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Ingrid J. Paredes is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering at New York University. You can find her on Twitter @ingridjoylyn.

Happy Holidays, GradHackers! I am writing to you at the end of my fifth semester of my PhD program. I’m halfway through my third year of graduate school now, and research has been picking up—I’m finally tying some data and publishing a few papers.

By the end of next semester, I’ll defend my thesis proposal. I’ve clocked thousands of hours in the lab since I first joined my research group, and beyond the research skills I started my program to learn, though, I’ve been learning so much about myself, too. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve picked up so far.

1. Come with a plan, but be flexible. I’m a planner—I love to make to-do lists; I love to fill up my Google calendar with plans; I love looking up note-taking and organization tips on Pinterest. My most productive days in lab happen when I arrive with a plan for the week. I am totally non-resilient, though, when it comes to changes in schedule, whether it’s because a microscope is down for maintenance or I mishandled a sample. I get unmotivated and unproductive so easily. To counter this, I’ve learned to always create a Plan B and Plan C for my work days. I do this using a color-coded daily to-do list: purple for tasks that have to be completed that day, green for tasks that must be completed that week, and blue for tasks that have no set deadline. If for some reason I can’t complete an urgent task, I move down the line or into the the week’s responsibilities, and so on. Having my list formatted this way helps me to be flexible with my schedule while still accomplishing things on my to-do lists.

2. If something isn’t working, it’s okay to walk away. At the beginning of this semester, my adviser decided to table a project we had been working on for the past year. We were trying to discover and develop a reliable route towards a chemical compound. While we produced some initial results, the year had passed without significant progress. One afternoon while I was in the lab, my adviser finally said that we should just call it and move onto something else. My heart dropped immediately—I wasn’t surprised, but I was disappointed. I just felt stupid. It’s difficult not to take failed experiments personally, especially since chemicals aren’t the ones with the brains. I am.

“Not all ideas are good,” my advisor said, lightly, and put the situation in a more positive perspective: “this is still something to learn from—still a chapter in your thesis.” I knew he was right, at least in the realm of chemistry.  Failure is just a state of mind, and if every experiment produced what we wanted, there would be nothing for us to learn. This is a lesson that I am definitely still struggling with accepting, but it’s one of the most valuable ones I’ve learned during graduate school.

3. Take time to reflect. Days in the lab are often long and busy, and sometimes I feel like I’m marathoning data collection in order to have something to show at meetings. Having something to show, though, is different from having something to say. Data means nothing without meaningful interpretation. Recently, I’ve scheduled time at the beginning and end of every week to sit down for a few hours to look at my work and data to help me better plan for what’s next.  

As I move into the new year and second half of my program, I’m hoping these lessons will help me stay motivated and moving towards meaningful, attainable goals. The everyday business of graduate school can sometimes be overwhelming and frustrating, but overall, it’s been so rewarding—inside of the lab and outside of it.

What life lessons have you learned from graduate school? Tweet us @GradHacker or leave them in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Thomas Hawk, under a Creative Commons License.]

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