10 MORE Things I've Learned in Grad School - #2 Stepping in Shit: Failure and Conflict Pave a Path to Success
It's no secret that getting a graduate degree is anything but easy. There are going to be days where the “Valley of Shit” starts to look like there's no way out. You’ll start to question why you’re here. Wonder whether any of your work actually matters to anyone. You’ll start to daydream about the countless other things you could be doing with your young adult life. And yes. There will be the days where you seriously contemplate leaving. And to be honest with you, I think it takes more strength to leave than it does to stay. If somewhere along the way, you realize that you no longer need a graduate degree for the career you want to pursue, or you don’t even want to stay in the field you’re in at all anymore, it's hard to get out of your own ego, stop thinking about what others will think or say, and just own the decision you've made. I completely understand that until academia makes a conscious effort to change the culture around what it means to be a graduate student in STEM, we're going to continue to have students making the decision to pursue alternative careers that offer better incentives for their time and effort.
That being said, grad school can also be a very fulfilling experience for those who choose to stay. Among the tough days, there will also be days where you remember why you're here, and how you're going to get through it all. You'll see light at the end of the tunnel, and daydream about what it will feel like to finally say to yourself, "I did it". In the beginning, on top of classes, teaching, research, and hard deadlines for posters, papers, and presentations, you spend quite a bit of time just figuring out what it means to be a graduate student. Right around year two or three, no matter how much you prepare, there's going to be a few 'surprises' that make you question if this is the right path for you. Lesson number two of these 10 More #ThingsILearnedinGradSchool, stepping in shit, and learning how to deal with it, is part of the process.
#2: Failure and conflict pave a path to success.
First up: failure. One of the toughest lessons I've had to learn in grad school so far is that, as a graduate student, most of your time will be spent figuring out what NOT to do. What DOESN’T work.
Most of your experiments, lines of code, data analysis workflows-whatever you do each and every day-will fail the first time you run them. When you finally do get it to work, you may only run it one or two more times to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Then you publish, and come up with a whole new set of questions to start failing...er...I mean testing.
The first run through any new protocol.
You will start to doubt yourself. You'll try to change too many things at once, or too quickly, because you feel like you've fallen behind. And these will often just lead to more failure and frustration, and it becomes a vicious cycle.
I can't stress enough how important it is to not get too bummed out or jaded by the bad days. But, and possibly more importantly, to not get too excited about the good days.
My adviser shared this semifamous #bobism with me after I struggled through an experiment for weeks and then finally, one day, everything just clicked! I was so pumped, and I felt so accomplished, and he essentially told me, "Chill."
As it turns out though, those small successes are what has helped me get through this third year slump. They've served as helpful reminders of why I came here in the first place. With each new, albeit small, discovery comes a renewed sense of purpose and motivation.
With each failure, if you remind yourself of what you have accomplished, you may even find joy in each failure. Try keeping a list of the things you have accomplished since beginning your degree. A few things on mine right now include: permafrost thaw core study, developed website and blog, won a conference travel award, hiked in the Smokies, and attended Knoxville Brew Fest.
Hey, goals and accomplishments in grad school don't have to be, and probably shouldn't be, all work and no play. Grad school is a lot about keeping a steady pace, a level head, and an objective outlook to the future.
That, and making sure you haven't run out of caffeine. O_o
Embrace the daily failures as part of the process. Confront them head on, and then overcome them.
Which brings me to the second part of this equation: conflict.
We've probably all heard the expression "pick and choose your battles", right? Personally, before graduate school, I always took this to mean that, if you're in a conversation with someone and suddenly you notice this someone is disagreeing with you on a topic, you'd be better off to not continue that conversation and instead "take the high road", "brush it off" and think to yourself, "some people just aren't worth my time" or "this person is never going to change their mind based on something I say, so why even get into it?"
Personally, I find this to be an incredibly arrogant interpretation of what the phrase is SUPPOSED to mean! No, you shouldn't freak out at anyone and everyone who disagrees with you. But, why not have a conversation about a topic that someone sees differently than you do? And why not in graduate school?
You're surrounded by peers, from around the world, who grew up with different experiences, and who have a different understanding of the world than you.
And...you're a scientist! Why wouldn't you want to hear as many perspectives as possible on something you're curious about?
Still, I can't tell you the number of times I've disagreed with someone on something and they later refer to our conversation an "argument." So, yeah, you'll have to be prepared for that.
But, the whole origin of the phrase, and the part that people seem to forget, is to "choose your battles wisely." That doesn't mean give up entirely! Finding the right time and place to engage someone in conversation is something, in general, that needs to happen more, right?
With how polarized American politics has become, and with the increasing trend of "ignorance is bliss", maybe we shouldn't be so afraid to disagree with one another, or at the very least, start a dialogue? Dale Carnegie once said:
"Any fool can criticize, complain, condemn and most fools do. Picking your battles is impressive and fighting them fairly is essential."
It's that last part that's so important to this whole conflict-leads-to-success idea.
Be fair when you approach a conflict. Fair to whoever is disagreeing with you, and fair to yourself.
Conflict may come between graduate students in your department, with an undergraduate in one of the classes you're teaching, with your adviser, a collaborator, a professor of a class you're taking, and countless others. As introverted as you may think you are, you can't avoid these, and you shouldn't try to avoid them either. It's not fair to you to NOT speak up with what you think.
Every time you let someone tell you your new research idea, that conference you want to go to, or that internship you want to take isn't worth the time and money, by not engaging in that conflict, you haven't been fair to yourself. You've hurt your chances of making grad school as successful as it could be.
And maybe the key to this whole thing working, is being prepared for any outcome before you head into the conflict.
The conversation may not go the way you envisioned. And that's okay. Don't let it bum you out so much that you never want to do it again. Just because one didn't work out the way you wanted it to, doesn't mean you shouldn't try again in the future. Every conflict is a tiny bit different. Pick and choose, wisely, the ones you think will lead to constructive conversations. Having an informed electorate, and Facebook feed, depends on it!
Give these a try sometime to prepare for the conflicts you don't see coming:
Seek out others who you think see the world differently than you do.
Genuinely try to understand and empathize with where they're coming from.
Don't go into the conversation with the idea that you have to "prove a point" or "get someone to see things the way you do."
And you may just walk away with a better understanding and outlook for future discussions.
Failure and conflict have been an integral part of my grad school experience. They're an integral part of life really. We feel bad about failing, when really, we learn best by failing. And too often, we run away from conflict, when that’s when we learn the most.
What failures and conflicts have you overcome in grad school?
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
Blogs I Follow
Mass Spectrometry Blog
The Grad Student Way
Anthony's Science Blog
The Thesis Whisperer
Fossils and Shit
Science Communication Breakdown
Science Communication Media
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.