So this has been a long time coming. As I sit here, slowly getting drowsy and maybe a little high from my good ol’ perky (yes, an unexpected root canal has led me to more scripts … smh). I am reflecting on what is an almost 9 year journey and counting. 9 years!!!
If the people who knew me now, knew me back then… they would have never guessed that I, of all people, would still be lingering in graduate school. I could never have guessed it myself. I had a plan… and I knew where I was going.
My freshman year in undergrad, I discovered I was not as dumb as I thought. Unlike high school where I made the full spectrum of grades, I found myself “excelling” in my classes… well, in all but the ones I hated… For example: Dr Prigg’s english class – where you got locked out if you arrived when class started, also known as the hardest english course, though introductory. Linear algebra – which back then, seemed to have no purpose, but now I regret not paying attention. And essentially all the other elective courses that did not stimulate my critical thinking skills in any way.
With time, teachers were giving me extra assignments to keep me engaged, were allowing me to skip final exams because they knew I would ace them, especially my math courses. By the time I graduated, I was off to Finland, for my second international research internship and had a 3.8_ GPA. Not perfect, but pretty decent considering my background.
The whole time, I was convinced by multiple professors that grad school was the route for me, because I was able to think… and would succeed at it.
I was excited. It seemed like a match made in heaven… spending years, receiving a modest stipend to be a student, getting to work on/solve real life problems. To be able to learn and apply that knowledge to something tangible… yes, It sounded like a dream. I would never be bored, after all I loved chemistry for that very reason… it challenged me.
However, the challenges I have experienced through my graduate career… were not what I anticipated…nor was I warned about them.
1) I’ll start by saying, graduate school is NOT academically hard… it is mentally hard.
When people are selling it to you, they do not tell you that you can no longer rely on having rewarding milestones to make you feel like your accomplishing something. There are a limited number of courses you will take…so you quickly realize, no one is really that concerned with grades. That mentality might as well go out the window. There is no pat on the back…
2) Your research advisor, principal investigator (PI), boss, aka head honcho mentor… can make or break your career in a single sweep or the slow and steady decline….or even the prolonged “long and winding” road journey to the finish line.
My 9 years… has been a combination of ALL of … LOL. I have no clue what category to fit it in.
2.5 yrs was spent with one boss who trapped me into a project he loved and i did not…another 2.5 was spent with a boss who got fed up with my lack of motivation, due to working on a project that was a dead-end… and now the past 3 years (well technically 2 of actual productive work), has been spent with the best mentors I have encountered so far…and I am finally closer to the finish line.. but also pretty burnt out.
3) Though your co-workers can not truly determine your career… they can make that journey dreadfully painful.. or the most enriching tale of friendships and support you will encounter!
I have experienced both…between a group that was united in friendship, laughter, potlucks, tears, tragedies…etc… and a group where within the first 1.5 years of my joining, the tension was so thick that when you walked into a meeting, you gasped as you entered the room.
But in each case, you come to realize the significance of collaborating… learning to be flexible and adjusting… coming to appreciate the good that exists in even the most conniving of characters. You also learn to respect people regardless of how you feel or how they act… basically to make the most of the experience because you will be with these people for at least 3 to 6 (or so) years of your life.
If you find yourself in a “the world is coming to an end mentality” aka severely struggling to cope, you will probably realize some maturing has to occur on your part…
4) Research takes PATIENCE and truly changing your thinking.
It really does not matter how smart you are…how driven and self-motivated you are… RARELY will you stumble on miracle results that earn you that instant gratification of publication worthy stories. Which means, you have to set you mind up for the training ground of ENDURANCE. There will be failures, hits and misses, subtle or abrasive condescension, competition, bitter battles with that sense of defeat, spurts of basking in your productivity…secretly hoping it won’t go unrecognized aka pat on the back moment lol. All of these lead to pretty intense emotional responses…which brings me to
5) Let’s be real… no matter how independent you consider yourself…you NEED support.
There is no going solo on this journey… there are days you may find yourself crippled… in need of just a little human interaction… love… something that brings life to the dry, dead bones caused by constant staying afloat in quick sand.
For me….God, the numerous people he has placed in my life whether for short periods or long-term, family (with all the imperfections), activities I take part in which I love (ex singing, hanging, travelling, etc), and those times of spontaneity where I chose to go against fulfilling the daily demands of this worker bee society, and just rest/live…have been key in coming this far.
IF someone were to ask me to do this journey all over again… I would say “Hecks naw!”
But I would not oppose re-doing it with a more realistic view of what grad school really entails…and making wiser choices a lot faster.
So to those who are considering it… talk to people who will be honest with you about the journey. People who will be deliberate in sharing the success and failure stories over trying to seem so intellectually superior and/or act like they have everything together…to preserve the facade of how perfect their lives are.
Be ready for an experience like none other… a true challenge and test of character. And make the decision, right from the start… and every single day… that you will not let the system or anyone else define you and what you can accomplish… that you will be honest with yourself as you learn or re-discover what your passionate about or not so passionate about… that you are the person, people can trust. Make someone elses journey just a little brighter along the way…recognizing that though research may have a global impact in the direction of science and/or products created for the masses or maybe more small-scale… the impact of what you do to another living soul, counts on an eternal level.
As I write this blog, I realize these are things I would have liked to know and/or tell myself before I began. Either way, today I can say I am grateful to be a little more aware and closer to the end.
(If only I could be inspired to write my dissertation so fluidly)