I’m Viraj, and I’m currently over halfway through my second year as a bioengineering Ph.D. student at Rice University. The past couple of years have marked an enormous amount of change in my life, as I left behind a state that I had lived in my entire life to move alone to Texas. Although this has resulted in a lot of growth, rapid growth comes with growing pains. I’m writing here to share my experience over the past years and things I’ve learned with it, and if you’re someone considering a Ph.D., I hope you find my account helpful in some way! There’s a TL;DR: at the end of every section if you’re in a rush!
Building a Support System
Having a support system is invaluable for anyone, but it’s especially important during a Ph.D., which can be fraught with failure and stress. Different people may need vastly different things in their support system, which can take the form of family, friends, or even pets. For example, some international students find it helpful to regularly hang out with people who speak their native language. Self reflection to understand what you need and don’t need is something I’d suggest everyone does, and I knew that I needed to have a positive and supportive friend group with whom I could share interests and hobbies. As a career extrovert, I felt confident in making the intentional effort to create these friend groups, as I had done in undergrad and in internships. And when I came to Houston, it was fairly easy to hang out in my cohort.
And then, people got busier. And busier. And busier. What I didn’t anticipate was how responsibilities and workload as a graduate student pile-up over time, and how as classes become less of a priority, natural opportunities to share social interaction fade. Additionally, maintaining friendships is something that just gets harder as people age and get more responsibilities, and I didn’t quite know how to navigate it best. I ultimately learned two key things:
1) It just takes more effort to organize people to do things, but it’s worth it! Passively waiting for friendship to happen isn’t going to cut it, and even though it may feel unbalanced or uncomfortable, you must put in effort to make and maintain friendships.
2) Joining social/hobby organizations is the best way to meet new people that you can regularly de-stress with and bond with. For me, joining an a cappella organization was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I found a group of medical students, medical professionals, and graduate students that, even though they were relatably as busy if not busier than me, they still took time out of their weeks to make music together. The onus for scheduling this time also wasn’t on me–if I missed rehearsal, the group still met as normal. Unlike with friend social activities, I didn’t need to personally coordinate a bunch of schedules to make things happen—rehearsal was on Tuesday at 7:30, make it or not!
TL;DR: It’s gonna take more effort to maintain friendships as you get older, but it’s worth it! Joining interest groups is a great way to consistently make friends in a stress-free way while also destressing.
Counting my Blessings
Dr. Seiichi Matsuda, the dean of Graduate and Postgraduate Studies, mentioned some words last year that have come to be principal to how I approach my Ph.D. studies. Roughly paraphrased,
“A Ph.D. is filled with failure, so you have to celebrate the small wins.”
Every day, I find this statement to be increasingly true and increasingly important. A Ph.D. really is filled with failure, from grant/fellowship/paper rejections to random external setbacks like equipment being down, or simply just making mistakes as a growing student. At the heart of a Ph.D. is the drive to 1) become an expert and 2) create something novel and important, and those aren’t easy things to do! By following Dean Matsuda’s advice and acknowledging even the small wins, weathering failure becomes much easier. When I finally get a difficult protocol working, I make sure to celebrate it in at least some small way! All the hard work and setbacks leading up to that win ended up being worth it, then. Even when I have a productive day, I make sure to be grateful for that.
When my friends and labmates succeed, I try to acknowledge their wins and celebrate too. This supportive attitude is even enshrined in Rice’s “Take the Cake” ceremony, where every graduate student who wins a fellowship gets a cake. Now, no one can eat a 10,000 calorie cake themselves, so you simply must share! This event is just another reminder to not only celebrate your own wins but to celebrate the success of others, and this attitude is at the heart of the Rice graduate student community.
Dean Matsuda’s words are a powerful reminder to be grateful, and being grateful for even the small wins will help make failures and setbacks seem smaller than they feel at the time, as you know they’ll seem so tiny in hindsight as you celebrate a win!
TL;DR: “A Ph.D. is filled with failure, so you have to celebrate the small wins.” - Dean Matsuda, paraphrased