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Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. Her various writings can be found on her portfolio site, kdshives.com.
One of the most important things that I’ve learned in graduate school is how to ask for help when I need it. Knowing when and how to ask for help can make navigating this unknown terrain much easier and save you time by avoiding the mistakes (or experiments) that others have made. This skill cannot be underrated, as you will encounter the unknown regularly in your studies as a graduate student.
The trick is knowing when, and how, to ask for help. The point of graduate school is for students to become independent scholars of their chosen disciplines who can ask and answer their own questions.
When starting out it’s quickly apparent that graduate school is different from undergrad. It can be difficult to know what is expected of you in terms of being instructed on what to do versus independently figuring out what to do. This is a huge change from undergrad, where a lack of knowledge was assumed and professors were there to show you what and when things needed to be completed. Now, there are still professors to ask for assistance, but by and large graduate students are expected to take the lead in their training and reach out for what they need.
Quite often your peers and professors are extremely busy individuals, so waiting to be noticed and helped is a path to disaster in graduate school. As a first-generation graduate student this was a huge adjustment for me and made the first semester much more difficult than necessary. When starting out, I often made the mistake of waiting to be helped and could not understand why I was having such a hard time staying up with the material. I learned that if you are struggling, you have to take the time to identify precisely what you need, who to ask, and what to ask. For me, it meant acknowledging that I was struggling with a specific course, asking the graduate program to match me with a tutor, and requesting slightly reduced hours from the head of my rotation lab so I could study more. And guess what? It worked! However, I never would have gotten what I needed if I had not identified these specific issues in the first place.
Figuring out what you need can take some time. If you are frustrated with your progress, take a break from your lab or project to get a clear idea of what you really need help with. Maybe you’ve been too close to the project to realize that you need assistance from someone trained in the new assay you are starting or line of code you are trying to put together. One of the great things about being an academic trainee is the fact you are surrounded by experts, so make the most of these resources and ask for assistance.
Imposter syndrome can be a serious obstacle in getting what you need out of your program. If you feel like you don’t belong or don’t deserve to be in your program, then fear can prevent you from asking for help. Don’t let imposter syndrome stop you from getting assistance, otherwise you risk turning unfounded fears (you were admitted to the program after all) into a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.
When it comes to internal barriers when asking for help, fear and pride are right at the top. Imposter syndrome or excessive pride can blind you to the people and resources around you that can answer difficult questions. It may feel good to do it all on your own and give your ego a stroke, but it may take much longer than if you ask someone who has done it before and learn from their mistakes (don’t undervalue the negative data!).
Asking for help is not limited to the technical questions, so don’t forget about your larger support network. Struggling with personal issues like time management or anxiety? Talk to other students, they’ve probably been through the same problems and would be happy to help you. Stuck trying to get your project to work? Don’t just ask your PI/Adviser, go to your committee members and other faculty members as well. They have a wealth of knowledge and it is quite possible that their expertise in a different area might give you the extra dose of perspective that you need to start making progress. The point here is not to limit yourself in who you can ask for help. Take a hard look at what resources are available to you and who can help you accomplish your goals and make the very most of them.
Don’t let pride or fear get in the way of gleaning everything you can from your graduate training experience. The level of freedom and independence afforded to us as graduate students is immense and, while it can be overwhelming to navigate this system, taking the time to identify what you need and how to get it is never a waste of time. This is your education and it’s up to you to get the most from this experience.
Have you ever gotten stuck in graduate school before and had to ask for help? Share your experiences in the comments sections below!
[Image from Flicker user Got Credit, used under creative commons license.]