This afternoon I served on a panel in a workshop about applying to grad school. Which is kinda ironic because I spent the afternoon crying. Because, that question: What did you wish you knew before applying? My answer: that grad school is an emotional rollercoaster that’s confusing as hell… I never for a second (okay maybe for like an instasecond) have regretted my decision. It’s been completely worth it, the best choice I ever made, and I will share with you some of the advice I gave the students in the panel so it can hopefully help some people experience the highs of PhD-seeking. But some days are hard.
And today’s been one of those days – or at least part of today was, but I don’t want to go into details so please don’t pry… There were a few hours of greatness followed by a humiliating fall back down. And I don’t even know how humiliated I should be because, coming from outside academia, it’s so hard to know what protocols are, what you’re supposed to do when, not supposed to do when.
With “the bumbling biochemist” I aim to give an authentic, behind-the-scenes look at what it can be like to be a grad student in a biomedical science field type PhD program. So, even though it makes me feel uncomfortable to let you in on this, I wanted to share some more personal thoughts about grad student life because I want people to not feel alone if sometimes they feel useless and out of place too. Whether it’s those months you spend chasing some experimental result that turns out to be an artifact, those thousand failed PCRs, or that time you break down in tears during your thesis proposal defense. I don’t know if it’s “normal” and I have a hard time telling myself it’s “normal” – but you’d definitely not be the only one. So I want you to know that. And I want all the future students to know that too.
Because I really didn’t. No one really prepares you for PhD life, and once you’re in it you’re basically expected to just know it. To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out what it even means to be a graduate student. I get to do what I love, make my own schedule, have this amazing life chasing down biochemical mysteries, and get paid for it, so I feel like if I’m not always being “productive” I’m letting people down and/or am not deserving. Therefore, sometimes I end up doing pointless busywork around the lab or even just chatting with labmates because it feels like I’m doing something even if I’d be like 1000X more productive working alone on my computer away from distractions when I don’t have benchwork that needs doing. But I’m afraid that people will think I’m not working if I’m not physically in the lab. Yup, I have like the worst case of self-imposed “lab guilt” – and I’ve heard from other students that I’m at least not alone on this front!
I have this extreme fear of letting people down and my brain latches on to things that make me feel ashamed and/or embarrassed. And, sometimes I don’t even know if and/or to what extent I should be feeling that way because grad school and academia as a whole are sooo confusing. My brain often goes into overdrive imagining what people are thinking of me and I probably read way into things and think others will read way into things. I’ve always had this problem, but grad school has kinda amplified it. Call it imposter syndrome, call it whatever you want, I feel like I still shouldn’t be here. That I don’t deserve to be here.
I don’t come from an “academic” family – my parents aren’t professors, or even scientists. I went to a small, liberal arts, undergraduate school where there wasn’t even a graduate science program. I loved it. The one downside was that there wasn’t any sort of grad school info formally available. I’m so glad that they now have these workshops, and was honored to serve on one today. I think it’s a really great idea because so often people get funneled into the premed path without even knowing that grad school is an option – and that you get paid!
I know I kinda was a major downer earlier about grad school but that’s just because I’m in one of those down periods. But part of the reason I chose to write today’s post is selfish – it’s mainly to help other people, yes, but it’s also to help me. Because in the future, maybe even tomorrow hopefully, when I’m having one of those good days I can look back and know that even when I felt bad, things got better. And that, at least so far, things have always gotten better. And when things are better, they’re AMAZING, as I hope I’ve been able to show you through my happier-Bri posts.
I mean, I probably didn’t make grad school seem great earlier today, but I LOVE IT. I LOVE RESEARCH. I LOVE LEARNING. I LOVE LAB. I LOVE GRAD SCHOOL! AND I’M SO GRATEFUL TO BE HERE! So I want to share the answers I shared during that panel…
note: every grad school is different and it varies greatly between fields, but this is my experience
1. Intros: major/year at SMC, graduate program, year, any other programs you’ve attended or considered, brief description of research
I was a general biology major at SMC (St. Mary’s College of California), class of 2016. I currently am a 5th year graduate student at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s School of Biological Sciences. I study proteins involved in the process of RNA interference, which is an evolutionarily-conserved way in which cells regulate levels of various proteins. It does this by using short RNAs as sequence-specific guides to direct proteins to target and degrade copies recipe copies (mRNAs) of other proteins without affecting their original recipes (their DNA genes).
2. What do you want to do after grad school? And how do/did you know that grad school was the right choice for you?
After grad school I plan to do a postdoctoral fellowship, which is basically like an extension of grad school, usually at a different institution, without classes and teaching requirements and with more independence (but higher expectations). Ultimately, I hope to become a professor at a small undergraduate-focused institution (like SMC!)
3. Is your program mostly research, mostly classes, lots of teaching? How did you find that out?
Initially it was all classes. Then it’s been all research. Our program’s kinda unique that way in that it condenses all the courses into the first few months and then you do focus on research full-time for the rest of the program.
4. How many programs did you apply for? How did you make that list?
Way too many… I think like 13? Honestly I’m a really bad person to ask about this… I really didn’t think I’d get interviews, let alone be accepted, at these places. I aimed really high, because I didn’t want to have regrets (but also knew that doing this was not only extra work but would likely lead to disappointment – although it’s easier to deal with disappointment from the big name schools!). I also applied to some “safety” schools but even those didn’t feel safe. I was pleasingly wrong about my chances and ended up having to turn down interviews because of conflicts and exhaustion. I’m not saying this because I want to make anyone feel bad if they don’t get interviews (honestly a lot comes down to luck). But you asked so I thought I’d tell you straight…
5. How much time did you spend on applications?
A LOT. I didn’t clock it or anything but I put a lot of time and energy into them.
6. Is there anything that you wish you had known about the application process?
I guess I wish I knew that you didn’t need to come from an Ivy League and have bazillions of publications (or even any) to get in. I was terrified that I wouldn’t get in anywhere (no publications – still!) but I did so don’t let that hold you back. I think the most important thing is that you have research experience, have references vouching for that, and really demonstrate that you have legit research experience – that you came up with and performed experiments, doing things that required critical thinking and knowing why you were doing what you were doing. For example, in your written statement, don’t just say the results of your experiment. Say what the implications of those results are. What do they tell you about the thing you were studying and what broader implications might they have?
Also, I thankfully found out in time, but there are fellowships like the NSF GRFP that you can apply to at the same time you’re applying to grad school (a time when you already have written statements you can work from! speaking of which, make sure to customize your statements for each school even if you reuse the bulk of it – tell them why their school is the school for you!)
7. How did you pick your program?
Love at first sight. It just felt right. I really like the small class size and the way the program was formatted with the classes and then the labwork so you can focus on each full-time.
8. How did you pick your advisor? Did you have to pick an advisor before attending?
In my program, and in all the biomedical-sciences-related programs I applied to, we pick our research advisor after doing several research rotations. So you get to “sample” different labs before committing. I think this is super important. If a program makes you pick an advisor first, MAKE SURE YOU WILL BE HAPPY IN THAT LAB! I chose my advisor because I was happiest there in my rotation – both with the people and with the research. Even if the advisor is great and the research is great, if there’s someone in the lab that will make things super unpleasant for you, be wary…
Bottom line, grad school is hard. But at least for me it’s been the best decision I ever made. And I wish everyone the best of luck whether they’re applying or already on this roller coaster!
P.S. I thought serving on the panel might be kinda depressing given the circumstances, but it really helped cheer me up and remind me why I love grad school! Here’s to a happier tomorrow hopefully!