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Megan Poorman completed her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at CU Boulder. When she's not disappearing into the mountains, you can find her on twitter @meganpoorman or on her website.
A couple of weeks ago I was back at my Ph.D. alma mater to walk in my graduation ceremony. It was surreal being back on campus—buildings had changed, new labs existed, and new faces abounded. I have been a “Dr.” for almost a year, and it felt odd to come back just to put on a funny gown and hat. But, it turned out to be worth it. Walking was exciting and emotional, and it brought some closure to my graduate school experience when I was hooded by my Ph.D. advisor to cheers from friends and family. However, it also brought back memories of the ups and the downs of my time in school, particularly as I reunited with friends who were still in the depths of their Ph.D. programs.
Prior to my return, I had volunteered to give a talk about graduate school to my old department’s graduate student association. Inspired by my time writing for GradHacker, I titled it “Hacking Graduate School and What Comes After: My unsolicited advice on surviving graduate school and tales from post-grad life at a National Lab.” Leading up to my presentation, I struggled for weeks deciding what I wanted to say about graduate school. There was so much to cover, and I wasn’t sure how to distill it down into advice that would be useful for the audience.
Finally, the day before I was set to leave for Nashville, I settled on a few major takeaways. Here’s what I came up with:
1. Establish a cohort: We’ve talked many times on Gradhacker about establishing a cohort. I’m here to say that this is incredibly important to your overall well-being while in school. You need a life outside of your degree, and your grad school friends make excellent beer buddies. Whether this means commiserating in shared experiences, blowing off steam, or just exploring your new home, make friends with your colleagues and do this early. Few other people will understand exactly what you’re going through and you’ll appreciate their support down the road.
2. Define Self-Worth: Grad school can really mess with your emotions. When you’re doing well, you feel great. When you aren’t doing well, it can make you feel like shit. There’s a perception that to make it through, you need to always be on: always working, always thinking, always progressing. However, this mentality can cause your sense of self-worth to become tied to how well your degree is going. Your Ph.D. does not define you! Make the continual effort to find activities outside of school that you enjoy. Find a strong support network that can help you maintain a work-life balance and separate your self-worth from your research progress when the going gets rough.
3. Hike your own hike: This is a saying I learned from watching way too many videos about thru-hiking. It essentially means that you shouldn’t compare yourself to others or let them dictate your journey. In graduate school everyone’s degree path, lab environment, mentorship, personality, and research project are very different. You can’t always compare yourself to your peers, and what works best for them may not work best for you. The only things that matter are your happiness and if your advisor is satisfied with your progress.
4. Choose your mentor wisely: This is the biggest factor in your job satisfaction and degree progress. Your advisor sets the tone for the lab and can either help or hinder your professional development and your research progress. Find someone with whom you can communicate and who will be on your side, looking out for your best interests. I would choose the mentor over the research project. Obviously, you should be excited about the research, but projects change and morph over time, your mentor likely will not. Choose wisely.
5. Engage: Getting outside of lab reminds you why your work is important to humanity as well as to your field. Go after opportunities that get you interacting with the public, such as outreach, and your peers, such as conferences. Social media such as Twitter can be very useful in this regard if you have limited travel funds or social anxiety. It allows you to interact with experts in a casual environment and develop a community of peers and mentors.
6. Stand Back Up: Failure is, for the time being, the name of the game. It’s ubiquitous to every stage of research, but it’s not always talked about. You’re not an imposter and you’re not alone. Learn how to be resilient, to acknowledge when you’ve hit a wall and also how to overcome it in good spirits. Ask for help when you need it after you’ve put in a good-faith effort and recognize that sometimes a break can give good perspective.
7. See the bigger picture: Knowing when you’re ready to graduate may be difficult. There are always more details to explore and your dissertation will never be perfectly complete. The reality is you are in your program to make a contribution to your field and to learn how to do research. You’re not expected to solve every problem in your field; that’s what your career is for and could take a lifetime. Your training and time as a student are meant to be temporary, so be wary of getting lost in the details. Ask yourself these things: 1) Have you contributed to the field in a tangible way? 2) Have you taken ownership of your projects? 3) Have you taken ownership? For example, have you made the shift from being told what to do, to seeing the next steps and doing them before you’re asked to? When you can say yes to all of these things, you’re ready to graduate. There’s a whole world out there to explore, don’t be afraid to join it.
Looking back, what is your biggest advice? What would you tell your graduate school self to help you through the process?