Five Things Incoming Grad Students Get Wrong–A LOT

Okay, I know the title comes off a bit harsh. I mean, who do I think I am telling other grad students what they struggle with? Well, kudos to you for being intrigued enough to continue on anyway.

To attend to my earlier question: I am an incoming fourth year Ph.D. candidate in ME that has made a TON of mistakes along the way. If not all “mistakes” then certainly I’ve taken the “scenic route” while other folks whizzed by me and I hustled to catch up. Dear reader, I am merely trying to save you from this wasted time and foolish embarrassment. So let’s dive into the list, shall we? I’ve got FIVE things that I want to highlight.

FIRST THING: We are pretty awful at writing. I mean absolutely horrendous. This is most obvious in our emails. The problem with our emails is that our subject lines rarely explain what the email is about and the body is either too wordy and long and I can hardly figure out what you really want to get at or it’s very short and leaves very little room for a reply or it doesn’t make sense and seems to have sentences that go on forever…(look familiar?).

Here, you can find a template and some useful tips on how to write a good email. Pro tip: keep your email to 5 sentences long. Whether it’s for a request from your advisor or a comment to a faculty member that you’re interested in working with, here’s a template to help you get over all of your messy faux paz. Final tip, even though you may be interested in working with a particular Professor, sometimes the best way to set up a time to meet with them and learn more about their lab is to contact their graduate students. Most academic labs have a website and contact information for the graduate students is usually listed. Reach out to a few students and get the inside scoop on what life in that lab is actually like before meeting with the Professor.

SECOND THING: Asking, and in most cases, not asking for help. These are two separate challenges. Writing better emails CERTAINLY helps with both but there’s layers to this. For me, few things are more important than minding and tending to relationships. Especially in these more vulnerable moments, it is important to me not to overburden the person that I’m asking for support. On the flipside, I am also learning to accept help and unsolicited advice when it’s offered. Even when I don’t necessarily ask for it, it’s good to let other people also know they’re needed and have valuable things to share.

THIRD THING:  This especially goes out to my fellow engineers and STEM nerds. We over-complex-icate every single thing. Sure, you sound really intelligent and nerdy to your audience but you’ve likely also alienated a much larger audience from ever truly coming to understand your work and contributions to the academy. To the extent where possible, keep it simple. Make it possible for people to give your research legs. As far as I’m concerned, what’s a publication in Nature, worth if only people who even know what Nature is understand the impact of what you’ve done? For me, this message far exends into other aspects of my life. Take pauses in difficult moments. Allow yourself to think without judging or punishing yourself for where those thoughts lead. Ask yourself, what is the next most logical thing that I can do in this predicament? Often, the thing itself isn’t that over-complex-icated, it’s having to do the thing that rectifies or course-corrects the situation.

FOURTH THING: Relying on your advisor to be your emotional guide, spiritual support system, research advocate, scholar cheerleader, boss, friend, and colleague that will push you to new heights and expose to to data analysis techniques that you could only dream to learn…Ehhhh. You’re right. That was a bit patronizing, but the point is that many of us (myself included) hold an unrealistic picture in our heads of what our advisor is “supposed” to be. And thus, how our relationship should function. If my third year taught me anything, it’s that it takes a VILLAGE to get a Ph.D. (especially true if you don’t already have one in your family). I’ve begun collecting mentors and potential research committee members, each person adding a bit more clarity to the mystery. More on methods or best practices or conferences or opportunities or ways to even talk about what I’m doing, folks that say slow down while others yell speed up! I’m not saying it’s easy juggling these people in your life, but perspective is constructed. Be wary and selective about who you invite to help you build your own insights.

FIFTH and FINAL THING: Jealousy is the only vice that breeds no reward or good feelings. Comparing your situation to other graduate students is just MADDENING. Trust me, I do it all the time. And the longer I’m in this marathon, the more I realize that life truly has a funny way of working out. Opportunities that friends told me they had earlier, ones I drooled over, I’m not embarking on too. People who have seemed to be given easy rides, just don’t openly reveal all the places they’ve stumbled. I forget that exposing all of my battles scars is an act of “bravery.” It seems like the most human thing I can do to show people how and where I’ve fallem, so they avoid those places too. Get excited aboiut the work you’re doing and watch how quickly your research becomes a focal point in your life. Strive to produce the best that you can, whatever it is, go all in. It will be frustrating. For my black and brown sistas, it will be excruciating at times. But it feels that way for everyone. Only 3 black women have gotten their Ph.D.s in ME at Stanford. They haven’t even figured out what to DO with us yet.

Peace and good tidings!

Take  Note.pngI put a lot down for you to pick up. For those of you that need the tl;dr–above all else, 1) Learn to write better, clearer, and more professional emails–for writing to me and when you ask a Professor for a meeting. 2) Ask for help, don’t be a hero(ine). 3) Stop making things more difficult than they need to be.  4) Your advisor is just that–an advisor. Treat them accordingly. And 5) Don’t compare yourself in graduate school, what a frivolous waste of time when you’ve got a world full of things to master.


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