Whether you’re applying to programs or you’re a senior graduate student, you’re likely facing a lot of stress and uncertainty. Although we all have different experiences, I want to share some of the things that helped me through, as well as some of the things I wish I’d done differently.
I’m a recent graduate (PhD, biology), I was a first-generation college student, and I’m moving into a career making science and science education more accessible for people of all backgrounds. Hopefully, some of my experiences can help make your school experiences manageable and even fulfilling.
Work hours: Some advisors expect you to work 12 hours every day or 7 days per week (for me, that’s a red flag), but for many of us, it’s peer pressure that makes us want to spend all our hours in the lab. I knew going into grad school that this would just result in me wasting a lot of time in lab and feeling exhausted, so I set boundaries early. As a general expectation, I aimed to treat my PhD like a normal job in terms of working hours: I kept similar hours every work day, stuck to about 40 hours per week, and took weekends off. Obviously, this isn’t viable for every project or at every point in the program—when I was working on my qualifying exams and conducting time-intensive projects, I often worked evenings, weekends, and occasionally overnight. But to make the long hours manageable, I:
only did this when actually required by the experiment or deadline
took time off to recover and reset in the days or weeks following these projects
returned to my normal schedule after resting
This helped me to push through the tough periods, and it made continuing to work possible by maintaining my health and my relationships. It also helped me to prioritize my time better by making every evening a soft deadline.
Free time: Okay, you’re limiting your work hours, but what do you do with the rest of your time? At first, I spent a lot of my evenings agonizing about feeling behind on work, the papers I could be reading, and little problems in the lab. This was damaging because (1), it made me too anxious and exhausted to actually get work done if I wanted to, and (2) rest is critical to creative thinking and insight. By stressing about work in all my free time, I was making myself less productive and less healthy.
To counteract that, I chose a couple priorities for my “off” hours. For me, it helped to choose a mix of things that supported my physical and mental health—I cooked healthy dinners at least a few times per week, spent a few evenings per week with friends, engaged in physical hobbies like hiking and climbing, and engaged in creative hobbies like painting and knitting. I didn’t ever do all of these things in a given week, but by keeping 2-4 options available at all times, I was able to disconnect from work and rest my brain.
I would particularly recommend trying creative hobbies with tangible results: they give you a no-stakes place to practice being a beginner, and they show tangible progress (Look! I have half a coaster now!) when your scholarly work might not.
Advising relationship: Every advising relationship is different, but it’s important to both find an advisor who is compatible with you and actively cultivate a productive relationship with them.
When you’re seeking an advisor, think about your working style: how much feedback and structure do you like, how much do you want to collaborate; do you want more face-time with your PI or to work primarily with other lab members? Once you have a clear understanding of your own preferences and working style, ask potential professors and their lab members about their expectations and management style. Some green flags for labs:
A PI who is clear about their expectations for work hours, meetings, and publishing
A PI who wants to know what your academic interests are
Lab members who are willing to share both positive and negative aspects of the lab
Lab members who are not in competition with one another
Once you have your advisor, it’s still vital to check in with yourself to see if you’re getting the support you need. In my case, after several years I didn’t have a clear understanding of my progress through the program. This lead me to gather my courage and start asking my advisor very direct questions—How am I doing? What if this doesn’t work? How long should I spend on this new project? You might also consider whether you’re meeting your advisor as often as you’d like, if you need additional advisors for your project, or if you need specific training on a method or field. Remember that your advisor’s job is to help you complete the degree, and only you can identify what you need—so ask!
Some people end up in advising relationships that are irreconcilably mismatched, toxic, or abusive. I’m grateful not have been in that situation, but checking in on your needs and your wellbeing is a good way to notice if something’s wrong. I don’t have personal expertise here, but can assure you that there is no shame in leaving a lab that’s harmful to you. Graduate school is supposed to be intellectually challenging, not damaging to your mental or physical health.
Peer relationships: This is an area where I have some regrets. Although I’ve made some of the closest relationships of my life in grad school, it took a long time because I didn’t engage with my department or my cohort early on. Engaging with other members of your cohort gives you a support network for the many hurdles of graduate school (first time teaching, exams, publishing woes, and more), as well as community of people who can help your learning.
More broadly, connecting with students throughout your program can give you access to skills, tools, and information about specific labs and classes that is not otherwise accessible. If I were to start grad school over, I’d be sure to participate in all of the orientation activities and to choose a few social activities each semester to participate in.
What I did do well here was being frank with my challenges. Once I started sharing my imposter feelings, my experimental frustrations, and my worries about the future, I found a lot of other students felt the same way and were willing to share what helped them.
A final note: Most scholars, and especially those with marginalized identities, struggle with feeling like they don’t belong or aren’t cut out for academia at some point in their program (in my case, it was nearly weekly). For this, I look to advice from Dr. Beronda Montgomery's Lessons from Plants: when a plant fails to thrive, we look for the problem in the environment, not the plant. This should be even more true in graduate programs, which accept only the students they believe to be most capable of success. You can succeed when your environment is adequately supportive.