Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Beginning Grad School

Graduate School Blues

Graduate School Blues (Photo credit: ChiILLeica)

Fall is the time of new beginnings. For many that means starting at a new position such as grad school. This is a big transition. The following post is from a women who just started grad school. Enjoy!

My first week at the university where I was going to spend the next 4-6 years I went through what I would call “academic shock”. Now we all go through it whenever we change our level of education: elementary school to middle school to high school to college. Every time we are scared to death of change or the unknown and walk around with our eyes bugged out bigger than a Panic Pete Squeeze Doll. For some reason though I was sort of annoyed that I was being squeezed again at age 22 (and getting lost on campus countless times despite a map…). I remember telling my boyfriend (who is in graduate school already) that, “I’ve been through this, I’ve done the drill, why does it all feel new again and I feel so unprepared?” He smiled and said, “It’s different. You have no safety net like as an undergraduate. You typically don’t know anyone [like high school friends going to the same college] and this time there’s less people in your boat so you really do feel alone.” My first reaction was to make fun of how “good” at consoling he is but he really did have a valid point where it made me stop and think. When it came to the other “academic shocks” you did it with an entire class. My classes of 2009 and 2013 were all Panic Pete Dolls right along with me. This time there were only two other Ph.D. students in different rotating labs on different floors or in different buildings. Everyone I had met so far had been incredibly nice and open but they had their lives set where I was feebly trying to construct mine.

So you are probably wondering where the positive advice comes into all this right? It’s week three for me so I don’t have all the answers yet but I have found some basic things that I think anyone would say are good pointers.

  1. Over the summer try to get in contact with your professor you’d like to rotate with at least once. Ask to meet people who you will work with in the lab and if you can go over project ideas or if they recommend any papers relating to overall lab goals. Take a genuine interest in what you’re doing early and you tend to have a little bit of a sanctuary in your lab before you get there. I knew a few people before I actually started my semester so when I got a lab bench next to one of them I didn’t feel awkward talking to them or asking questions. Also if you hadn’t during your visit the first time to the school, be sure to try to ask people what classes they recommend and what helped them in their research.
  2. Read, read, read! I don’t mean once you get to your first week of school. I mean if you have a general idea of what you’ll be doing for research the first semester, read over the summer. Don’t go in blind, you are continuing your education for a reason and to be honest it’s not undergrad life anymore, it’s a job. I read two review papers and two research-related papers three weeks before school to get an idea of what the lab was like.
  3. Obviously be yourself. You are here for 4-6 years, they will find out eventually and there’s no point in trying to deal with the stress of a charade on top of all your other responsibilities. You are allowed to not know everything in your field and you are most definitely allowed to be as silly, serious, funny, awkward, charming or whatever quality you have to the uttermost you.
  4. If you have an interest, ask about it. I don’t mean about your field, you’ll have plenty of time to ask those questions too. I immediately began asking students and faculty about my three favorite topics: food, music, and hockey. Not only am I genuinely interested in these things, but then I can also get a feel for what other people have interests in. I have found so far no one in my department likes hockey, but hey, now I know not to invite certain people to those functions! Food and music are the best topics because not only are you finding out where to go but what kind of food people like and what music style. I like to think of it as “First Date” topics with your department. As soon as you find a mutual like you can do the awkward first date thing and ask for a second date… as in ask them to go with you to their favorite restaurant or get a group to check out some music that everyone seems to like. Don’t be Pepe Le Pew where you are throwing yourself at people without taking any social cues but what I’m basically getting at is welcome back to your freshmen year of college where you have to put an effort to make friends. If you are yourself and just casually ask people here and there to things you want to explore in the area I guarantee you will adjust very quickly.
  5. Other than it being mandatory (for most departments anyway), seminar is a great way to get to know your department and other research going on in your field or other fields. I know of at least three schools that have a lunch afterwards with the guest speaker and the other seminar attendees. Pay attention, take notes during the talk, and especially don’t be afraid to ask questions afterwards. I found so far that I am beginning to recognize faces and talking to more people in and out of my department after only three seminars.
  6. This is my last piece of advice but I find it most important above everything: Keep your sanity.

I see so many people not do this, and it’s very discouraging. Yes, graduate school is demanding and requires a lot of time, but balance is everything. Let me try to explain from an undergraduate perspective first. Before I went to graduate school, I was very lucky and had a boyfriend and a lot of friends already in graduate school. I was given plenty of advice from Masters and Ph.D. students and the most repeated thing I heard was, “Make time for you, because I didn’t and I wasn’t happy for most of my time here.” There was one girl I talked to at a friend’s party who is a very successful Ph.D. student but she literally looked like the soul was sucked out of her and wasn’t even happy that she was finishing up that year after 5 years. Balance is key to everything in life but especially when you are in graduate school. It is easy to get wrapped up in your research, take work home, pull late nights, and go into the lab on the weekend etc. Obviously there will be times when you have to do that and there is nothing wrong with that either; however, also be sure not to burn out. So my graduate student perspective is this. What I have been doing is that on Sundays I go grocery shopping and do my errands so that on Monday after my courses and lab work I go home and have a cooking session. It’s a destressor for the beginning of the week: put on some fun music and cook out a menu for the week. This is great too because lunch and dinner are all set so I know I’m eating healthy and keeping up my energy for the next 7 days. Also I am trying to have one thing to look forward to every week, whether it’s a 2-hour show at some dive bar on a Thursday or a farmer’s market/festival on a Saturday or even a corny/fun department gathering. I still allow time to go into the lab if needed late at night or on the weekend but I also have something of my own too. I know people who will do a bike ride or go fishing at least once a week. Having something that is not work related is as important as doing well in work. I remember a professor once said to me, “Work as hard during the week as you play during the weekend”. If you can do that, you shouldn’t fall behind in graduate school or lose yourself either.

Truth be told, we can prepare all we want but to be human is, well, human. You submerse yourself into a new environment, new people who already have routines, new learning experiences as you acquaint yourself with your research, etc. You put yourself in a completely new life and if you’re not scared, you are doing it wrong. The good news is that if you look at graduate school as a fluid, fun, learning experience where you work as hard as you play, you will enjoy all the ups and downs it brings.

Hope you liked that story and thanks to the WomanOfScience contributor for writing. Would you like to post some advise?

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