During my three-year (and counting) tenure as a Ph.D. student at the University of New Brunswick, I’ve held numerous positions as a teaching assistant (TA) within my academic department. Teaching grade school is something that I had initially considered as a career path until I was introduced to the wonderful world of research, but teaching is something that I continue to take quite seriously as a prospecting academic. Given the unique relationship between TA and student, I’ve been able to mentor and help undergraduate students in a myriad of different ways. However, one recurring theme that students continue to seek advice for is whether or not to attend graduate school.
Personally, I love graduate school, so I am a great promotional tool. I’m of the mindset that graduate school is a very unique time in a researcher’s career that can be a great experience (and indeed it has been just that for me). Yet, I see and hear of so many graduate students having a very difficult time in grad school, and ultimately seeing it as a negative part of their life. As a result, many students drop out of graduate school, particularly Ph.D. students (sometimes dropping out can be for the best; see a great post on this topic here). I think it’s true that it takes a certain type of person to endure graduate school, but it also takes a series of strategic and well researched decisions to optimize your graduate school experience. And so here I want to offer some personal suggestions on how to decide whether or not to enroll in and attend graduate school and, once in, how to maximize your grad school experience.
I’m thinking about grad school, what should I consider?
Don’t attend grad school because you “don’t know what to do next”: Contrary to popular belief, graduate school should not be a consideration that’s taken lightly. Like any other endeavor in life, some people are not cut out for graduate school; others are perfect for it. And so going to grad school for the sole reason of being unsure what to do next in life is a bad idea. Make sure you are choosing graduate school for the right reasons – because you are passionate about what you study and you are committed to standing on the forefront of knowledge. Otherwise, you may very well be wasting your time and that of others, and having a bad time doing it.
Choose a PI, not a school: I hear of far too many graduate students choosing a school over a PI or project simply because of the prestige of that school – BAD IDEA! Although some schools don’t allow you to hand-pick a PI, many do, and it’s worth investigating what these schools have to offer. A Ph.D. program is a 4-year (usually longer) commitment that will be optimized by choosing a supervisor who is compatible with you as both a researcher and a person.
Follow your passion, not the letters after your name: If you’re considering graduate school, it’s likely that you’ve been involved with some sort of research program or are excited about a particular field that you studied in your undergraduate courses. Credentials are great, but it’s important to recognize that passion most often fuels success and happiness in graduate school. Choosing a topic that gets you excited to no end is going to make your experience all the more enjoyable and can promote important novel discoveries as a developing researcher.
Is it the right time? Be sure to take into consideration where you are in life. Graduate school can be tough when you have a family, job, and/or debt. All of these personal life attributes are important to consider when thinking about graduate studies.
Alright, I’m in! What now?
Take the lead: Independence is essential in graduate school, and if you’ve followed your passion and have chosen a compatible supervisor, then you should have the ability to take the lead! Remember, this is your project, and so it should reflect the questions you’re interested in. Utilize your PI’s expertise to optimize the quality of your work, but make the project your own.
Be realistic: It’s important to be realistic with respect to your research project. Here in Canada, a Master’s thesis is scheduled to be finished in two years and a Ph.D. in four (although they most often take longer). Be sure to structure your project with this timeline in mind. It’s easy to get excited about new research opportunities and waddle outside of the scope of a degree. If your PI suggests a project that you think is impossible to get done in the time frame given, be realistic and say no!
Learn to say ‘no’: If you’re in graduate school, it’s most likely that you’re an excelling person with an overachieving work ethic. Great! But this may result in people taking advantage of you – even your own PI! Make sure you know when to say no to a request that you don’t have the time to do. Of course, do this in a respectful manner, but your job as a graduate student isn’t to organize your PI’s thirty year collection of journal articles.
Criticism is a good thing: As a prospecting academic, you must learn to accept criticism in all forms, whether it’s positive or negative. Although it may be difficult, learning to harness that criticism to become a better researcher rather than treating it as a hurdle will make your time in graduate school much easier. One way to do this is to remember that all academics are criticized, not just you! You are smart enough for grad school, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Criticism is an aspect of academia at all levels – don’t take it personally.
Don’t stop learning: This goes beyond graduate school as well. You don’t know everything there is to know – nobody does – so remember to never stop learning. This is one of the best things about graduate school! Not only are you continually learning from your colleagues, but you are at the forefront of knowledge! You are now contributing to how we, as humans, understand the ways in which the world works, and that is exciting!
Try not to compare yourself to the merits of other graduate students: It’s easier said than done. But remember: different projects move at different paces. If a colleague is publishing and you aren’t, don’t sweat it! In ecology, for example, a purely field based study is going to take longer to publish than an experimental study. At the very least, consider all the variables before you reach a conclusion about your performance.
Take time to de-stress: In graduate school, your work should certainly be a top priority, but that doesn’t mean that you should spend every waking day working. Some graduate students enjoy the work so much that it doesn’t really feel like work (myself included), but even they need to step back at times and spend a couple of days to de-stress. Go for a hike, head out on a road trip, or simply relax – it’s important to make time for the other passions in your life, and coupling those with de-stressing can help to optimize productivity and overall happiness.