Advice from a recent grad school graduate

Sarah here –
If you’re applying to graduate school, have recently started, or are even a year or two into your program, I’m sure you’ve gotten tons of advice from professors, current students, the internet, random strangers, all over. I hope you’ll read this, anyhow-I hope that my advice will be a little different from the others from whom you’ve already listened.

Jen and Sarah presenting their workshop material at the National Science Teachers Association meeting in Nashville in 2016.
1. Find friends (and colleagues!) From the minute you step into higher education, it can feel very isolating. You take classes with the same people; you research with an even smaller group of people; often, you don’t even know other graduate students from outside your department. It’s a big change from undergrad to grad school, for sure, and even more than that, oftentimes, graduate students are pressured to compete with one another. It’s the sad truth, but there are limited resources-your advisor’s time, grant money, etc.-our first instincts are to compete with everyone around us to get ahead. In reality, there will always be a little bit of competition, no matter what. But what is often missed is that graduate school doesn’t have to be this a lot of the time-nor should it be. You’re surrounded by some of the best and the brightest around. Why not take this opportunity to learn from them?
If I had to pick the most important relationship I made out of graduate school, it wouldn’t be with my advisor, with my committee, or with contacts I made at conferences. It was my labmate, Jen. She and I traded every single piece of our written work back and forth and we edited them mercilessly until they were flawless-grant proposals, emails, papers, job applications, you name it. We encouraged each other through all of our applications, even though we applied to all of the same ones-and many times, one of us was chosen while the other wasn’t. We’ve come up with research project ideas for the other, and some that we could collaborate together on. While we were competing for the same grants, we never actively competed against one another and put the other down. As a result, I have a wonderful friend, an editor, and an irreplaceable research collaborator, all in one. When graduate school felt unbearable, I’d turn to Jen for help, and without fail, I’d feel like I could handle it again. This relationship is so important; academia is hard. You need someone that you can trust and someone who can remind you of how far you have come-everyone needs some kind of support-don’t struggle by yourself. Everyone is struggling, even if they don’t say it. Be that uplifting person for someone else-be humble, be kind, and build a supportive community for you and your fellow classmates.

2. Find a hobby! Many of us feel like hobbies take away from the whole reason we’re in graduate school-to learn! We need to read papers and research and teach (and sleep-but only if we’ve finished work!). This is probably the worst thing you can do for yourself. Grad school is isolating enough-don’t further push yourself into a bubble. Find a hobby-a club, a new sport, anything-to join. Go every week. Don’t make exceptions, even if you feel like you’re just too busy-make your one or two hours a week just as mandatory as your classwork. Make friends outside of your department and even-dare I say it?-outside of academia! I didn’t do this during my master’s degree-I spent two years at the office from 7AM-9PM most days (including the weekends). I was lonely, miserable, and as a result, I don’t think I performed as well as I could have. During my Ph.D., I took up Middle Eastern dancing-once or twice a week-I made many new friends, learned a new skill that had nothing to do with geology, and most importantly: it gave me something to look forward to every week: a reward for surviving another week of graduate school. My second hobby, which wasn’t something I did in a group, but was so healing all the same: reading for fun. I made both of these a priority during my Ph.D. I read for fun 15 minutes a night before bed (yes, even on nights I went to bed at 4AM) and always went to dance class. You’d be surprised what having hobbies can do to restore your happiness and sanity.

Sarah and Jen presenting fossil material to the local Girls Inc. chapter of Knoxville!

3. Do some outreach! I’m a paleontologist-this means that I get to spend my days talking about dinosaurs and playing in the dirt (even though I don’t study dinosaurs). This means that I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to talk to countless K-12 classrooms and to fossil collecting clubs. A lot of people view this as a waste of time, that it might take away precious time from research-sure, you could look at it that way. But here’s what I got out of it: by all of these interactions-from working with girls’ after school groups to teach them confidence, to talking to families about the rocks they had collected, I learned to talk about my science in very understandable terms to all kinds of people. Communication isn’t a very easy skill-many of the scientists I meet at conferences, even scientists within my discipline, have a hard time explaining their research, even to other scientists. We forgot that if other people can’t understand your work, you’re not doing the best job that you can. My work with kids and non-scientist adults has given me so many opportunities to try different explanations and pictures so that I can talk to just about anyone about what I do-this has even helped me learn how to speak to scientists outside of my discipline. Also, consider what got you interested in science-a lot of us will remember learning about dinosaurs or volcanoes or something that really excited you. When you talk to these kids, you’re showing them that they, too, could become the next generation’s scientists. If you’re a woman, or a person of color, a veteran, a person with a disability, or someone who is LGBT-this can mean even more to kids who might not have had any idea someone like them could ever become someone like you. So go call an elementary school or find a local group that you can go share your love of whatever it is that you study-it will make you a better communicator and you might just be the inspiration for the next amazing person in your field. I know when I’m stressed or even sometimes really considering whether I made the right career choice (who hasn’t wondered that in academia?), being able to share my love of fossils with people who think dinosaurs are just as cool as I do is one of the best things to remind me that I am doing the thing I love most on Earth. Share your passion! You won’t regret it.

Grad school can be an amazing experience, as much as it can be a very stressful one. Remember to take time for yourself, share your love of science, find colleagues that support you, and try to be that uplifting person for someone else. It’s worth it.

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