If you are reading this post, I am willing to bet you fall into one of two categories:
1. Perseverance is Key
This is true both in life and in grad school. Do not give up. There are countless articles about famous people who failed many times before finally being successful. Here is one if you are interested (opens in new window). A common problem in grad school is imposter syndrome. This is when you feel like you don't belong there, you are not smart enough, and people are going to notice that you aren't good enough to be there. We all struggle with this. The best advice I can give you is to accept the doubt and keep going. Whenever you are feeling hopeless, just remember Dory's advice, "just keep swimming." (preferably sing it in her voice)
2. Commit to the Program
My first semester of grad school was brutal. I had a bad case of imposter syndrome, I wasn't sure I had made the right choice, and I missed home more than I ever have before. My second semester of grad school was difficult, but went much smoother. The biggest difference? Commitment. Once I stopped questioning the program, wondering about whether I could make it through, and even considering dropping out, the entire experience became a lot easier. Once you're in grad school, commit and don't look back.
3. Be Open to the Learning Experience
Related to the point above, I wondered after I had entered the program if it would fully prepare me for the job I wanted. For that matter, I wondered what job was it that I wanted. Some people are fortunate enough to know what they want to be from a very young age. Both of my brothers had that kind of clarity (I've always been jealous of that). If you are not sure what you want to do or are in a program that doesn't feel quite right, stick it out and remain open. Grad school is inherently uncomfortable. You learn tons of complicated material faster than you have ever had to before. However, in this uncomfortable, whirlwind experience is an opportunity to know yourself better. In grad school, I finally solidified my career plans, learned what career I wanted after I graduated, and learned a lot about engineering, synthetic biology, molecular bioengineering, medical devices, and product development.
4. Never be Afraid to Ask
Sometimes you may feel as though you are alone, being buffeted about by strong winds in an isolated storm in the middle of a turbulent ocean. Remember that you have some control. There are a lot of things in life that are out of your control, but many times you assume things are without trying first. For example, I felt like my courses were out of my control and that I had no say in what I learned in my program. However, I spoke with my academic advisor and he helped me petition to take a molecular biology lab course. It was a process, and even after I got in, it turned out that it conflicted with another course (the advisor's course). After asking both professors about the conflict, I ended up taking them both anyway (Huge thank you to Drs. Rosen and Gilmore). That lab course was an excellent learning experience and taught me many of the skills needed in my career. As my Uncle Mike always says, "you don't ask, you don't get."
5. Rely on Your Support System
Related to the point above, when you feel overwhelmed and hopeless, reach out to your friends, family, and close colleagues. You do not have to do everything alone. This is a lesson that I am still learning and struggling with since I don't like to impose on other people. However, often your friends and family want to help. They care about you and they are willing to listen to you vent, propose possible solutions, and support you in your decisions.
I wouldn't trade my experiences in grad school for anything. It has taught me so much more than this list can encompass. Much of what I learned are a part of me. I am a stronger, more committed, and wiser person as a result of grad school. I still have a lot to learn, I have many arduous experiences ahead of me, and I look forward to tackling those challenges.
I love to hear from my readers. Questions and comments are always welcome. If you've gone to grad school or are currently in grad school, what is one lesson you learned?