like with friends, extended family also have a difficult time relating. This is not because they do not care, they absolutely do and are so incredibly proud of you. It is just something, unless they have done it, that they will not comprehend. They will never understand how hard you had to work to get that single graph with a couple stars on top. They will not understand that you do not simply graduate after 4 years or that if all your experiments fail you start over. That there is no "A for effort". *Cue the uncomfortable questions* "You are STILL in school?" "When do you graduate?" "What do you mean you have to work the weekends, do you get paid overtime?" "Don't you have the summer off". No matter how many times you attempt to answer these questions, they will be asked of you every-single-time. It was one of those "laugh so that you do not cry situations".
I want to take a minute to clarify this point. While in grad school you do not lose all your friends and stop attending all family events, but like having children, your priorities shift. It is in this shift that the circle of friends you keep may become different and some family events may become harder. Though this can be tough, there are always ROCKS in your life that remain sturdy. That no matter what they are there, they understand (or do their damnest to try), and know exactly what questions NOT TO ASK. They listen to you vent and understand sometimes you need to cry. Hold onto these people with 2 hands. These are the people that will get you through the lows and will celebrate the highs. These "rocks" come in all forms, a significant other, your sibling, or a parent. For me it is my husband, I cannot tell you how many times he has built me up when imposter syndrome creeped in (see below) and gave me a dose of brutal truth when I was being hysterical. I would not have made it this far in the program (or probably life) without him. To summarize, most people will not understand the process that is required to get a Ph.D. (and that is ok!), but you only need one rock to get to the finish line!
3. It Takes Much More than Smarts
Before I ever even imagined getting a Ph.D. I thought only the super smart people, the prodigies, the geniuses got a doctorate. This is so not true. It is not to say that some very, very smart people have Ph.D.'s, but they are by no means limited to only gifted people. In fact, it is the uniqueness and diversity of people that have a Ph.D. that results in innovation and discovery! Could you imagine if everyone fit the same cookie cutter skills and abilities, in any field really? It would be awful and incredibly boring. I am also not saying that you do not have to work hard to get into a Ph.D. program, because you absolutely do. What I am saying is that you DO NOT have to be perfect! You are expected to have good grades and a decent GRE score. Most schools are not looking for straight A's (disclaimer I cannot comment on the standards for ivy league, I have never undergone that processes) and honestly a lot schools are beginning to eliminate the GRE's all together. Why? Because knowledge alone is not reflective of performance. A foundational knowledge, of course, is necessary so that you have something to build on, but you will spend 4-6 years "getting really smart" on a specific topic (i.e. become an expert!). Programs are in no way are already looking for an expert.
Realizing it takes more than smarts is great news (unless you were only banking on your smarts I suppose J). But what else is required, what other skills are needed? While this is just based on my observations, I believe the following skills are useful:
-good time management
-playing well with others (team work)
I do not think that you need to have all of the above skills, but having several of them are key. I also do not think that you need to be amazing at any or all of these, but just be capable of them. Your skills will continuously develop and emerge, but I think that grad school heavily relies on these skills for success and the more developed they are the easier the transition in grad school is. I will briefly address the above skills and why I think that they are desirable in grad school (and life in general).
Organization- as I described above you have A LOT GOING ON and you must find a way to keep track of it. I highly recommend getting a good planner, one that allows you to keep track of not only appointments and classes, but daily tasks and goals. I swear by the Blue Sky daily & monthly planner and recommend it to everyone (I am not compensated for this suggestion, I really do just love it). It has a whole page for every single day (including a to do list section!) and still gives you the monthly calendar. Other people prefer digital calendars. Either way, having a plan for organization and keeping committed to it is key!
Multi-tasking- For similar reasons as above, you have a lot going on. You need to be able to do more than one thing at a time. For some people this is extremely easy, but for others it does not come natural. It takes practice and that is ok, you will get plenty of practice in grad school. Either way it is important that you are capable of multi-tasking. If you have a culture of bacteria that needs to grow over night, that cannot be the only thing on your list for the day (also why organization is helpful) or the next day for that matter (what if it does not grow?). It is inevitable that you will be running several different experiments at one time, while also attending classes, meetings, seminar, etc.. The sooner you are capable of comfortably handling this, the better off you will be (not only in terms of progress, but mentally as well!).
Good Time Management- this is closely related to organization and multi-tasking. Time management is connected to planning. I always layout what I am doing the next day before I leave the lab for the day. That way I have gone over what I am going to do the next day and what supplies I may need. This prevents "surprises" and allows me to assure that I can complete my goals tomorrow. If I needed an overnight culture for incubating samples the next day and I do not do that, I cannot do that experiment. It allows me to plan accordingly. Additionally, you can plan short tasks in between long incubation times. This allows you to get the most done by being efficient. Efficiency makes task completion a lot easier!
Team work- This truly should not be a surprise. Like any other job, you must play well with others. This is of course just as important in grad school. Not only does research involve a team effort within a lab, but also across labs. Science often requires an interdisciplinary team to address the hypothesis and questions at hand (and funding agencies want to see this too). Collaborations are awesome! You want to make as many contacts as possible and you do this best by being a team player. That way, when you leave grad school you already have a record of team work (hopefully a paper trail in the form of publications).
Independence/Accountability- Grad school requires a level of independence and accountability. You do not have someone holding your hand in every task, nor are you held to specific hours. In fact, you have a lot of freedom and flexibility (though the amount of flexibility varies lab to lab). You are expected to get what you need to get done and be where you need be. You may have weekly (or monthly or occasional) meetings with your PI, but outside of that you are expected to report on your progress to your committee ONCE A YEAR. That is correct 1/365 days. I was shocked when I heard that. Though that seems amazing (and in some ways, it is), it also leaves a lot of room for slacking. That is why you should keep yourself accountable. Set goals and keep them. You will have your PI and other mentors to keep you on track, but when it comes down to it, you must do it.
Communication Skills- this is the one for me that was the most underdeveloped. Communication (especially public speaking) can be difficult, but for how difficult it is, it is equally as important. As a scientist, you need to communicate with peers, colleagues, granting agencies, and the community. Having good communication skills will continuously improve as you practice in the form of presenting, writing manuscripts and grants, and collaborations. Having a good foundation in communication will be invaluable in grad school.
Of course, there are a lot of other skills and traits that make grad school just a little bit easier. There is no set list and it will vary from person-to-person. Do not read this list and set yourself into panic. Even without any of these skills at the start of grad school, grad school is possible but I believe development of these skills are extremely beneficial.
4. Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you are an imposter (hence the name). That you are not good enough to be where you are and that you do not know what people think you know. It is this fear that creeps in and makes you feel like, at any moment, you are going to be exposed as the fraud you are. It comes and goes, creeping up as you achieve milestones or prepare for a conference. There are a lot of good information out there about imposter syndrome, so I am not going to spend a whole lot of time on this subject. The reason I included it is because it is a very real thing. What is even more surprising than its very existence, is the fact that it is extremely widespread AND almost everyone suffers from it at one point or another in academia. This makes sense though, right? As academics, you are viewed as experts (or working towards it) and this results in a certain level of expected pressure. What is a little discouraging is that imposter syndrome does not slowly go away as you get confident in your science, as you become an expert. In fact, many highly successful scientist (and celebrities, it is not exclusive to academics) have admitted to suffering from imposter syndrome. The key is to get ahead of it. Acknowledge it is exactly that, name it, and find ways to get past it. This is not easy, but it is not impossible. Not to say you are going to cure your imposter syndrome, but every moment without it is still winning! For ideas on how to silence the self-doubt, check out this awesome blog on ways to try to overcome imposter syndrome.
5. The Opportunities are Endless
I wanted to make sure to end this article on a good note, I in no way intended this to be a deterrent from grad school. I think that grad school is equally as awarding, as it is challenging. I have found it to be a wonderful time of self-growth and personal development, not to say that it has been perfect (obviously from my current reflections). I think that one thing that I wish I knew before hand, that may have had me planning to get a Ph.D. all along, was that grad school brings a wealth of opportunities. I am not talking about after graduation, I mean right now as a grad student. One day you are a freshly graduated college student and the next day you're a graduate student. I am not sure what happens that make you so different in just one day, but one thing is clear – you are different. Suddenly, people look at you differently, treat you differently, and therefore provide far more opportunities. This may be more apparent to me because I went to grad school where I got my B.S., but in any case, I think that it is true. Professors now become colleagues (to a certain degree of course), but you are at least on a first name basis. You are looked to as a leader, a wealth of knowledge. By time you leave grad school, you are of course all those things, but it is a gradual process. Yet, there is no real tier system in grad school, it is more of a flat “grad student status”.
Though this seems scary, in many ways it is fantastic. You have the power (and you should use it) to make a difference. You can mentor undergrad students, to inspire others how you have been inspired. Students looking to you for wisdom is a nice confidence builder as well and, trust me, you need it. Mentoring also provides you valuable (and marketable) skills for the future. To show that you are able teach and guide others is exactly what future employers (and granting agencies) want to see. There are opportunities for outreach as well. I am biased to this opportunity because I absolutely LOVE outreach. I think it is so incredibly important to bring STEM to the community. As a grad student, you can not only lead outreach events, but you organize them too. I have planned events start to finish, with no question in my ability to do so. There are other great opportunities that have come from grad school thus far, I have started this blog and the website it is hosted on, I have found a community of scientist on Twitter that shares an amazing wealth of knowledge, participated in "Meet as Scientist" Events at Phipps Conservatory, and I was involved in #scicomm events such as “I’m a Scientist, get me out of here” where I chatted with school edge children answering any and all questions they have. These are just a few opportunities that I may have never had if I was not in grad school (not to say it is impossible), that were at least in part inspired by grad school or simply through the exposure I received while in grad school. Everyone’s journey will be different, but in any case, I believe that there are unlimited opportunities in grad school -- you just need to find what interests you!
In closing, graduate school is what you make of it. It can be a wonderful, exciting time or it can be a horrible experience. Or something in the middle, neither here-nor-there. Hopefully, knowing what is expected of you will help with the journey (would have helped me). However, if what you are doing feels forced or is truly a bad situation (unfortunately this can happen), make a change, you owe it yourself. In all things, stay true to yourself no matter what!