A couple of days ago a friend of mine asked for suggestions on books to read, things you wish you knew, and how to spend his time as a proud entrant to “the real world.” Naturally, being a blogger I gave a short answer and thought to myself, “this would make a great post in honor of graduation season.” So here I am, writing about four things I wish I had known before starting graduate school and my advice to those graduating now. I still have yet to enter “the real world” because I still work on a college campus every single day. I don’t know what real adults are like- but I do know there are things I wish I had learned sooner. So here is my list, and a special shout out to W. R. A. B. for asking the question on Facebook, you already know how deep my love for you is so I’m going to save the rest of the world from that emotion.
Never shy away from asking your PI questions
Or just never shy away from asking questions, period. I think I get more annoyed every day by people who are afraid to ask questions. It’s frustrating from a senior-level perspective to have somebody who is screwing things up because they’re afraid, not because you did something wrong. If you will work harder by understanding better, say that. If you will work smarter by asking a question that seems trivial, ask it. Do not let yourself get put in a bad position because of fear. Fear is crippling. Facing your fears may also be crippling, but only momentarily. Once that moment passes, you move forward a stronger and better person.
Your friends at the time of graduation may not be your friends in one year
You will not get through graduate school without a support network. Those people who stayed up late with you one time to finish that group assignment are not a support network. Those people who helped lead a thriving student organization with you are not a support network. Your support network is built from people who truly care about you, and want you to succeed. So very often, your support network will form without you realizing it. This also means that you may think about how close to are to somebody one day and realize: it’s different now. That is totally okay. You may still be friends with these people, or you may become acquaintances. In some cases, you may never really talk at all. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have what you need.
There is a difference between being qualified and being excited
This, I think, is the biggest collective flaw of researchers. There is a strong difference between being qualified to answer a research question, and being excited about answering the research question. You can, and often, have one without the other. It is your job to find the sweet spot where they coexist. On the surface, this sounds quite easy because you know what you are qualified to do, and you know what you are excited about. However, determining how they can co-exist is actually not that easy at all.
You always come first now
I am not sure what kind of undergraduate, or high school, program(s) you came from, but graduate school is a different ball game. You are no longer one face in 100 in a lecture hall. You are no longer one of 100 students your teacher sees in a day. You are no longer just a face in the crowd, in order continue to progress, you must stand out. As a result, you always come first. Not everybody goes to graduate school directly from undergrad, just like not everybody goes to college directly after high school. The types of people who go straight through and different from the people who take more time. Personalities may differ, because of age and age alone. Family situations may differ, and other things that naturally come with “growing up.” That means that, if you are a single parent and your child gets sick, you leave work to take care of him/her. That means that, if you are not a single parents but your significant other does not have a flexible job and you have no other family around, you leave work to take care of him/her. Every single choice we make comes with a sacrifice. Sometimes, like in this example, the sacrifice is easy to identify. Other times, that is not so. Therefore, what you need to know and understand is that your health, happiness, and your future need to be your priority. Then, you get everybody on board with you. If you have toxic people in your life that cannot do that, leave them in your past. Now is the time when you have to start making that choice. If people are only hurting you, it is time to walk away.
I hope you have enjoyed this “Things I Wish I Knew Sooner” post as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Please do not take this as the end-all, be-all guide, nor should you take this lightly if you are not in a graduate program. The main points of this post are to get you to think more deeply about yourself and your needs, and to get you to stop letting fear get in your way.