This Thanksgiving I had a little something extra to be thankful for; two and a half weeks ago I successfully defended my master’s thesis, “Spatio-temporal patterns and ecological drivers of harbor porpoise off the central Oregon Coast”. It’s a good thing too because I think it was starting to turn me into a harbor porpoise. The last month, I was solitary, constantly eating, and I think I was starting to sleep with one hemisphere of my brain, while the other kept working.
In the weeks leading up to the submission of my thesis, I daydreamed about my life on the ‘other side’. As a means of pushing myself over the final hurdle I envisioned what it would be like to be free of a thesis, to reclaim my weekends, and how relieved I would feel to hand over the culmination of two and a half years of work – and at last here I am: on the other side, well almost.
The first week after my defense was just about as busy as the weeks leading up to my defense. I spent my time filing paperwork and moving things, packing up my office and house to head back to my home state of Indiana for the holidays, and tying up loose ends in Newport. For the past couple of weeks, I have been finishing up revisions on my thesis and formatting my work for publication, all while starting to look for a new job. After defending my masters I found time to “actually breathe” – I’m still as busy as always but now with a more consistent sleep schedule. The shift from all-research-and-writing-all-the-time has given me time to reflect a bit on what I’ve gained from the graduate school experience and what I know I still want or need to learn from it. Graduate school has supplied me with a tool box of skills that I didn’t realize I was acquiring day to day. Now, however, looking back over the years I realize how much I’ve grown as both a scholar and a person and in more ways than just learning how to craft scientific tweets in less than 140 characters (this really does take some skill).
Perseverance and Diligence
One big thing I learned from graduate school was how to transition from “panic” to “problem solving”. There were endless days of back breaking work that I had nothing to show for and days when I succumbed to imposter syndrome. I learned to pick myself up and solve the problems at hand though and find a way to move forward, sometimes even scratching my original idea to move towards something that worked in the end. That’s life. Things go wrong, plans don’t work out and yet our ability to pick ourselves up and carry on is one of the best skills we have. In graduate school you learn to never give up.
I now assume that anyone who has been to graduate school is essentially an expert at multi-tasking. Between running a field season, taking and teaching courses, submitting research proposals, and trying to balance a social life, I didn’t realize how much of a pro I became at juggling many things at once. In other words, gaining a fundamental skill for being a working scientist
Graduate school taught me how to find the information I need. Every day I had a moment where I didn’t know an answer. In the beginning, I thought all you had to do was ask, but sometimes the first person you ask doesn’t know the answer either. Over time, I learned to dig through the literature, ask an expert in the field, or my favorite “try several different things and see how they differ”. Once I learned the hard lesson that there isn’t always an easy way out, I had subconsciously created an order of operations to figure it out.
Collaboration (and giving back the help to others who struggle where you once did)
Not many jobs teach us to work with a bunch of different minded people, but grad school does! I learned to work as a team, with scientists within and outside my lab who had personalities different from mine. Graduate school taught me to collaborate as much as possible and, more importantly, help someone with less experience to figure out their coding problems, or help them get their research proposals or publications out. Offering advice or expertise for a certain skill or method when I was busy helped me develop my team-building skills and proved to myself that I had skills to share.
There are good moments within bad moments
When a bad moment presented itself, I learned to focus on the good and recognize the moments that things worked out because I didn’t give up. These included following a bad presentation with a strong one, sparking the interest of collaborators, receiving an award for a conference presentation, or just the simple self-satisfaction of getting an R code to work properly. There are a lot of good moments in grad school, and it became important for me to celebrate them when they happened, but also not to take them for granted because they don’t come as often as the bad ones.
Importance of a strong support system
Unlike a harbor porpoise – I am very social person. Some can get through graduate school without any social interaction or encouragement from others, but there was no way that would have worked for me. Everyone copes with bad moments in graduate school in different ways – so my friends and family were my life-raft, especially those living in Newport. Mental and physical health are important to maintain in graduate school and it was beneficial for me to form a community early to help me through the tough moments. Although friends and family cannot completely relate to your situation (unless maybe they are also a graduate student) they will hear you out, care, listen and pull you out of a slump. Accepting their support and help drastically improved my mental health.
Work smarter, not necessarily harder, and forge your own path
When I look back at my past 2.5 years of graduate school now, I realize how hard I did truly work. I worked nights, weekends and evenings on weekdays. But in my last few months, I became more competent as my productivity peaked. I learned how to multi-task and plan better – not just in school, but also in my daily life. Graduate programs force you to do unique research, as you can’t write a thesis by reproducing someone else’s work. You have to learn from what others have done and then get creative. Creating something original demands trust in yourself, and avoiding trying to compare yourself to others. Forging your own path can be uncomfortable, but necessary.
I am confident to say that graduate school overall made me a better scientist, and a better person. I value the training and education that I was fortunate enough to receive. It seems everyone starts graduate school with stars in their eyes, and then sometime in the middle we get weighed down by the failures and frustrations of graduate life, and we can fail to remember what brought us here in the first place: Intense curiosity, a desire to learn, and a chance to improve the world. These factors made me opt for this experience and in spite of all the hardships along the way, grad school gave me a set of life skills. So if you are contemplating graduate school, currently working toward a graduate degree, or in a transitional phase of job-seeking or career-changing, I suggest taking a minute to reflect on what you have already, or could gain, from graduate school.
My days as a current GEMM lab member are dwindling down as finish my edits, preparing publications, search for jobs, and rekindle my network – but I look forward to being a long distance cheerleader for the current and future members of the GEMM lab.
When I entered graduate school – one of my committee members told me I would go through the five stages of grief – and she was right – but the end reward was more than worth it.
“Being a graduate student is like becoming all of the Seven Dwarves. In the beginning, you’re Dopey and Bashful. In the middle, you are usually sick (Sneezy), tired (Sleepy), and irritable (Grumpy). But at the end, they call you Doc, and then you’re Happy.”