Myths about the Average Graduate Student x 1

You can’t talk to folks thinking of getting a graduate education without hearing a graduate school myth. For example: “you must be completely sure of yourself; no one gets in”. Unless you have complete faith in yourself or suffer from delusions of grandeur, imposter syndrome is bound to hit everyone sooner or later. But here is a dirty little secret… Everyone is still figuring things out as they go along. And it’s insidious to maintain the illusion that PhD students, postdocs, or professors are always the smartest people in the room.

Graduate School Myth #1: You need to have a natural intuition for science

No. Science doesn’t come easily to everyone. I used to think that I was simply dumb for taking longer than my classmates to understand lectures. It’s hard for me to understand a talk instantly, because I lose track of the story. However, I found workarounds. For my classes, I record the lecture. Then, I listen to it over and over to make sure I understood every point. I ask lots of questions even if I feel the points are basic. There is no shame in genuinely not understanding something the first couple times. I take notes during talks and revisit them later to try to piece together their work again. If it is published work, I look over the papers.

Science is a process, and you do have to work at it to improve. You need a certain amount of resiliency. If you don’t understand something, you need to be willing to look at it again and again. You need to seek out alternative resources: online lectures, problem sets, Stack Exchange. It will bolster your learning.

Everyone has a different learning style. Maybe you can look at a math equation at a talk and know exactly what’s going on. But, maybe you need to follow up on it later. Regardless, figure out your learning style. Figure out a system to maximize your learning success.

Graduate School Myth #2: You will go into academia

Years ago, there was an expectation that people with PhDs would end up in faculty positions. However, there has been a proliferation of PhD programs, increased class sizes, with a reduction in faculty spots across academia. It has become increasingly harder to land one of those sweet professorships. Given these limitations, less than a quarter of PhD holders eventually land a position as faculty. Knowing this, lots of institutions have developed resources for students to explore careers outside of academia. For example, my university offers mini-courses on subjects like entrepreneurship, negotiation, and science communication. It also has a seminar series given by alumni working in non-academic settings. Since you have a couple of years in your PhD program, explore and try talking to people in different fields. You may be surprised at what you gravitate to. After all, you can’t be interested in something you don’t know about!

Some graduate students join a PhD program KNOWING they don’t want to stay in academia. It is completely reasonable. There are many fields in government, industry, tech and policy, that benefit from having PhD graduates. These applicants have deep technical knowledge. More importantly, they have generalizable skills in critical-thinking and project management that can be widely applied to different jobs. In fact, we believe that the most valuable take-away from the PhD experience is learning how to formulate and implement creative solutions to hard problems.

Graduate School Myth #3: You need to be a solitary genius

Science should be a cooperative endeavor! Graduate school is an amazing, intellectually overwhelming ecosystem. Your next idea can come from chatting with the graduate student next door. In the average-case scenario, you should be able to receive support from multiple avenues.

First and foremost, you should be comfortable sharing your ideas with your PI and your lab. Avoid labs that reek of intra-lab competition. You will likely have to hoard your ideas in fear of being scooped by your own colleagues. Instead, find environments that foster collaboration, healthy intellectual discussions, and a support culture.

The next avenue is your thesis committee. Meeting with your committee at least once a year will help teach you how to communicate ideas to people outside of your immediate field. You can gain perspectives from experienced scientists about the feasibility and impact of your work.

Last but not least, you can draw upon the collective power of your department, even your field. One of the most important skills you will learn is how to communicate ideas to people. With it, you should form connections with colleagues and more experienced members of the community. Initially, I was solely talking with my PI, and occasionally with my thesis committee. I was pretty shy about reaching out to other professors. While I still find this difficult, I am trying to become better at contacting other professors to chat and ask for their advice. (Link to our Reach Out post!) If you are in a department with nice professors, they will be more than happy to impart their wisdom!


…… CONTINUED in Part 2!….



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