A little bit about lessons learned in graduate school

Last week was my last week in lab and, thus, my last week as a graduate student. So many mixed feelings went through my body last week and it propelled me to write this post about the end of graduate school, the things I’ve learned, and the things I am thankful for and not so thankful for.

Although, I defended my thesis a few months ago, I was still working on a few things and had been in and out of lab in between the traveling I did (more of my travels to come later 🙂 ). BUT all things must come to an end, and given that I start medical school in a few days, it was time to close this chapter in my life.

So, what nuggets of wisdom can I share with you all regarding my journey through graduate school? I guess, I can best describe it as it was the best of times and the worst of times. I can also definitely break it up into things that I am thankful for and things that I wished I had skipped all together. So here goes….

  1. The people. I have met some of the nicest smartest people in graduate school. I’ve become friends with a lot of these people and they have been a huge support system especially as I was nearing the end of graduate school. I have also met some of the nastiest people in graduate school. I think that as with everything in life, graduate school can be very competitive and unless you are rooted in believing in your own capabilities, sometimes the insecurity of graduate school can turn graduate students into not so nice people. I am glad to have encountered both of these kinds of people because they have taught more about life and how to deal with situations that make me uncomfortable.
  2. Life happens. Being in your twenties, especially your early twenties, while graduate school happens can be challenging. Your twenties are such a transitional time and having a high stakes project to work on on your own for the most part can be overwhelming and challenging. When this happens in the context of living in NYC in your twenties and having your life continue- relationships end, friendships fall apart, family members pass away- it can be overwhelming. Yet, this is life and when I first began grad school it was hard for me to realize that I was entering adulthood during this time and that my life wasn’t going to pause. With this lesson, grad school taught me to really keep perspective. When things were really bad personally, my project was falling apart, and the pressure to be successful was real, I realized that the only thing in my control was my perspective. With perspective, I’ve learned to be happier and to remind myself that this is just one (huge) step in life, but that there many other step stones to cross in the future.
  3. Your lab matters. Had I known more about mentorship and lab dynamics when I started my PhD, I would have been more selective in my lab choice. I think getting a PhD in a prestigious/selective institution already comes with a lot of pressure on it and it also comes with a given amount of competition that is inherent in the culture of these institutions, so the choice of lab is really important. Could I go back, I would choose a different lab. I would base my choice on finding a lab that was more prestigious, that published regularly in good journals, and where mentorship existed at multiple levels (from the post-docs to the principal investigators). Although, I have no regrets about the lab and the work that I ended up doing and grad school is hard for everyone, I do think that the choice of lab is really important. It is important to really scrutinize labs before you commit 3-6 years of your life to them.
  4. Your mental health matters. I am not sure how it works at other institutions, but there is little open talk about mental health in graduate school. Grad school is hard. It is especially hard when this is the first time in your life where you will fail at something and it will be for a prolonged period of time. Given that a lot of the grad students I have encountered are Type A individuals, it is perfectly normal to feel disappointed or bad when things don’t work, or you didn’t get that grant, or your boss has been ignoring you for the past six months and you feel lost. Even though, grad students do form this network of support for one another, not many of us talk about taking care of our mental health until things get pretty bad. Although I had moments of feeling low during grad school, I always managed to pull through, but speaking to other grad students now that I have graduated, it had become even more evident that everyone has felt really down at certain points during their PhD. I wish that the culture in graduate school was more open to talking about these issues, because not all of us can pull through, and it’s important to just talk about the fact that mental health matters…no matter how busy you are, what next deadline is, whether your boss has certain expections etc etc.
  5. This is the time to assert yourself. I was very mousy when I first started grad school. Part of that was not being confident enough because I didn’t know the field. However, one of the things that I am most grateful for is that grad school taught me to be confident and to assert my opinions in an informed and educated way. This was accomplished through all of the public speaking I have had to do over the past few years and because I’ve had to defend every single idea that I’ve put forth. This has taught me how to be confident in a good way. It has empowered me to have a voice and to not allow anyone to diminish my opinions. This isn’t only about science, but also about life. I’ve learned so much about setting boundaries, reasserting my opinions, and this has grounded me in so many ways.
  6. This is the time to travel and still not take yourself too seriously. I traveled quite a bit during grad school. I could have traveled more, but I am glad that I did manage to get away and see the world a bit. I wish I had traveled more and taken my job as a grad student a little less seriously. As I go through different parts of my training, I begin to realize that taking yourself too seriously is not worth it because there will always be more responsibility, more work, more adulting to do, and this can create unnecessary stress. So, if I had any piece of advice for my younger grad school self it would be, “Work hard, be a boss, know your shit, but also have fun, be twenty, go out more, and don’t think that this is the end of all things because you’ll have to grow up and learn so much more in the future.”

These really are my last thoughts on graduate school. I am grateful for this journey. For the ups and downs, for the tears and arguments, for the science, for the moments of feeling like a failure, because they have all contributed to me being more grounded and more myself.

I wouldn’t choose to do this again, but I also know that I wouldn’t have chosen to do anything else with life. I really enjoy science and my PhD gave me an opportunity to do this, what I didn’t know though was that life is challenging as well, and combining both science and life, proved to be more of a challenge than I anticipated. Yet, I am so grateful that it did and I wouldn’t change this path or the obstacles that presented themselves over the past five years!

xoxox,

M

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