My graduate school friends and I often say to each other, “The struggle is real!” I truthfully believe that during graduate school, no matter what position you are in, the struggle can sometimes seem very real for multiple reasons.
Let me begin by explaining what I do.
I work in a biology lab where I have a project that I have been developing for the past three years. The eventual goal is to wrap the project up, write and defend my thesis and publish something in a reputable scientific journal. All of that sounds relatively straight forward, but it isn’t mostly because you have to deal with life, politics, and the inevitability of the science you do sometimes just not working. So, the struggle becomes really real.
I think that now that I am in the third year of pursuing my PhD I have a better understanding of the process, so I thought I should share my thoughts on this struggle. At the beginning I took the struggle very seriously and now I take it with many many many laughs and usually I’m not too hard on myself.
So here goes…
- Life happens while you are in graduate school. When I began, I was in my early twenties. I was in a very serious relationship, which fell apart. Then I got injured pretty badly and had to refrain from doing most physical activity (which was my lifeline back then). This taught me that life happens and you have absolutely no control over it. This can be dizzying at the beginning of graduate school especially when you are trying to establish yourself in lab and your head is all over the place. The beginning for me was a struggle exactly because, as a girl in her early twenties whose life seemed perfect and had been successful at everything til then, nothing seemed right at the beginning of grad school. I had to learn how to cope with the craziness of my personal life quickly in order to focus on getting my PhD. I think one of my lifelines has definitely been living in NYC. There is so much to do here and it is easy to pick something to do and have a relaxing day. Even though life happens, NYC has helped me to realize that one thing I am in control of is of how I feel about the situations in my life. I can’t say that I found all the balance I need in life, but I constantly work at it.
- If your PI (aka boss) is happy, you will also be happy. Whether graduate students like to accept it or not, if your boss/PI is happy with you, then your life will be much much better. Getting a PI to be happy with you involves getting your project to work and being a team player in lab. Getting you project to work will definitely make your PI happy, but it is not always a guarantee because no matter how brilliant your idea is, the project might just not show what you hypothesized. Being a team player is much easier. PIs like students who are independent, engaged, who make intelligent comments, who ask questions and who help others in lab. At the beginning of graduate school, you literally feel like a deer in headlights, so this might be a bit difficult. Back then, I had a bit of trouble defining my project and wanted a lot of input from my PI, but it became clear that my PI expected me to be engaged and independent. I hated this with a passion because I thought I wasn’t getting the mentorship I deserved. However, in order to survive, I had to adjust fast and become this independent graduate student. Being this independent from the beginning has been a challenge because I made really stupid mistakes that could have been avoided had there been more mentorship. However, independence also pushed me to think for myself and to be able to figure out how to solve a problem without needing someone to hold my hand. I can’t say I’ve mastered making my PI happy, but I work hard at making sure that my project keeps on moving and that I am as independent as possible in the journey to finishing my project.
- Most of the science you do will not work. I think that most of the experiments I’ve done in lab have not worked at first try. Being an overachiever practically all of my life, coming to the realization that things just didn’t work and I had little control over them, was the hardest thing when I began graduate school. For me, it was hard to acknowledge failure, but I came to realize that it is part of the training process. I realized that if you do not fail, you do not learn. I used to take experiments not working very personally, as though the world was attacking me, but now I don’t anymore because it is not constructive at all and inhibits progress. Instead, when things fail, I usually just think through what I can do to improve the experimental setup or what would be a better experiment. The earlier any graduate student gets to this realization the better their time in graduate school will be. After a year of beating myself up over things not working, or my project just not going in the direction I envisioned, I came to terms with the fact that I was doing my best and that was enough for me.
- Impostor syndrome is real. Unless you are completely narcissistic, you will feel like you are an impostor in lab. By this I mean, you will feel like you are not smart, good or knowledgeable enough to be a graduate student or to even be teaching other students as you move up in the ranks in your lab. This also hit me pretty hard at the beginning of graduate school. I felt like every word coming out of my mouth about my science was something I knew nothing about. I felt like I wasn’t good enough and like I would never be good enough. It didn’t help that experiments were also not working then. Unfortunately there is no solution for this, other than to acknowledge that it exists and use it constructively, rather than destructively. I used my feelings of being an impostor to push myself to be more knowledgeable and to absorb as much as I could. I also used it to push me to think outside the box and move my project forward. Now that I am a more “senior” graduate student in my lab, I sometimes still feel like an impostor, but a more knowledgeable one at least. I think that being a woman- add to that a minority woman- has a contribution to me continuing to feel like an impostor, but I’ve learned to cope and use it to my advantage.
- Asking for help is ok. The best resources in your lab are going to be your PI and the postdocs and graduate students in lab. The PI might not always be there, but keeping them engaged in your project is essential and also getting them to give you some ideas that you can follow up on (or disregard) is really important. I think that this interaction with the PI prepares you for the “real” world when you have to have everything ready to make your pitch for whatever you are working on. The relationship that you have with your lab is also important. Although not all labs harbor the best environment (I know that some are uber competitive and not nice), it is good to have strong relationships with a few postdocs or graduate students in the lab. The postdocs are really helpful because they have been through the PhD training and can help with troubleshooting or by just giving you ideas. Other graduate students can also be helpful in doing this, and they can also help with morale especially when things are not working (after all you are in the same boat 🙂 ). At points where I have felt completely stuck and just not motivated, I have leaned on the wonderful postdocs in my lab. They have provided emotional support and also given me some great ideas on how to approach a problem. I always treat them with a lot of respect and actually listen to them because I know they know better (at least in my lab) and that they are looking out for my success. So make friends in lab and ask for help when you need it, there is nothing wrong with admitting you don’t know what you are doing or are having trouble.
To reiterate the struggle is real and graduate school has been one of the toughest and most character building experiences of my life. Even with this loaded statement, I don’t regret doing this at all. Despite the ups and downs of my project, I still love science and all the questions you can ask and answer. I still love this feeling that what I am doing, and what others scientists are doing, can benefit humanity in the future. After all, if it weren’t for these scientists, many treatments wouldn’t be available for so many diseases.
I also don’t regret graduate school because I’ve met some of the most amazing people here. Feeling like the struggle is real has bonded some of my friends and I completely because we realize that we are all on the same boat. We all know there is a light at the end of the tunnel (aka graduation), but until we reach that we have each other to rely on. It is nice to have that sense of family. It is nice to know that there are other overachievers out there who have the same struggles as I do.
Another thing that I should add here, and that has added to the stress of my graduate school experience is that, I am one of the crazy ones that decided to pursue both a MD and PhD ;). I can write more on that if anyone is interested.
If you have any questions or would like me to elaborate on these things, feel free to leave a comment. Your thoughts are always welcome :).
Happy Wednesday everyone!