Rebranding your relationship with graduate school

Here is some advice I’ve gained prior to and during my first year of graduate school:

Choosing a PI/thesis advisor

  • Before I started my graduate studies, the single piece of advice that I heard the most was: “Finding a research advisor that you like is more important than the topic itself.” I’d like to make a slight modification to that statement, and say it’s a good idea to pick an advisor that you could see yourself working well with. You will be spending the better part of the next few years with this person so it’s quite the commitment. Of course, it’s also a good idea to stay in the general field you’re hoping to study. (E.g., I was extremely interested in mathematical and computational applications to neuroscience/cognitive science, and that led me to study the neural correlates of spatial navigation with an advisor who I have a great rapport with.)
  • Especially in programs that don’t require rotations throughout your first year, find advisors you think you’d like to work with and ask them to connect you with their current graduate students. Then, you can meet with them and find out everything you need to know. When you meet with the grad students, ask them to please be open and honest with you so you can ask the hard, nitty-gritty questions too, such as, “What’s your least favorite thing about the advisor/lab?” You’ll be surprised about what the happy and the miserable graduate students have to say. 

Make lots of friends

  • Befriend the students within your cohort, the older graduate students in your program, and definitely your program’s administrative coordinators. They will be the people that have your back when you’re stuck on a problem and/or when your whole life feels like it’s crashing down. Get their numbers and emails ready so you can reach out when you need to.
  • In the age of “Zoom University,” it’s been really helpful for my cohort to have our own Discord server. We’ve created separate channels for each class, planning (safe outdoor) gatherings, and of course, memes! These channels allowed us to post questions regarding specific assignments or general course material and also came in handy to reference later. We set weekly meeting times for each class to work on assignments together as well, so we could chat and solve problems in real-time instead of through text.
  • The more senior students and staff generally have a better idea about the in’s and out’s of the program–they’ve been in it longer. Let these people be a resource. Don’t be afraid to send them a brief email, or ask the students if they are available to meet with you for a 30-minute chat over some coffee. In my experience, everyone I’ve reached out to has been more than happy to help. Further, I’ve heard stories of program administrators refuting parking tickets for students. Now that’s just an example, but being friendly can literally pay off.

Prioritize your self-care

  • Seriously. I’ll openly admit that I’m still working on this, but ideally, you should prioritize your own self-care as much as (if not more than?!) prioritizing your research and/or classwork. Find a hobby like painting, hiking, or reading (for fun—put the textbooks down) and make plans to do these things with others if you’d like. Not only will this give you something to look forward to as the week goes on, but you can use this to incentivize yourself to quit procrastinating and finish your work. Think to yourself, “I’ll let myself watch an episode of You after I work on research for x amount of hours.”
  • Celebrate your small wins too! Treat yourself to ice cream after making it through a tough exam or submitting a grant proposal. Find little things that bring you joy and reward yourself after all of your hard work.
  • Self-care also includes: eating well and exercising. Increase your energy and get your cognitive juices flowing by taking care of yourself. You are not just a brain. You have a body too, and it’s important to take care of it.

Quit the competition

  • Drop the cutthroat competitive attitudes. You’re here; you’ve made it. Professors will think you’re even more impressive if you can work effectively with others (if that’s what you really care about). Find validation in your own accomplishments without comparing them to others’. It’s ironic that while math and science are progressively becoming more collaborative as fields, we (the students and professors) still hang on to this idea that “we have to be the best.” Whatever that means. The difference in a class grade of 96% and  94% is 2%, but guess what, both end up as A’s on each of your transcripts. You’ll get much further in life by making allies instead of competing against foes.

Asking for help is a skill in and of itself

  • Embrace your own humility. The worst thing that can happen is you ask someone a question, and they don’t know the answer. Then, you can either: figure it out together, or you can continue asking around to find the answer. Either way, you’re closer to the solution than you were initially.
  • The questions you have are quite likely to be burning a hole in someone else’s brain too. Be brave and ask. If someone has a condescending response, that’s their issue, not yours. Keep your head held high. (Which brings me to my last point…)

Have confidence in yourself

  • You must be doing something right to have gotten this far. Remind yourself of your wins when you’re feeling down, and know that if you’re doing the best you can, that you should be proud of the end result, regardless. You don’t have to always know the correct answer; in fact, learning from your mistakes is even more effective. Try not to feel too embarrassed if you say the wrong thing. Do your best to just laugh it off, and know it happens to everyone. There is much more value in contributing anything to the conversation compared to being too timid to contribute at all. 

Remember that we are all human (professors too, haha), and as humans, we’re bound to make mistakes. What is science, if not a compilation of mistakes that we call “experience?” Collectively, we have an underlying responsibility to define the culture in each academic setting. Let’s lead it in the right direction, shall we?

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About Erica Ward

Erica is a second-year Ph.D. student at the University of California, Irvine, in the Mathematical, Computational, and Systems Biology (MCSB) program. She is passionate about enhancing diversity and inclusion in academia and connecting with aspiring mathematicians and scientists.
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