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The Top 10 Most Memorable Lessons And Things I Learned In Grad School

What I Learned Overall While Pursuing My PhD

After reading the article, “3 qualities of successful PhD students: Perseverance, tenacity, and cogency”, as well as Phillip Guo’s PhD Grind Epilogue/20 memorable lessons, I decided to write a series of articles stemming from both of these. I am 6 months away from graduation and wanted to reflect on my graduate school experience and give credit where it is due.

This is a two-series post: First, my top 10 most memorable/taught lessons (this post) as well as what it takes to be a successful PhD student (2nd post) and make it to the end.

Top 10 valuable lessons learned while in grad school:

1)      Grad School Taught Me How To Learn and Recover From “Failure.”

Yes it’s going to happen. You’re going to feel like a failure especially your first couple of years. You may realize that 90% of what you do DOESN’T work. If everything worked the first time, you’d get a PhD in one year. I took comments from my PI my early years in grad school personally. I became anxious and frustrated. I wanted to drop-out because of the repetition and the feeling that what I was doing was insignificant and meaningless (and would never amount to anything). But as I pushed through, all my worries, doubts, fears, and all those criticisms faded away.

As I matured in my scientific career, I learned to overcome these frustrations and realize that I am NOT a failure. I learn to recognize that “failure” is actually a normal part of grad school and is not a reflection on me as a person! And as I pushed forward and looked at the BIG picture, success was waiting for me further down the road. My project evolved and all came together in the end.

But the main lesson is that grad school taught me to ACCEPT, OVERCOME, and LEARN from failures and find solutions. And in the end, I am a much stronger person and equipped to better handle things in the real world in my future career. I am confident to say that grad school has made me a much better scientist, and I value the training/education that I was fortunate enough to receive.

2)      Grad School Taught Me That There Are Good Moments Even When There Are Bad Moments.

I’ve talked about things like the 10 Downsides of Grad School. But what about the good moments? I’m sure any student would say they are “happy” when they get good results or their project “works.” The moment when you know that things worked because you didn’t give up. The moment where you know you “killed” your presentation, you gained respect from your lab and others, and/or sparked the interest of collaborators.

The moment where you actually feel self-satisfaction after all your hard years of work. The moment where you actually LOVE science because of its uniqueness and the beauty of what it actually means to “research.” The moment where you gain satisfaction because your work is “significant” enough to publish.

So when a bad moment presents itself, you have to focus on the good. Kind of like a “delayed” result. Just when you think you have that “ah-hah” moment, you tweak it, repeat it, and that answer comes later. There are a lot of good moments in grad school. Just be sure to celebrate them when they happen. Don’t take them for granted because they don’t come as often as the bad moments.

3)      Grad School Taught Me That WE ALL HAVE DIFFERENT DEFINITIONS OF SCIENCE and Made Me Ask The Question: Do I Truly Enjoy My Work?

The answer is yes and I still do. It becomes a little more complicated because enjoying your work is not the “complete answer” to your future career. There are numerous issues. Some may want better job security or job prospects. Some may feel that COMBINING science with another field might help them make a bigger impact on humanity. Many PhD students will either end up hating or loving their research project at the end.

But even the ones who “love” research might pursue a different career. WHY? Why in the world would a successful PhD student who had a strong publication record go outside of academia? Isn’t that a waste? Doesn’t that mean that they truly didn’t enjoy or like research? It is NOT uncommon for a PhD student to gain love for other things COMBINING science with other things. Business is one example. I would also argue that one’s strengths can be better applied in a field that encompasses multiple disciplines.

How do I know? I followed my own guide. I did 50+ informational interviews with PhDs who worked at the research bench, then pursued a different career. From that (based on the value that I was able to bring to the table with my personal connection), I landed a job in the life science biotech industry as an Associate Product Manager while still in graduate school.

But who cares? Why does it matter? Why does the academic and industry field have to dislike each other? As I wrote about previously, if we bridged the gap between the two, there would be numerous benefits to society. Isn’t the whole point of scientific research to better human life? Or advance human knowledge?

So when someone in academia judges a PhD student for going outside of the field, it confuses me because everyone is just another piece of the puzzle helping to better the quality of human life. They are making a contribution no matter where they end up. But overall, grad school taught me the type of career I am fit for and should be pursuing (I had to network to figure this out- see #6).

4)      Grad School Developed My Character And Taught Me To Be A Leader (Personal Reasons For Getting a PhD).

I have always considered myself a leader prior to joining grad school. But as a senior grad student, I have honed in on this skill. I have become someone with MORE initiative. More passion. More drive. More tenacity. More mental toughness. More perseverance. More cogency. You name it. It changed me completely.

Grad school is nothing compared to undergrad. But I’m glad it is this way. You are entirely on your own. And for that reason, it “forces” you to develop certain character qualities and emerge a better and stronger person. It forces you to SEEK out answers. To learn. To put your own ego aside and realize that you are all in it together with a common goal: to help better human life through scientific research.

Grad school forces you to work together as a team and build on others to advance your work/knowledge (you develop team work and collaboration).  Grad school develops: perseverance and diligence, time management, writing and communication skills, analytical and critical thinking skills, and creative problem-solving.

Grad school also taught me to become a person whom an undergrad or new incoming grad student can look up to. I lead by example. To this day, I am still learning how to be an effective mentor (ie training in an undergrad) and manage someone. But as time goes on, I feel that my leadership capabilities have dramatically expanded. When I graduate and leave, I know that other grad students can fill my shoes and also lead by example.

5)      Grad School Taught Me To Value And Depend On My Friends And Family To Help Get Me Through (And Keep My Motivation).

I’ll be honest. I’m a very social person. Some can get through grad school without any social interaction or encouragement from others. Some cope with bad moments in grad school in different ways as I’ve mentioned before. But I will flat out say: There is NO WAY I would have made it this far without the help and support from close friends and family. Your mental and physical health are very important to maintain while getting through grad school.

You need people to support you to get you through. Even if it is on a financial or emotional level. A significant other (if you have one) is also very important to help get you through grad school, as I have seen with one of my best friends. Although your friends or family cannot completely relate to your situation (unless they went through the PhD process), they will hear you out, care, and listen.

You will find that your mental health will dramatically improve when you are more social and seek the encouragement and help of others I did. I only bring this up because of the high depression rate among PhD graduate students. But I just want to say thanks to all my friends and family, because they maybe don’t even realize how much I appreciate and need them to help get me through some of the hardest times of my life.

Maybe I’m “jumping the gun” here and giving a shout-out before I am fully finished, but 6 months from now I will still feel the same way and acknowledge the same people who helped get me (and keep me) to where I am today.

Further reading: Lack of social life in grad school and what to do about it.

Friends That Made It Possible:

 

 

6)      Grad School Taught Me To Pursue Things OUTSIDE of My Research Project.

What do I mean by this? I’ve written about “Grad School Tunnel Vision.” If you watched the PhD Movie, there is a line in the movie where the PI will say something like, “You need to live and breathe research. The only sleep you should get is a half-awake sleep so you can still be thinking about your research.” I cannot DISAGREE more (even though this was a stretched joke).

Although it is important to maintain focus and motivation, you need to do OTHER things outside of lab. It is important for your mental health. What do I do? I play in a rock band. I snowboard. I barefoot water-ski. I lift weights. I run my own online business. I network and meet interesting people outside of the University (your network is your net worth).

If you want to focus your entire life around your research project, you may graduate sooner (especially if you don’t mind working weekends and such), but your mental and physical health may suffer. This is not BLAMING or pointing the finger at grad school for unhappiness. Any job, career, or situation can create or be subject to unhappiness. The reality is that grad school is very lonely and isolating and if you learn to recognize it and fight it, grad school really isn’t that bad. At least for me, this was the hardest thing that I had to deal with and overcome.

7)      Grad School Taught Me To “Break The Scientific Barrier” And Focus On Publishing.

The Next Scientist touches on this quite nicely in a Graduate School Advice Series: Your #1 Goal Is To Publish Peer Reviewed Articles.

“Being an expert without peer reviewed publications equals to being an expert without a PhD.” ~The Next Scientist

First I thought that I was just getting results just to keep my PI off my back (at least that’s what it felt like). Then I passed my Preliminary exam. The more results that I got, the more I realized that there has to be an “end” to the story. Well, there is never really an end to any story.. Your project could go on indefinitely and another grad student could pick up the slack. My point is that my focus changed.

After I passed my prelim and my project became more “scientifically competent” I was focused on doing the needed experiments to get that first author peer-reviewed publication out. It was clear to me that this must be my number one goal. That serves as my motivation and light at the end of the tunnel. So I asked myself: What experiments do I NEED to do now and in the fastest amount of time in order to publish and graduate?

Your thesis committee is 10 times more likely to graduate you if you have published your work vs. not publishing. Just write that thesis 🙂 But don’t dwell on it. People talk about the thesis writing process too much. Don’t dwell on it, just do it. Find the motivation and push through (also see #5 above)!

Once you have that first author paper, it also reflects on your productivity to an employer and shows that you value your work and have developed as a scientist. So instead of being more of an “explorer” I became a careful planner. I became my own Project Manager. The most significant experiments I moved to the top of my list. I created a plan and tried to set goals. I weighed the value, time, and significance of each experiment. I created an outline and what figures I needed (in agreement with my PI). From there, nothing should stop you (except unexpected results) to get that paper out except yourself. That means you do multiple experiments at once instead of putting your eggs all in one basket.

8)      Grad School Taught Me To Give Back And Help Others Who Struggle Where I Once Used To Be.

As the new crop of grad students enters or joins your lab they are in the same boat you used to be. They have the same questions and are lacking answers. That’s where a senior grad student comes in. And I hope with my blog that I can help answer some of these questions. Very early on, I really struggled to even find a lab. Or know what classes to take. Or who to put on my thesis committee. Or how to do real-time PCR.

Whatever I learned and struggled with, I am willing to pass on to whoever I come across. But I will get to know someone personally, take them to lunch and listen to their situation in hopes of answering any questions they might have. The number one outstanding question is still: “What do I do with my PhD when I graduate?? I love research but I still don’t know what my career options are and I’m not sure if a career in academia is right for me.” This ties into #3 above. If that is your question, read this and this.

My advice is to collaborate as much as possible and help someone with less experience in order to get their publication out. Offer your assistance or expertise if you are the “go-to” person for a certain skill or method. Chances are you might even end up as a co-author on a future paper. Either way, you are improving your team-building skills and learning to be a team-player. This is a very attractive skill to an employer. Do it because you truly enjoy to help people, not because you have an agenda.

9)      Grad School Taught Me That It Is A Long-Road Ahead But To Never Give Up.

As tough and frustrating as grad school can be, it is important to keep your head up and push through.  If you feel like giving up, ask yourself what got you here in the first place. Be proud of how far you have made it. Try to focus on the positives. If you can’t: take a break and revisit whatever is bothering you tomorrow. Yes, it is a long process but you are not the only one faced with something that may seem impossible at first. I’ll just tell you that once you reach the ‘end,’ you will realize how ‘possible’ everything is and actually was in disguise.

But-I’ll just say that even during some of the roughest and hardest times when I just felt like quitting and giving up.. And when I couldn’t do it on my own and was really doubting myself.. God was always there for me. He helped me survive and get through all the rough patches. And without Him, I have no doubt in my mind that I would have dropped out with a Master’s degree a long time ago.

There is seemingly something missing from almost every blog and mouth of a grad student. They take all the credit. They don’t give any credit to the one person who made it all possible. God. Even if you don’t believe in God, that is fine. I am someone who believes in both God and science.  He will make your life a whole lot easier and joyful. Without God, I would not be here today. I had a barefoot water-ski accident in 2005, and God saved my life. But even throughout grad school..

Yes, I wanted to drop out many times. It’s actually normal (sounds crazy right?). The mistake would have been that this is what I WANTED and not what He wanted for my life. God has a plan for everyone. You can get through grad school without God, as I’m sure thousands of people do. But when you have God on your side, you have someone to turn to during those lonely times in grad school. When you have a relationship with God, He will keep your mental and physical health in check (along with #5 above).

He blessed me with good friends and family and provided me with a hopeful future. He is actually my number ONE reason that I made it this far and can truly say that I am a happy and very hopeful person. Grad school is a very long road. A PhD can take 5-7 years. I knew this before I started the program, but wasn’t prepared for how hard it would truly be. But the one thing I learned was to not give up, and God gave me the strength to see it through.

Read this poem

God has a purpose and plan for everyone whether we see it or not.. And in the end, all things will work out.. Do not be so short-sighted that you want everything now. Each day adds to the equation of perseverance.. So push yourself to the end and the next chapter of your life. But most importantly, don’t try to do it by yourself. Once you include God in your life, you will realize that there are bigger, better, and more important things than your own goals, selfish reasons, and broken dreams…

10)   Grad School Taught Me To Work Smarter and Not Necessarily Harder.

The key word here is: Productivity. Multitasking? No problem. “Work smarter and not harder” is my last lesson that I learned in grad school. When I look back at my past 4.5 years of grad school, I realize how hard I did truly work. Nights, weekends, and evenings on weekdays. But in my later years, as I became more competent, my productivity peaked. I learned how to multi-task and plan experiments better. Not just in lab, but also in my daily life.

It also empowered me to say “No” to my PI when something else made more sense to pursue. Your PI’s are a huge pool and wealth of ideas. But you have to know when to put your foot down and tell them you’re writing your paper. Or focus/cut off the experiments. Because if you don’t, they will take advantage of you and keep you longer. If you want that extra first author paper and need it for your career, then go for it.

But when you are working “smarter” and not necessarily harder, you will come to realize that a big part of this is knowing when you have enough data and the complete story to publish. Then the light at the end of the tunnel becomes more closely within your reach.

Overall, I learned effective time management: I can do multiple experiments, write my paper, maintain my social life, and run a business on the side all at once. And that’s all while maintaining my sanity.


Further Reading:

1) Graduate School Advice Series: 10 Things You Should Know Before Starting A PhD

2) Transferable PhD Skills

3) 6 Ways To Find Balance and Survive The Daily Grind and Repetition Of Graduate School

4) Phillip Guo’s PhD Grind Epilogue/20 memorable lessons

Comments

  1. This is so interesting and so true in many levels!

  2. john heinz says:

    Well done Ryan!! I am really proud of fact that you graduate in a few months!
    Being back in school is daunting but reading your blog and dissecting what I could use in my own school studies was a big help! I DO become overwhelmed at times with full tiem work and trying to get papers in on time. But…I take one step at a time and not let it overwhelm me.
    Academia and school DOES give me a whole new perspective on my life.
    Good luck in all your endeavors nephew!! BTW Barbie is really proud of you

  3. Thanks for all the comments! I appreciate it. Very excited to move forward and start the next chapter of my life. Just want to give back to others while I am in the midst of everything. More to come…

  4. Hey Great Article, especially # 7, I have a few tips on publishing for grad students as well on my site
    EpidemiologyPrograms

  5. loved reading it…it was a really nice article

  6. Alex Iyer says:

    Hey Ryan, I can’t tell you how encouraging this was! I am just finishing my first year and, having not published yet, am suffering from the “headless chicken” syndrome.
    I also believe in God, and I’m really glad you mentioned Him in this context-since starting, my prayer life has definitely increased! Thanks for the support bro

    • Thanks for the comment Alex! I am glad that you found the article useful. Hang in there-it does get better. The prelims were actually the hardest for me (harder than writing the actual thesis). So coming over the hump (around year 3), my workload didn’t necessarily decrease-but I did become more on an ‘expert’ and felt more confident with my thesis project-enough to ‘hook’ me and drive me to graduate. It’s really nice to see that all your hard work pays off and things tend to unfold (think of like telling a research story and finding cool discoveries along the way in the midst of the unknown). But you gotta keep pushing even when the going gets tough (and believe there were times when I just wanted to bang my head against the wall). A lot of repetitive 2AM western blots and hours spent in the cold room sonicating ChIP samples too. I honestly don’t think that you necessarily have to be ‘smart’ to get a PhD, you just have to be the one who persevered (let’s face it, it is very lonely and isolated at times)- till the end. God will help push you through. So keep moving forward and always remember to look up when you need Him the most.

  7. Thank you so much for this piece. I’m writing my final comprehensive exam this morning and I need to hear that if I focus on God’s plan, He will see me through.

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