It feels surreal to be a 4th year Ph.D. student; time moves so fast and there has been a lot of growth for me as a scientist and young adult attempting to manage my research and personal goals. I still remember my first semester at Rice like it was yesterday. Trying to select a lab, do well in my core classes, get used to a new city, and make new friends was a lot. As I imagine to be the case for many first year doctoral students; I had high expectations of myself and that made the pressure I felt to “do it all” that much more stressful. As I reflect on that period of my academic life, here is some advice I would give myself.
The goal of a research rotation is to identify a lab environment that will enable you to thrive. I had a very skewed view of what was expected of me as a rotation student. I modeled my work on senior students in my rotation labs; without the recognition that they were no longer taking classes and had established routines and hobbies. I felt very overwhelmed balancing my lab work with classes; especially since I was taking 3 very demanding courses at the same time. While the pressure of making sure you get into your top lab choice is understandable; no one really expects you to collect enough data for a publication in a month-long rotation. In my view, the primary goals of a Ph.D. rotation is to determine whether the environment is conducive to the student’s learning style and a genuine feeling of being supported as you acquire new skills. The latter is especially important for students who join projects very different from their undergraduate research and may feel like they have to start from scratch (and that’s the point of a Ph.D.; learning something new and eventually becoming an expert in the area). If I understood this, I would have experienced significantly less stress!
All my peers that I look up to have one thing in common: they plan ahead. We all learned the wisdom of keeping an organized lab notebook in undergrad; but one area I was lacking in when I started my Ph.D. was planning my experiments ahead of time. Starting the third year of my Ph.D., I have gone to a coffee shop every Sunday to plan my experiments for the week and analyze any data I have from the previous week. I find this strategy to be so much fun; especially as it has allowed me to discover so many cool coffee spots in Houston. I find that I am much more efficient in the lab and my presentations have gotten better as there is a clear purpose for each experiment.
It’s OK to not know what you want to do with your graduate training. I applied for graduate school because I loved my research experience as an undergrad and knew that whether in industry or academia; research is what I wanted to do. For some reason still unclear to me; I felt as though I needed to have a pretty good sense of what my future career goals looked like before joining a lab. That stress was so unfounded; most Ph.D. students' career interests evolve as they discover their fields and get a clear sense of what kind of lifestyle they want. What I have found to be helpful is to focus on taking advantage of the many exciting opportunities that Rice (and Texas Medical Center) have for graduate students, attending many academic talks to learn more about the ongoing research in my field, and trying to go to a conference each year. I am still undecided on what I want to do after graduate school; but I am not stressed about it. I know that I am doing exciting research and I am sure that all the skills and experiences I have will be of tremendous use in my future.
There will always be more work to do; take some time to take care of yourself and enjoy your hobbies. I think this applies to all students. It can be very easy to be consumed by your to-do lists, especially in the first years of your Ph.D. when you have classes and TA responsibilities. However; I now recognize that part of being a good graduate student is taking care of myself so that I can be efficient when I am working.. As a fourth year student; what keeps me grounded (and happy!) is setting up some time to exercise, get enough sleep, and meet up with friends to explore new restaurants. Some of my hobbies are photography and reading french novels.
A big regret I have but have definitely learned from is taking multiple years before going back home. I am an international student; and I didn’t go home for the first 2.5 years of my Ph.D. I now go home once a year for 2-3 weeks and have found this to contribute to my overall happiness!