A lot of times, the way things are done in grad school feel antiquated and preordained. There are a lot of aspects of academia that require serious reevaluation and restructuring. Therefore, it might feel hard to find your way and speak up for yourself, especially as a new student. It’s important that you find a way to work and progress through grad school that works well for your schedule, working style, and career goals.
Here are my top 5 “unpopular opinions” about grad school and how they helped me:
1. You can treat it like a 9-to-5.
I’ve always been the type to be able to establish healthy boundaries in a frank manner, and have never had issues with overcommitting. As I got into the swing of things in the lab, I was pretty good at keeping a regular schedule. Some days it’d be 9-5, other days it’d be 10-6. I’d work essentially non-stop while I was in the lab (with a break for lunch, of course), and then I’d go home and forget about it until the next day. I had time to enjoy my hobbies, spend time with friends, work out, and call my family. It helped me feel refreshed getting into the lab every day and keeping up with the grad school grind. It was like a positive loop where I would have energy because I was well-rested, and that allowed me to keep up the quality of my work and continue to manage my time well. In my opinion, grad students aren’t paid nearly enough for their expertise and education to do anything more than the typical 9-5.
I knew plenty of grad students that did crazy hours in the lab and always seemed to be working or talking about their work. I just knew it wasn’t the life I wanted to live, and that was okay with me. A Ph.D. is a marathon, not a race. It’s important to be selective and work with advisors that respect you as a whole, individual human being, and don’t expect you to be indentured to them. You have to be mindful of what works for your sanity and health.
2. Don’t get sidetracked by projects that aren’t going to end up in your dissertation.
I’ve heard of a situation like this happening to a few folks. Their advisor is suddenly super excited about a topic or collaboration that seems interesting, but isn’t directly related to the student’s project. Not realizing how much agency they have, or not really thinking it through, the student immediately agrees to take on the project. Anything to keep the advisor happy, right?
Wrong. It ends up eating away at a large chunk of the student’s work hours every week, only for it to get scrapped, for the collaborator to ghost, or even if it goes well, to not be included in the dissertation project because it doesn’t match up very well to the rest of their work.
I completely understand how difficult it is to stand up for yourself and change the flow of your PI’s thought processes, especially if they seem really excited about something. Take a beat and ask to have some time to think about it, citing the need to familiarize yourself with background information and the fact you need to prioritize your dissertation research and what you already have going on. You don’t need to agree to anything on the spot. You’ll gain the respect of your PI and coworkers for being intentional and thoughtful with your decisions.
3. You don’t need gap years or a Master’s to get into a Ph.D. program if it accepts applicants directly from undergrad. Just go for it if you’re really interested in research and are up for the challenge.
I personally never considered doing a gap year or Master’s. I just really liked the research I was doing in undergrad and felt ready to directly apply to Ph.D. programs. Of course, I learned a lot in my first year of grad school and it wasn’t a walk in the park, but it’s hard for everyone in their own ways. I am aware there are situations where you could really help your chances by doing a gap year or Master’s, but they didn’t apply to me.
4. The most important thing in grad school isn’t the topic of your research, it’s your work environment.
The topic of your research has to be interesting enough for you to be able to keep doing it, but it’s honestly not the most important thing. As students who get into grad programs, we’re already qualified to do research on all sorts of topics related to our field, and at least for me, I had at least 2 different research interests going into my grad program and I was fine pursuing either of them. The whole point for me was to get into that program to do research in that program’s field so I could become a better scientist, not to do research on just one topic.
The most important thing is your advisor being a good human being and your work environment being a healthy one. A healthy working environment, where people are respectful of boundaries, considerate, professional and cordial, and communicate thoughtfully. It sounds like common sense, right? Unfortunately, the bar is low for this sort of stuff in research labs.
I’ve heard and read so many horror stories by current and former grad students about completely irresponsible postdocs, yelling matches between grad students and advisors during lab meetings, advisors putting way too much work on their one grad student, grad students having to switch labs because of someone they couldn’t work with, grad students that never showered and pulled odd pranks on their labmates, homophobic/microaggressive advisors, the list goes on. I could make a whole post about the dumpster fire scenarios I’ve encountered during grad school! Maybe I could start a category with grad school “storytimes”.
The point is, just because someone has a Ph.D., or is a professor, or works in a research lab, it doesn’t mean they’re emotionally intelligent, good communicators, or kind. There are all sorts of people in all sorts of workplaces, so it’s important to do your due diligence before committing to a lab. This is why I think rotations are super valuable when determining which lab you want to commit to. I highly recommend considering grad programs that require rotations, or at the very least, offer that as an option.
5. You should manage your advisor more than they manage you.
Your advisor has a lot going on, and you aren’t the only important thing in their lives. They might have other grad students, postdocs, a clinic position, a startup, classes they’re teaching, run or participate in campus committees, not to mention all the funding they have to apply for and their home life.
I’ve managed undergrads so I can actually see it from both perspectives, but as a mentor, having someone who I mentor that checks in with me is quite useful. It keeps them on my radar and it also makes me feel more confident in their involvement, progress, and commitment to their job.
The same goes for you, as a grad student, interacting with your advisor. Sure, waiting for your model organism to reproduce, remaking a reagent, running an experiment, and running an analysis twice because it didn’t save properly the first time, are all a part of research and take time. You don’t have to meet with your advisor every single week and email them multiple times a week, but it’s important to consolidate concerns and bring them up in a timely fashion so that you feel comfortable and confident as much of the time as possible. Honestly, it’s more for you than it is for them, so consider this when you’re feeling stuck or unsure.
There is no one right way to be a grad student. We all have different personalities, communication styles, advisors, research topics and experimental constraints, etc. These “unpopular opinions” are just for entertainment and to hopefully help you think about situations related to grad school in a new light. In the end, whatever works for you is what’s best for you. For me, the points above really rang true.