If I could go back...
As I’m nearing the three-and-a-half-year mark of my time as a grad student here at A&M, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what led me down the path to choosing graduate school, as well as the various hurdles (both physical and mental) I’ve overcome in the time I’ve been here. Our program does rotations, so as I’m watching the first-year students enter their third and final rotation this month, I’ve been thinking back on my own experiences during my first year of grad school to provide them with the advice I wish someone had given me.
So, these are the top three pieces of advice I would go back and give my first year-self if I had the chance.
1. Your area of research is not as important as your mindset.
I know it can feel, especially when you’re doing rotations, like what your area of research focuses on is the most important thing. You want to be interested in your research, you want it to be exciting and get you out of bed in the morning and ready to work at it for years. But what you study is not nearly as important as who you are surrounded by and the mindset you have going into grad school. When I started, I didn’t know if I was going to use my genetics background to study cancer, or plants. I know- two entirely different fields (at least, they appear different. All biology is related, and once you understand the basics I firmly believe you can study anything you want- but I digress), and I know that it made me and some of the people around me nervous that my interests were so seemingly broad. But this turned out to be my biggest strength. Knowing that no matter what I worked on, I would be happy if I was surrounded by people who cared about my success and well-being, and if I got to do cool biology every day, I chose an environment to complete my Ph. D. where I feel respected, safe, and happy. So, pick a project you like when you get there- but for now, focus on finding an environment where you
can feel both intellectually stimulated and nourished, while also feeling happy and excited to come into work.
2. You need to be more determined than smart.
Don’t get me wrong- it helps to be smart, it always helps to be smart. And obviously, if you’ve been admitted to a graduate program, there’s a group of people somewhere within the institution that looked at your collective achievements thus far and said “Yes, I think she’s smart enough to do well in our graduate program”.But so much more important, in my experience, is the determination to get this degree completed. When things don’t go the way you plan, or the timing of your research changes, or something you were certain would work suddenly fails- your intelligence will help you problem solve your way around it, but you won’t be able to push through it unless you remain firmly attached to the idea of finishing what you set out to do when you came here. You have to want it, even when it feels like it doesn’t want you.
3. Trust your instincts.
Instincts are our evolutionary guides for a reason. We feel things instinctively because we’ve had thousands of years of effects on our biology that have slowly taught us when something is probably good news, and probably bad news. This evolutionary inner voice will help guide you in graduate school. For example, if something seems a little too good to be true - it probably is. If someone seems disingenuous, even if you can’t pinpoint what it is about them that makes you think you might not trust them- don’t! And if a project seems interesting, if it seems like it would play to your strengths, or if you think you’re just bound to get good data and learn something new- pursue it!! All of this gut-following will help you determine the best path forward in terms of finding both a group of people and a project that will help you succeed during your time in graduate school.