This blog roundtable is part of a series about graduate school – why do it, what is it like, and what to do afterwards. I encourage you to give your own opinions in the comments section, and if you disagree with a point made by the panel, voice your opinion! This is something a lot of my readers can relate to, so I’m hoping to hear from all of you. Note that these are the opinions of those involved, and do not reflect our institutions or departments in any way. For a full list of the questions, read the first post.
So we come to the end of our merry adventure. We tackled a lot of very specific issues, but I wanted to give the panel an open mic – if there was anything else they would like to add, and anything they wished the could go back in time and tell their undergrad selves when they were applying, this is the place to do it.
But before we get to that, let me first thank all the readers who have commented and read this series. Your feedback has been great, and I’ve really enjoyed putting this series together. If you do have any other feedback for me as to the format, ways I can make this more interesting next time, suggested ideas for next time etc, please don’t hesitate to let me know.
Also, let me thank the panel for volunteering their time (although if I meet up with them, I owe them *at least* a coffee). They’ve been really supportive through this, and their answers have provided multiple perspectives which has been enlightening.
So, moving on to the last prompt given to the panel: What does it take to be a successful graduate student? Are there any last minute tips/advice/inspirational words you have for budding graduate students?
Don’t compete with your peers however much you want to. You will want to talk about your manuscript acceptance, your timely and significant results, your upcoming conference presentation, your top-of-the-class grade, or how much your supervisor drools over your work hours. But don’t. Just shut-up. If you have a close friend in the program that you are NOT competing with – share with them. Not some random in the hall that you see every couple of weeks. Your parents, partner and close friends are the people you should share this stuff with. The more you gloat and brag the more your peers will resent you and try to out-do you. Please do your part to end this never-ending vicious cycle.
You have to be willing to see your graduate studies through to the end. The last stretch of your studies can/will be painful and exhausting, but very much worth the effort in the end. My last tip would be, get to know people outside of your department. Being social with people outside your field will do wonders for your mental sanity. For me, I joined the Queen’s Swing Dancing Club and met many interesting people, who are still good friends.
Graduate school has deeply broadened my view of the world. I have never once regretted doing what I have done. For those of you wondering if graduate school is for you, first of all, you need to be motivated, a self-starter, and independent. You need to be someone who is interested in the world and wants to continually learn. And finally, you can’t be afraid to ask questions.
The most important trait I’ve seen in my successful peers? Intellectual curiosity. You’re going to be in school for *years*, and if you’re headed to academia, you’re talking about research for the rest of your life. Go to talks outside your department. Read journals outside your field. Talk to people on different tracks (Cancer Epi, Infectious Diseases, whatever) about their research. Graduate school isn’t about the classes you take and your particular project. It’s about the process of going from someone who takes in information (undergrad) to someone who generates new information.
And it’s really cool. Enjoy!
If your department is hiring a new faculty member, get involved as the student representative on the hiring committee. It’s a great way to learn about the hiring process and is an invaluable experience if you intend to pursue an academic position after graduating.
Don’t forget to have fun – there’s more to life than research and academia.
Strongly consider whether or not a lab environment is the right fit for you personally. Do the students get along well? Are they happy to be working in that lab? Will your partner be happy in that city? These are things that will influence your grad school experience as much or more than the research itself, and it’s important to consider them when making your decision. And if you really are not enjoying your grad school experience, there’s nothing wrong with leaving the lab, or grad school altogether. In the end you’re much better off than staying in a program that you don’t enjoy.
Atif (me!) (twitter):
The two most undervalued traits are tenacity and enthusiasm. Graduate school is fun, but if you can’t take the criticism and tedium involved in collecting, analyzing and writing about data, then you’ll have a very long and tiring experience. Being able to keep going when your SAS © code isn’t working, when your data makes no sense, that is the toughest part. Feeding into that is enthusiasm. More so an issue at the PhD level, but if you’re excited about your subject, it’ll make the process much more enjoyable. Personally, when people start talking to me about childhood obesity, I have to consciously refrain from talking as I know that once I start, I’ll go on for hours (which was part of the reason why I started this blog!)
Above all, know when to step away. There will always be papers that need to be read, tables that need to be made and manuscripts that need to be written. Make sure you take time away doing fun things so that you enjoy your experience, and also so that when you do get back to work, you can look at things with a clear mindset.
And so it comes to an end. Readers – do you have any comments for your graduate school peers/those who stumble on this page via Google?
Thank you again to the panel – this wouldn’t have been nearly as successful a series without their support. I highly suggest checking out their respective blogs, and following them on Twitter if you are so inclined.