Early in my graduate student career, I simultaneously dreaded summer and longed for it. I felt dread because finding a summer job is notoriously difficult where I live and longing because I, like many of my colleagues, needed a respite from the demands of the academic year. I had bought into the myth that academics get the summer off.
Yet, what I realized pretty early on in graduate school is that the summer doesn’t exist outside of the academic year. In fact, it is very much part of it. As I begin the final lap in my PhD program – where I’m focused on making revisions to my dissertation for a Fall 2018 defense – I see the summer as a time to recalibrate and to check in with myself about the bigger picture of my career.
In part because I will be working with undergraduate science writers next academic year, I wanted to venture across the quad to chat with my colleagues in STEM fields about how they spend their summers. Do they simply have a better sense that the summer is another part in the long march of the academic year or is there a notable transition for them? What kind of faculty expectations do they face about progress in their academic trajectory? Do they look forward to the summer or is it a time of additional worries (financial or otherwise)? How do things change as they progress through their degree program? And, what advice do they have for their colleagues?
What I learned is that things are variable and a lot depends on how your advisor is funded, something that’s pretty different from those of us in the humanities. I talked with two colleagues: Momina Sims, a doctoral student in Public Health, who studies the globalization of food and the epidemiological nutrition transition among the Miskito people (Nicaragua), and Edwin Murenzi, a doctoral student in molecular and cell biology, who studies the effects of environmental toxins on mammalian brains (juvenile and adult).
Edwin’s research is lab-based and he is funded through his advisor’s grant so the funding part of his transition from semester to summer has very few, if any, speed bumps. On the other hand, Momina’s research is fieldwork-driven and it turns out public health can have a tenuous position as an in-between field, making it harder to find funding from the usual suspects, such as the National Science Foundation or National Institute for Health. So, a major takeaway for early career graduate students or even those applying to graduate school is to learn as much as you can about how students are funded during the summers as much of your summer work expectations will be influenced by that fact.
For Edwin, the summer means full days in lab without the additional burdens of managing teaching responsibilities and a high number of meetings. He says, “I can truly focus on troubleshooting because most experiments don’t go right most of the time. There’s more failure than there’s success. [In the summer] I can pick up on what’s going wrong quickly, but during the semester, it might take me a couple of weeks to figure out the same thing.”
By contrast, Momina will be far away from our campus, spending this summer in Italy at the University of Brescia through the Mount Sinai International Training/Exchange Program for Minority Students. She’ll be collaborating with a researcher who utilizes food frequency questionnaires, a method she is considering using in her own study on Miskitu women, an autonomous Afro-indigenous group on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Effectively, her work this summer will expand her skills and knowledge base as she develops quantitative skills to compliment pre-existing strengths in qualitative research methods. Given that she’s at the comprehensive exams stage and has summer funding for the first time, she’s eager to immerse herself in the methods of her mentor at Brescia. She added, “Planning is a really big thing: both at the big picture of the whole program and year-to-year. Have a funding game plan: what are the options and deadlines? Who are the trustworthy letter writers?”
A proponent of using the summer to broaden one’s horizons in a way that re-energizes the research, Edwin laments that he didn’t spend more time during his first few summers building stronger writing skills in addition to his (significant) contributions to his lab. He told me, “I’m a bench scientist. I’m struggling [now] with the discipline to sit down and write [because] I feel more gratification doing an experiment. I can’t get that from my writing.” Even though he has a strong publication record – several first authorships on articles – and enjoys writing creatively, he is still figuring out the contours of writing for his field.
Momina, who craves structure, said that a multi-disciplinary writing group she joined has supported her transition between the teaching part of the academic year and the “on your own” summer period. She noted, “Unfortunately, negative experiences do really teach us,” referring to previous summers where she had to cobble together several jobs to make ends meet financially, leaving her little time to make progress on academic goals. This year, having connected with other students to figure out funding avenues and having an outside writing group gave her the tools she needed to substantially expand her research goals.
Momina and Edwin’s experiences show that mentorship is a critical aspect of the graduate student training, whether that’s coming from faculty advisors or colleagues who are more advanced in the program. Our conversations also demonstrated me that there are more similarities between our experiences and needs than meets the eye. For instance, the variability and precarity of summer funding that Momina pointed out to me is a shared experience. The same goes for Edwin’s concern for developing sustainable and discipline-specific writing skills. While it’s true that graduate school is a time for us to figure out who we want to be as a teacher, researcher, or writer and to play an active role in shaping these identities, we can’t do it alone. Our institutions, mentors, and colleagues have a foundational role in helping us navigate our experience.