10 MORE Things I Learned in Grad School: #4 - Too Much Autonomy Can Actually Hurt You AND #5 - Support Networks are the Bee's Knees
Have you ever felt, since coming to grad school, that there’s kind of this unspoken expectation that if you can’t figure something out on your own, you might just not be cut out for the job?
You may have had a professor in class give you strange look when you asked a question, or your adviser gave you grief about not finishing up a tough experiment faster, or you see another grad student getting all of this stuff done while you’re over here adding ‘take shower’ to your to-do list so you feel like you at least got something done? Don't judge me.
Besides some of this being just the standard, run-of-the-mill insecurity of a bunch of twenty-somethings running around with mild cases of imposter syndrome, I’m starting to think more of it stems from this ensconced culture in the sciences that rewards, and even incentivizes autonomy and independence, while unintentionally belittling or penalizing collaboration and cooperation.
The fact that the main objective of grad school is to prove, dare I even say defend, that you have discovered something novel or innovative, is evidence enough for why academics seem to be a bit up tight about their ability to do things on their own. It may even explain why many are so reluctant to share data or ideas with a potential competitor…ahem...I mean colleague.
Also, with this being one of the first times in your formal education that you're the one posing new questions with unexplored answers, it only makes sense that you might feel a little inexperienced or inadequate.
And don't get me wrong, I totally get that there's value in developing this skill—getting comfortable with being uncomfortable; being okay with not knowing, or finding, the answer right away. That's the reason most graduate programs have students comb the literature for a 'knowledge gap' and then independently develop a proposal identifying specific aims, objectives, methods, and limitations for their hypothetical proposed study as part of the graduation requirements.
For all the first-year “Bredeseners” in my graduate program, this is called THE QUAL and it is quickly approaching...
Don't worry! You'll all be fine. :)
Anyway... so, yes, there is definitely value in being able to think independently, and objectively evaluate an experimental design and your results on your own.
But that doesn’t mean you have to learn how to do that on your own.
If you try too hard to be completely autonomous, turning away advice from friends and colleagues, whether it be in class, lab, or during the writing process, you're going to make a lot more mistakes. And it may actually take you longer to do what you want to do, as opposed to if you had reached out for guidance first.
Learning how to design and evaluate your science independently and objectively goes a whole lot smoother if you have a few support networks along the way. Which brings me to #5 of this #thingsilearnedingradschool series...
Use as many resources as you can!
You don’t have to ‘do’ grad school alone. Try starting with these 5 easy ways to build your network! And please add others that have worked for you in the comments!
1. Know what resources are available to you through your university.
For example, your departmental or graduate school office often has resources to help you navigate how to choose classes, form a committee, and cross all your t's for graduation. But there are also a bunch of other resources outside the graduate school and your department that don't get a lot of public attention:
- Check to see if there's an office for research or a writing center. They sometimes hold seminars or workshops on how to write a grant or journal article, how to apply for a scientific conference, or how to get IRB approval, for example.
- When you start thinking about what you want to do after grad school (it won't be too long after you start really), check to see if there's a career center or job fairs offered and go meet/attend them to see what's out there.
- There also may come a time in grad school when it all starts to feel like just too much to handle. It's helpful to be aware of the resources offered through a counseling center on campus or nearby.
2. Meet with grad students from your program who joined before you.
Or with grad students that have already graduated. Even if you haven’t met them before, send an email asking to go out for coffee or a beer some time. If you’re worried you’ll come off as naïve or helpless (that’s the insecurity talking), let me be the one to tell you, you won’t! Most will actually think the exact opposite and see you as proactive, organized, and motivated.
3. Make a few contacts with PI's outside of your lab group/department.
Your relationship with your adviser is definitely the first one you should develop but engaging with faculty outside of your field will often lead to new and unique perspectives you wouldn’t otherwise have found and this can be incredibly valuable in deciding which career you want to pursue, forming collaborations in future, and a whole host of other benefits.
4. Join the local section of your favorite professional society.
Or a student organization on campus that interests you. They usually have semi-regular events and socials with people who all have at least one common interest making it easier to strike up a conversation about your science, your most recent grad school hurdle, or just about anything really.
5. Check in with friends and family every now and then.
The key to this last one is to 'make time'. Everyone is busy. Quit being a millennial flake and commit! ;) It's okay to spend time socializing every once in awhile. Text a friend and go bowling! Go for a hike! Play board games or binge on Game of Thrones. Whatever takes your mind off of classes and research. And as for family, even if they don't have a background in what you do, or they don't always seem to understand the details of your science, they can understand and appreciate when something is important to you or when something is making you feel a bit off.
Bottom line, you don't have to go at this alone! And you shouldn't have to.
Even though we're all well on our way to 30 years old (some of us may be past that mark... :P), grad school is still school. It's about learning and asking for guidance when you need it.
Do you have any recommendations for support networks? Was there a time when you wish you would have asked for a little help?
See you in the comments!
Welcome to Think Like a Postdoc. If you're a fan of science as much as I am, and/or are curious about getting a degree in a STEM field, or pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate degree (all from the perspective of a graduate student), then you're in the right place. Think Like a Postdoc also includes posts about my current lab and field research, including analytical chemistry, Arctic biogeochemistry, and energy & environmental policy. Comments and questions are always welcomed. And please tell me what you want to hear about next!
Questions to Ask Before Choosing Grad Program
First Semester of Grad School
Field Work in Alaska
Science Conference Dos and Don'ts
Women in STEM Series
Things I've Learned in Grad School Series
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The Grad Student Way
Anthony's Science Blog
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Fossils and Shit
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