Knowing what I know now

Nov 21 2012 Published by under Academia, Blog Carnivals, Uncategorized

I felt very inspired looking at the recent post from Jeremy Yoder, 'Knowing what I know now'. Well, first it reminded me of this:

Though of course this is the BEST song of that title:

But then it made me think of all the things that I WISH I'd known in grad school, the things I did right (though unconsciously), and the things I should have done better.

While I don't have a time machine and can't go back to tell my naive self how to GIT IT DONE, I do have YOU! The grad students who will come after me. And you can benefit from my experience! There have been some posts I've written on this before, I'll try to link to them as I go along.

So here you have it. My entry for the "Knowing what I know now" carnival. 5 things I wish I'd known before I started grad school.

1. You will hit that slump.
THAT slump. The research slump. The writing slump. Usually around your 3-4th year. Maybe again if you're still working in the 7th year. The slump where nothing works. Where going to lab makes you irritable and snappish. Where you hate your PI, your lab, and pretty much your life.

Everyone has it. You are not alone. You can DEFEAT THE SLUMP. You can. Find and talk to friends. Maybe take on a side project, something easy and achievable to get a second authorship. Develop a side skill (teaching or writing, something to develop your CV). Approach your question from a new angle. There are lots of things you can try, but know that you WILL hit the slump. Everyone does, some just lie and say they don't.

2. Organize. Organize and plan. Routine and efficiency are your friends.
Jeremy said something about this as well, and I think it's very wise (it's also the one there here I managed to get right the first time!). After classes are over in grad school, you make your own hours. You make your own research. You make your own productivity. There are very few deadlines, and if you're not careful, you're going to spin wheels and get nothing done. Organize. Write an NRSA or another predoctoral grant. It's good practice, and even if you don't get it, lays out the experiments you will do, and gives you a guideline and a map for where you need to be. Keep a bible (not that kind). Practice efficiency. Make lists, see what you can get done in a day. Learn how to effectively manage your time. This will help you...

3. Stay productive...
...when you get in a slump, productivity can be hard. We make our own hours, and a string of defeats can leave those hours slipping from 8-8, to 9-5, to 10-3, to 12-2...well, crap. And that doesn't look good for anyone. Find ways to stay productive, whether that's developing new skills or new techniques, or just getting the little things done that help your work run more smoothly. Don't let yourself slack. It feels so good, but it ends in panic.

Keep doing what you need to do. If you want to develop things on the side (like, say, science writing or teaching), DON'T let that eat into your research time. Do it ON THE SIDE. Meet expectations. Get your stuff done.

4. ...but don't burn out. Meet the standard, yes, but don't work yourself to the bone to exceed it. I've seen way too many grad students burning the midnight oil til there's nothing left to burn. The end result is not pretty. I used to tell people when they joined the lab "congratulations! By the time you leave, you will be an alcoholic, or an untramarathoner. Pick one." These are extremes, but I have seen both, and it highlights the kind of stress and constant desperation that you go through in grad school. This is because, no matter how well we are doing, we grad students are competitive. We know now that tenure track jobs don't come free. The demanding lifestyle of science is glorified in the scientific culture. Don't buy into this hype. Do NOT give in to the pressure to over-exceed all expectations. Meet expectations. Exceed them when you can. But take breaks. Stay sane. Seek balance. Balance means that you won't always be the absolute best at what you do. But that's ok, because...

5. Welcome to the world of average.
Many young grad students come into grad school out of a stellar undergraduate career. We had two majors and 10 extracurriculars. We excelled at all of them. And held down a side job. We did undergraduate research. Even at our Ivy League specialty schools, we were above average.

This ain't undergrad anymore. When I started undergrad (at a rather prestigious uni), the president gave us a speech. In high school, he said, we were all in the top 10% of our class. But now you're here, he said. And that top 10%? That's now 100% of your class. The message is: YOU WILL BE AVERAGE.

But for those of us going to grad school, it gets even worse. You see, most of us were in the top 10% of THAT top 10% in undergrad. Among the above average, WE were above average. Well guess what, now those 100 people who were the top 10% or higher of their Ivy League schools? These are your new colleagues. These are the grad students you will meet, work with, and compete against.

You WILL be average at something. You'll be BELOW average at something. If you haven't failed a test before, you will. If you haven't made a very, very stupid mistake before, you will. If you haven't made bad choices...oh you're in for a lot of those.

And that's ok!!! It's really OK!! It will teach you things. It will teach you HOW TO FAIL, which is something that some people have never faced before grad school. It will teach you how to fail, get up, and try again.

Don't let yourself lose the perspective though. You're still in grad school. You're still in that tiny percent. You may have failed once, but you're still smart, you can still do this. You can get up, and you can try again. After all, all those people around you? They are doing exactly the same thing. They will fail things, too. They will mess things up. And they, and you, will learn from it, and go on, and do great things. When you are down, in that slump, remember that. Learn what you can, get up, and try again.

Does anyone else have any advice? What are the things that you learned on the way that you wish you'd known? Let me know in the comments, or better yet, write a post and submit it to the carnival!

6 responses so far

  • Don't waste time and energy on lab drama. If there is an asshole in your lab, do not engage with her; instead, develop workarounds to avoid her issues.

    (Obviously, this applies only to routine narcissistic selfish assholishness. If someone is a genuine harrasser, that needs to be dealt with head-on by the PI, dept chair, etc.)

  • Dr24hours says:

    Planning to survive failure is critical, and no one told me or taught me that.

  • NatC says:

    For those super independent stubborn types -- Learn to ask for help. Not all the time, but when you genuinely are stuck. Or you don't know how to do something, or an extra pair of hands will make the experiment doable rather than impossible but trying anyway. Asking for help is NOT a weakness, people WILL NOT judge you for it, it will feel less like slamming your head into every wall in near proximity, and you will learn things.

  • Sher says:

    I just got out of grad school with a Phd recently. I cannot stress enough the importance of having friends outside you're grad school environment, who I referred to as "normal" people. They will show you how there is more to life than running samples in a lab, or working on a figure obsessively for 10+ hours. Also, take a day off from work every 2 weeks (and not feel guilty about it). Don't think about grading, writing, supervising or anything on that free day. I would also recommend indulging in experiences such as going to the museum, seeing plays etc and doing things that you really love. It will help you get by the days that you're really burnt out. Finally, remind yourself that you're doing a job. Many might not acknowledge it, but the hours you will be working are much longer than a full time job. Give yourself credit for it.

    • joatmon says:

      Sher, I have to disagree with you. I love what I do so much — I don't even see it as work at all. Science is so fun!

  • [...] Scicurious recommends keeping a bible (not that kind) to help stay organized. [...]

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