If there is one suggestion you must follow in grad school, it is that you should always agree to people’s requests for help. It will help you in a multitude of ways:
- People will like you and treat you better;
- You will learn skills you wouldn’t otherwise have obtained;
- This person now owes you something back.
It was easy advice for me to take. As a freshly minted graduate student, I was eager to get my hands into anything I could. I wanted my name on published work and I wanted to learn. I found myself wrangling animal care volunteers, completing someone else’s dissertation analysis, and corresponding with angry middle school moms. Piled on top of my teaching responsibilities, classes, and my own research, I soon found myself overwhelmed with the length of my to-do list and felt I was disappointing everyone who was relying on me.
I have since acquired the following lessons from different sources, including mentors, fellow grad students, and a ballistic missile alert from the US government.
Take each with a grain of salt, and make sure to tailor them to your own life and style.
1. “Don’t overwhelm yourself. Don’t underwhelm yourself. Just be whelmed.”
This first advice I learned the hard way. Grad school is meant to be challenging. If you’re not learning and not working toward your goals, you’re underwhelmed. If you aren’t being challenged, you’re not learning as much as you can, which means you’re not really getting the full benefit of the degree. Most of us are probably more familiar with being overwhelmed - our mental and physical health suffer from perhaps working long hours, managing too many projects, and/or dealing with toxic people. Some people can deal with more stress than others, so you shouldn’t think that just because your labmate can handle a certain workload you can too. If you find yourself crying, losing sleep, or getting unusually angry, it could mean you’re overwhelmed.
It can be difficult to admit you can’t handle something, especially if you had previously accepted the challenge enthusiastically. Honesty and transparency is usually the best policy. If you still want to take on all the tasks, you can try extending your deadlines or taking on a smaller part of a project.
How will you know when you are perfectly whelmed? Like always, it differs by person. I usually feel whelmed when my to-do list is never empty but I have enough wiggle room in my schedule to take an ample lunch break - and not take my work home. Sometimes it feels like swimming against the flow of grad school culture, where long hours and overflowing inboxes are expected. This dissonance between expectation, reality, and identity can be bothersome, but also overcome.
2. “Well that’s the secret, we’re all pretending.”
Imposter syndrome (the feeling that you are surrounded by competent people and you yourself are somehow masquerading as one of them) is nearly impossible to avoid, especially in grad school. Everyone is accomplished; more importantly, it seems everyone is more accomplished than you. Your inbox and social media feeds are constantly flooded with announcements of someone’s newest grant or their trending publication. Where are your awards? Why haven’t you earned a grant yet? Despite the inherent differences in advisor support, money, and years of experience, why are you not earning the exact same awards as everybody else? Are you perhaps comparing apples to oranges? Impossible!
“You’re way out of your league! Stop googling things you were supposed to know already! You peaked in 2nd grade,” whispers the thought gremlin. You get the feeling that not only are you acutely aware of your own failings, but also that everyone else around you is gossiping about your worthlessness behind your back.
As we had lunch, I confessed as nonchalantly as possible, “Sometimes I feel like I’m just pretending to know whatever I’m doing.”
My lunch partner said back to me, “Well that’s the secret, we’re all pretending.”
Does that scare or comfort you? On one hand, it’s a relief to know you’re not alone in feeling that you are pretending or ‘faking it.’ On the other hand, doesn’t that mean that many organizations and labs are held together by people pretending to know what they’re doing? And doesn’t that also mean that you’ll never be rid of imposter syndrome? It might make you feel better (as it did for me) to just accept such intrusive thoughts. They’re totally normal, and if nothing else, fake it till you make it.
To monitor my progress from a slightly more objective view, I try to pay attention to my own feedback. My peers may be doing well (and good for them!) but that doesn’t mean I’m doing poorly. I just assume I’m par for the course, and when someone does give me a compliment, I keep it in my pocket to look at later. I can’t put it on my CV like I could a grant, but it still carries meaning. So far, no one has come to throw me out of the program and so I’m comfortable that I’m doing okay. When my PI comes with the eviction notice, I’ll hit the panic button...but that day hasn’t come yet and if it ever does, he’ll definitely drop some warnings first. Until then, I have to do my best to keep a broad perspective and practice good mental health techniques.
3. “Everyone has something they can use to make themselves feel better.”
A new professor suggested that I needed to get on social media to find a community for myself and build a support network to help relieve stress. I subsequently signed up for Twitter for professional reasons and occasionally shout an angry complaint into the void. Though I follow some colleagues, I rarely read anything they post. Since I’m a pretty hardcore introvert and don’t like my work following me home, having a 24/7 line to the lab wasn’t relaxing at all. It aggravated my stress rather than relieving it and I all but quit Twitter in 72 hours.
This professor was well intentioned in suggesting that I expand my support system. However, finding that community on social media did not work for me, at least at this point in my career. This advice was articulated in a different way by another professor:
“Everyone had something they can use to make themselves feel better. Without that thing, people can get really stressed.”
4. “I am not dwelling on the mistake. I am always thinking about the next step.”
During a period of stressful fieldwork on a nearly deserted island, a fellow grad student came to me to vent. Some of her students had messed up, and they were spiraling into a cycle of self-doubt and pessimism, feeling that they’d let down their mentor and that she would forever be disappointed in them.
The grad student, of course, thought otherwise. She spoke with me in her characteristically abrupt way, speaking quickly and punctuating her sentences with hard pauses, gesturing forcefully with her hands:
“I am not dwelling on the mistake! I am always thinking about the next step!”
It seems like obvious advice, but can be difficult to embrace. We are encouraged to reflect on what went wrong and then fix whatever we’ve done. And while our mentors may not think any less of us, we must also be kind to ourselves. The most important thing, after all, is fixing the issue. If you can’t fix it, there is no next step, so just let it go.
I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in my research, and it mostly results in redoing whatever step I messed up on – but better. Rather than framing things as, “what went wrong,” it’s much more productive to ask, “what can we do better?” The comb jellies died because the flow of water wasn’t strong enough – we can do better next time by checking the flow every day and adjusting it as necessary. And in the end even if I can’t fix the problem, at least I tried. Not every problem is fixable and that’s okay.
5. “It is not a matter of life and death.”
I got the text message we were all semi-joking about, but hoped we would never get.
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
The timestamp on my notification was way beyond the 15 minutes we had heard it would take for a missile to travel from North Korea to Hawaii, but I hadn’t yet gotten a message that the danger was gone. This was everyone’s worst nightmare – Pearl Harbor on the nuclear scale. Thankfully, I checked the most reliable source of information known – Twitter – and was able to breathe a sigh of relief when I realized we weren’t in imminent danger. Even after I put my phone down, I lay in bed feeling like I had just narrowly escaped vaporization (even though I hadn’t) and nursed a newfound appreciation for being alive.
We all want to work hard and earn our degrees, but this event made me think in a different way. You may know someone that makes crazy statements like, “I’m going to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week so I can graduate in 3 years.” But even if you can dedicate all your time to your work and forgo your friends, family, and hobbies, there is surely some unforeseen event that will happen outside of the ivory tower that will knock it down. While a ballistic missile is an extreme example, other events like large political changes, the death of a loved one, or a sudden change in finances will almost certainly reach you.
My office mate shared his sentiments with me, saying:
“Well, it is not a matter of life or death. If it does not work out, I will just go home, eh?”
While grad school is important, it’s still only a small part of the broader scheme of things. To this point, I’ve stopped thinking about grad school as some all-encompassing thing that I absolutely must succeed in. My loved ones, the political environment, and current events also require my appreciation, time, and effort. These factors also affect my research and its applicability, so it’s a win-win all around.
These 5 pieces of advice sound like fortune cookie fortunes. I never asked for any of this advice, but one way or another it fell into my hands through daily conversation or experience. While I can appreciate the advice, I usually just end up eating the cookie and getting rid of the paper shortly after. Only once my life takes a dramatic turn do I actually start consciously thinking about what I’m doing and what kind of advice I should be following – didn’t I read this proverb somewhere? It kind of feels relevant now.
Perhaps this list of advice will be the same for you. Please feel free to take my advice to heart, but also keep in mind that your life might not need the same approach as mine. If it does, feel free to come back and revisit these ideas. I hope they help you as much as they helped me.
About the Author
Joanna Lee is a Ph.D. student at Boston University studying the evolution of parasitism through the lens of gene expression. She was born and raised in Hawaii and holds a bachelor’s degree in Science Education from Boston University. Joanna volunteers in classrooms and is passionate about demystifying science to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. In her free time, Joanna enjoys visual arts, reading, and creating social media for her Pomeranian.