Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined. – Thoreau
To all the incoming [and returning] grad students – congrats on getting to this point! These are exciting times. You’re about start down a path that’s both exciting and engaging, but also challenging and demanding at times. For many of us, this was also a nerve wracking time. Impostor syndrome and self doubt are nasty little monsters, and if you’re anything like me, you will have to make a concerted effort to control them. Rest assured, almost everyone has these feelings to some extent! More importantly, if you've made it to this point, you have what it takes to make it in grad school!
Grad school is challenging though. My undergrad advisor told me ‘it’s a bit like stepping on a rake.’ While my advisor was most-definitely exaggerating, there are some big adjustments, especially if you’re coming straight from undergrad. Below are some tips on how to dodge getting hit by the metaphorical rake. The major themes include: (i) don’t your let insecurities get in your way, (ii) learn to effectively communicate with your team, (iii) be kind to both yourself and others!
(1) Learn to communicate effectively. Have you heard the joke about the extroverted scientists? They look at your shoes instead of their own! [Womp womp…] My point here is that communication isn’t everyone’s strong suit. BUT, even awkward introverts like myself can learn to communicate effectively.
(2) Learn to manage your time. Every group is different, but most grad students have a ton of freedom. This freedom is one of the benefits of grad school. However, without discipline, it can lead to disaster. For many students, this means they end up over committing themselves. Helping friends with their field work; taking on a leadership role in a student organization; or signing up a service learning trip over spring break. These are ALL great things. BUT, over-committing leads to burnout – which will adversely impact the quality of both your life and work.
One other note here -- I suggest treating grad school like a job. Keep regular hours (i.e., 8-5), avoid working nights and weekends, and set boundaries on your time/availability. You might also consider tracking your hours. I did this last semester, and it was really eye opening how I allocated my time. I was able to use this data to both improve my efficiency and cut out waste!
(3) Take responsibility for your research and academic progress. Your advisor is likely jugging A LOT [e.g., teaching multiple courses; administrative responsibilities; writing grants; advising multiple students; the list goes on and on]. Further, they are not infallible. [I think my students can attest to this last point!] Thus, it’s your responsibility to understand your degree requirements, to be aware of important deadlines [and the maze of associated red tape], and most importantly, take the lead your research project.
(4) Discuss and define expectations with your advisor. Every lab, and even different projects within that lab, are different! Make sure you understand what your role is and how you should execute that role! Note, your PI might not think to explain this to you. [Many of us don’t have adequate management training after all…] So, ask them…
(5) Learn to set reasonable goals, and then revisit and adjust those goals regularly. At the beginning of each semester, I develop a list of short-term (i.e., month timescale), mid-term (i.e., semester time scale), and long-term (i.e., multi-year time scale) goals. In this processes, I also evaluate the previous semester – what worked, what didn’t, and how do I improve. [Note, most employers will ask you to do this periodically. However, I find it’s more helpful when I can do it in a non-formal setting!]
(6) Be kind to yourself. Self care looks different for everyone, but its absolutely critical. For me, regular exercise and [atleast] 7 hours of sleep are important. Unfortunately, these are also the first things that I drop when time is short. I’m learning to be more disciplined and make these non-negotiables. When this happens -- I’m happier, more alert at work, and ultimately, a better scientist for it.
(7) Be kind to others. Invest in folks your research group and department. Normalize teamwork – help your team mates with their lab and field work; offer to read their paper drafts; and regularly check in to make sure they are doing ok. Consider doing things outside of work with these folks as well – grab coffee, go to happy hour [if that’s your thing], or go on a hike! Building community [and trust] is important. When conflict does arise [and it most definitely will], be respectful and remember your lab mates are people too!
(8) Get a good notebook, and take notes in every meeting. At a minimum, write down both the meeting agenda and action items. If your advisor is giving advice, write that down too. [We have fragile egos, and it makes us feel important….]
(9) Make sure you have access to a good computer [and if there’s a global pandemic, high speed internet]. While some schools/labs provide students with computing resources, other do not. For example, in my lab we have two work stations our group shares for computationally intensive tasks. However, students are expected to have their own laptop for school work. Luckily, there are many cloud based resources like Office 365 and rstudio.cloud available that reduce the need for high powered machines!
(10) Enjoy yourself! Grad school is incredibly engaging and a ton of fun! Explore new disciplines, make new friends, and take the time to learn skills you are interested in!