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4 Things I Wish I Knew Before Grad School



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Hey there Brainiacs! I’m DOCTOR Alie Astrocyte. That’s right, I’m a doctor now! But not

that kind of doctor. I finished my Ph.D. in Neurosciences this year, and I’m excited

to move on to a new job and to have more time for Neuro Transmissions! Now that my dissertation

has been submitted, I’ve been reflecting on the journey that brought me here. Looking

back on when I started grad school, I realized there was so much I didn’t know going in.

So I thought I should share some of my thoughts and advice on navigating a STEM graduate program.

Here are four things I wish I’d known before I started grad school - and a few tips and

tricks I thought I’d share with you all. Number one: talk to the more senior grad students.

One of the reasons I chose my graduate program was because it was clear to me that the students

in the program were all independent, relatively well-balanced people, who enjoyed their research

but still had their own personal lives. Everyone in the program was friendly and supportive

to everyone else, and I wish I had taken advantage of that more. I became very close with several

members of my class, and we were an excellent cohort - but I wish I’d spent a little more

time talking to the more senior grad students who were ahead of me in the program. As more

advanced students, they’d already been through qualifying exams, applied for grants and fellowships,

attended conferences, and started their own post-graduate job hunts. As I progressed through

my degree, I found that I was often unsure of particular program requirements and timelines,

and I didn’t know how to navigate sticky situations in the lab, like managing interpersonal

conflict or negotiating authorship on a manuscript. But there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.

So many of my older peers had gone through similar experiences. If I could do it over

again, I would have taken advantage of our program’s peer advising group, and spent

more time early on asking the older grad students for their advice. I think it would have made

a lot of meetings easier! Spend some time getting to know the more senior students in

your grad program, and see if your program has a peer advising program - those students

can give you insights into building a mentor/mentee relationship, accessing university resources,

and finding a reasonable work/life balance in grad school. Number two: Talk to your advisor,

early and often. Near the end of my graduate degree, I found myself feeling frustrated

because I felt like my advisor and I weren’t on the same page; during the last year, I

realized that our expectations weren’t aligned and I struggled with communicating what I

actually needed and wanted with my research. In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time

talking to my advisor about my research goals and my career plans earlier on, and been more

clear about when I wanted to graduate. A lot of the frustration happened because I wasn’t

sure how to initiate those conversations, and I was partially depending on my advisor

to make the first move and guide me - but every grad student is different, and I should

have taken more responsibility for my needs. There were a lot of exciting things to explore

with the data I gathered, and we wanted to follow up on all of them. If I had been more

direct about my plans, I think our research goals would have been more properly aligned,

and I think I might have graduated sooner, too. So talk to your advisor early and often

about your goals, and make sure you’re both in agreement about what the process of your

degree might look like - obviously unexpected things happen, but having a general overview

will help guide your decisions as you go along. Number three: Ask your advisor to send you

to conferences and to help you get a few publications. I loved my research, and I always enjoyed

working in the lab, but pretty early on in my graduate degree, I started to think I wasn’t

cut out for an academic career. There were a lot of reasons, and I won’t go into them

all here. Sometimes I think, though, that if I’d been more engaged in the research

community at large and spent more time interacting with other scientists in my field and sharing

my data with other researchers, I might have been more open to an academic career. I wish

I’d asked my advisor to send me to more conferences, and I wish that I’d pushed

to publish some of my research sooner. I graduated without any first author publications; we’re

submitting my research to a journal this fall, and I’m *still* not allowed to tell you

about my data. I was depending on my advisor to guide me in this arena, but now I realize

that the things that would be most beneficial to my *advisor’s* career are not always

the things that are most beneficial to *my* research career. By holding off on publication,

it may be a very high-impact paper. But it’s also only one paper. When I talk to friends

who are hunting for postgrad jobs, it seems like the general rule is quantity over quality

when it comes to publications. I understand why my advisor has taken this approach, but

I’m a big supporter of open access and data sharing. I wish that I had pushed harder for

that from the beginning - it probably would have changed the structure of my project,

and would have given me more opportunities to engage directly with the scientific community.

It also would have helped validate my abilities as a scientist; I would have had extra opportunities

to practice my presentation and science writing skills, and I would have gotten more feedback

on my research along the way. Talk to your advisor about your goals and interests, publish

when you can, spend time looking for opportunities to share your research, and ask your advisor

to support your attendance. Number four: I wish I’d learned how to code. As an undergrad,

I had the opportunity to take computer science courses to fill some of the requirements of

my degree - and now, ten years later, I wish I’d taken them! As my research went on and

my data stacked up, I realized how much easier my life would be if I had some basic coding

knowledge in, for example, Python or MATLAB. That knowledge would have made it possible

for me to do a lot of my own statistical analysis, without depending on bioinformatics core employees,

and would have given me a lot more control and personal insight into my data. It also

would have made a lot of data sorting and basic analysis WAY easier, because I could

have used a program like R or MATLAB to process and visualize my data, instead of having to

it manually with Excel and other simple statistical software. So if you’re just starting grad

school and you don’t have coding experience already, see if there’s an introductory

course available to you - or else consider taking an online course or picking up an intro

book on the subject. Learning it early on will literally save you days as you start

to pick apart your data! And now, some lightning round tips for incoming grad students everywhere

- Choose a lab and an advisor that values people and not just projects; even the coolest

research project will be miserable if you can’t stand the research environment and

your advisor sees you as just a tool instead of a person. I’ve put some links to documents

that can make the process a whole lot easier. Invest in at *least* one outside hobby - something

that makes you feel happy and productive - because it will help you get through the rough patches

in your research. I made YouTube videos, kept a garden plot, and did a lot of cooking in

grad school, so even after a bad day in the lab, I had other activities where I didn’t

feel like a failure. Build an outside network of mentors and resources, especially if you’re

considering a non-academic career. Most advisors can only really speak to their own career

experience, so whether you’re leaving academic research or hope to run your own lab one day,

you need to meet and network with others outside of your university. I recommend platforms

like Twitter to help you meet other scientists in a variety of career paths!

Stick to your guns and be clear about your needs. Many advisors will have all kinds of

cool new ideas and projects they want you to work on, but it’s okay to say “No,

I don’t have time for that”. Take care of yourself! Spend time with your

friends and family as much as you can - I had a weekly dinner and D&D game night with

friends that helped keep me sane because it meant I had at least one night to relax every

week. Make the time to prepare healthy meals to fuel your brain and body, prioritize your

sleep, and get some exercise; I rode my bike to lab almost every day for 5 years and just

that 40 minutes of physical activity every day made such a huge difference. And if you

have the resources, see a therapist - they can help you learn the skills you need to

navigate grad school and keep you healthy and productive in all arenas in your life.

You don’t need to be having a crisis, and in fact I think most people would benefit

from a regular “mental health check up” with a therapist! I’m sure there’s a lot

of other great suggestions that I haven’t included here. If you’ve got tips of your

own from your grad school experience, I’d love to compile a more thorough list here,

so leave them down in the comments! Overall, I had an amazing grad school experience. I

loved my lab and my advisor, and I had a fantastic project in an amazing research environment.

I’m glad I had this experience, and I’m excited to be “Dr. Astrocyte” now. The

key thing to remember is that grad school - and any job in STEM - is just that. A job.

You shouldn’t let your position consume your entire identity, so make sure you give

yourself the time and space to be a person outside of the lab, and demand that others

respect it too. You are more than your science, and you deserve to be treated that way. Until

our next transmission, I’m Alie Astrocyte. Over and out.