A Letter to My Younger Self
Updated: Dec 20, 2021
Now that my time as a graduate student has come to an end and I’m beginning to look ahead to what comes next, I’ve found myself with time to reflect on my journey through graduate school. Inevitably, as I reflect, I find things that I wish I knew back when I was filling out applications and preparing to walk onto campus for the first day of class.
There’s no shortage of advice out there about how to pick a graduate school and what you need to do to succeed. But a lot of that advice is focused on big picture things and tends to assume that readers know the unwritten rules of their field, and of academia in general. In my experience, that is rarely the case—it is hard to learn these unwritten rules if no one writes them! Not only can it be challenging to find mentors to help you through this process, but even if you do get that help, it can be intimidating to ask some of the honest questions, for fear of sounding stupid or unprepared. But even more than that, it’s hard to know what questions you should be asking in the first place.
So, if I had the opportunity to go back in time and talk to my younger self about graduate school, I’d give them the following advice:
Do your research. I know this sounds like pretty obvious advice, and sure, actually conducting research in your field is key to your success, but there’s so much more that it’s important to investigate before you start graduate school.
Know how your school and program are structured. Graduate school is more like a “real job” than many admit. It is full time work, and it also occurs in a matrixed environment where employees are part of multiple chains of accountability. Graduate students directly report to their advisors, but also have responsibilities to their program and to the university itself. Knowing what each of these responsibilities are is important, but the importance of knowing who your dotted-line reports are (secondary supervisors that provide additional oversight to your work) and how they fit in to the overall organization of the university is underestimated. Knowing what offices and what individuals provide oversight to your progress can help you identify resources you might need if/when you run into problems with your advisor or program. It is much easier to go into school knowing these structures than it is to figure them out along the way, and researching how programs are organized can also help you decide what might be the best fit for your academic and personal growth. Know the policies. Most universities and individual graduate programs provide students a copy of a handbook with all the requirements for earning your degree. Read this—it will help ensure you know exactly what is expected of you. However, these are the written policies, there are a lot of unwritten policies, or written policies that are easily overlooked, that you need to be familiar with. Be aware that these exist and ask about them as you interview or when you join a program because they can help you plan your finances and your schedule.
How is your stipend dispersed and are taxes withheld? Does this change if you get external funding?
What are the student fees? Do they change after candidacy?
What cost are students expected to front? How long does reimbursement take?
What are the non-course requirements of the program? Are there departmental seminars, journal clubs, etc. that are expected but not part of your grade?
Keep a list of resources. Graduate school is hard and happens concurrently with a lot of major life events. I’ve seen students get married, have surgery, have children, get divorced, buy homes, lose family members, experience food insecurity, and more—and getting through these times can require support, both financial and mental/emotional support services. University orientation is a great place to start collecting resources that you might need down the road as a graduate student. The problem is, they tend to give you so many flyers and pamphlets that it’s hard to keep track of everything, especially if you don’t need them immediately. A good strategy for this is to keep a spreadsheet of the resources and contact information before throwing away the brochures. But the university itself isn’t the only place you can find resources; older graduate students are a goldmine of information. Ask your colleagues ahead of you tons of questions, from what they know about potential advisors, to how the university system is organized, or who to go to if/when there’s an error with your paycheck, how the university insurance works, and what affinity groups provide mentorship opportunities. The best habit I got into was asking graduating students what the biggest piece of advice they could give me was, the answers varied but were incredibly helpful.
Set boundaries and advocate for yourself. Earning a PhD, particularly in STEM fields, can take between 5-7 years in the United States. The duration of the degree combined with the constant pressure from the publish or perish mentality makes graduate school a marathon. One of the most important ways that you can set boundaries and ensure that you are able to keep researching is by taking regular breaks. My university has a policy that graduate students get two weeks of vacation each academic year, and over the five years I was enrolled I took maybe two weeks off total, and during this time “off” I was still checking and responding to work emails. I’ll be the first to tell you this wasn’t healthy, and there’s no award for taking very little time off. At first, I hoarded these vacation days, worried I’d have to make use of them when my disability flared up, then I was afraid to use them because I wanted to attend conferences, and I was always afraid to use them because I didn’t want to delay my progress. But rather than delaying progress, what taking a break actually does is give your mind and body time to recover so that you can approach your work with fresh eyes and new insight. Despite the common cultural glorification of overworking, taking regular breaks makes you a better scientist, not worse, so try to avoid the trap of never taking a break. We all need time to decompress, relax, rest, and come back to your science with a fresh perspective and rested mind.
You might have to advocate for yourself to take a break, but you should also be advocating for yourself so you can participate in professional development activities outside your program. Graduate school is a full-time training program aimed at helping you get the skills you need for your career. However, it is widely acknowledged that the focus of graduate school is best equipped to prepare you for an academic career. If you don’t know what you want to do, or know that the academic route is not for you, you can use the time in graduate school to get experience in a variety of fields so that you know what you might be interested in. That might mean taking short courses, going to conferences outside of your discipline, securing internships, or completing certificate programs. Your advisors or committee might want you to focus on the science, but you need to be your own advocate and engage in these professional development activities because they will help your future.
One of the things I never expected to have to advocate for was the way my research progressed. For most graduate students, a research project will be generated as a joint effort between you and your advisor. While your advisor will likely always have a hand in helping you determine the progress of your work and help you contextualize it, it is important for you to take ownership of the project. One of the important parts of this process is learning how to say no when you have evidence (experimental or from the literature) that an idea generated by your advisor or committee member might lead you to a dead end. It’s a fulfilling feeling to be in an environment where you can collaboratively generate a variety of hypotheses related to your project, but ultimately you need to feel empowered to focus on the questions that will help you finish your story and ultimately allow you to graduate.
Network. Every career workshop that I’ve been to over the course of my graduate education has emphasized the importance of networking as one of the biggest components of landing your next job. Whether you choose to go into academia, or branch out into industry, government, or non-profits, having a strong network will help you get where you want to be. One of the easiest ways to do this is to put together a LinkedIn profile and keep it up to date, engage with other people’s posts, and add people you meet from conferences and workshops. You can also look for regional or national groups for early career researchers in your field of interest. Networking was challenging for me because I was always worried that reaching out with a cold email or LinkedIn message would be an imposition on someone’s time. But what I’ve found is that people simply don’t answer if they don’t have the time/interest, and if they do have the time, they are generally happy to offer advice. One of the critical lessons (that I learned too late) is that it’s important to build a broad network, not just in the career space you think you’re interested in pursuing when you start graduate school. You never know what lecture, experience, or life event might change your professional aspirations, and by building a broad network, you keep the options to hear about opportunities you might otherwise miss.
Everyone has a different experience in graduate school, but I certainly wish I had known these things so that I could’ve been prepared with resources and the ability to adapt to challenging situations as I progressed through my degree, and I hope sharing these reflections of “what I wish I’d known” will empower current and future students to weather all the ups and down of graduate school.