The Top 5 Most Important Lessons I Learned During My Ph.D.

1. It’s okay to say “I don’t know”; don’t pretend you get something when you don’t.

There’s a shift that occurs when you go from being an undergrad to a full-fledged grad student. At some point, something inside of you wakes up and realizes, it’s better to just say you don’t know something than to pretend you do know something and get in trouble later. Essentially, you’ve come so far that saying “I don’t know”, or answering “no” when someone asks if you understand something, isn’t a hit to your pride. It’s just normal conversation. 

You’ll realize that you will be more respected if you are open about when you really don’t get something and you ask people to explain it to you. It shows you are honest and putting in effort to learn. I noticed this when I mentored undergrads as well – it’s so much more impressive to me when an undergrad simply says, “I don’t get that”, rather than nod along and pretend they get something, only to show me that they obviously don’t get it later down the line.

There will be that point where you lose all shame and just acknowledge when you don’t know something. You’re not in high school or college anymore, where every time you don’t know something, you get docked a grade or percent. This is grad school, and learning is the actual goal. So, don’t sweat not knowing something, and take it as an opportunity to learn!

2. When it comes to work, there’s an art to asking for help.

I learned that it’s not great to ask for help immediately without trying, but it’s also a complete waste of your time and energy to spin your wheels for days trying to figure something out. Whatever problem you’re having, definitely take time to figure it out yourself, by assessing what you know, what you’ve tried, what you think you can try, and the reasoning behind each plan. Those moments of effort really do teach you a thing or two about the topic at hand. However, when you are really stuck on something, you need to ask for help. 

A Ph.D. program trains you to be an expert in your topic, as well as a good researcher. As someone who is undergoing that training, you are seen by your superiors as someone who will need help – you’re just a student to them. So, at its core, asking for help is nothing embarrassing, and is expected behavior. In addition, asking for help in an open and honest fashion can foster a work environment that normalizes communication and supporting each other.

3. Do it right; don’t cut corners.

This definitely applies to situations outside of grad school, but it especially applies to situations in the lab. Do it right; don’t cut corners. The grad student who used to work at my desk left a note that said, “Perfect the technique, and the results will come”. It’s so true – poor results are really only due to faulty techniques. If you can’t trust the techniques, then you won’t trust the results.

Whether it’s making a new batch of buffer, cleaning that one important tool for that one important step, or taking extra time to capture high-quality images for analysis, the more perfectly and thoughtfully you execute each step of your work, the less work you’ll have later, and the better it’ll go. Don’t let the quality of your work be influenced by your desire to cut corners and take the easy way out. It’ll show in your work, and you’ll just be wasting your time.

4. Most of the time, it’s not personal.

Just because you’re at the “grad school level” or on a university campus, it doesn’t mean everyone you work with or encounter is going to be a well-adjusted, thoughtful human being who meets your behavioral expectations. There are still going to be imperfect people all around you. Grad school is a great time to learn to deal with these various personalities in cordial and professional ways while maintaining your productivity and sanity.

I will share one example that highlights this lesson well. A collaborator never responded to any of the emails I sent them. Literally, none! They only responded to emails my advisor sent them, and those responses would be lightning fast (they were close).

After talking with my advisor about this major behavioral discrepancy, I learned that it was bothering my advisor too, but they thought I was progressing very well and didn’t need the collaborator’s help. However, I let my advisor know that it was definitely odd and was bothering me, and that the collaboration was really not a collaboration at all. My advisor apologized for not being proactive about addressing it. So, we agreed that the collaborator wasn’t helping me at all and we ended our collaboration with them. The collaborator agreed (and said they were actually too busy).

I remember being so stressed and confused during those months, taking it so personally that the collaborator wasn’t responding to me at all, and feeling like they were delaying my project’s progress. I was very invested in getting it done in a timely fashion, as I was with any other project for grad school. I also felt scared about possibly upsetting my advisor, because they seemed close, and I didn’t want to say anything that sounded too critical that would offend my advisor.

It all worked out with straightforward, professional communication, though. I ended up doing the bioinformatic analysis without their help, and looking back, I realize now that it most likely wasn’t personal at all. They made a mistake agreeing to a collaboration they were too busy or unbothered to be a part of. It’s usually a simple explanation like that. There have been a few similar instances where collaborators or people who agreed to help me with things simply didn’t respond, or responded very curtly. In the end, what’s important is getting the work done, so I’ve learned to not let it bother me.

There are definitely times when you need to consider your own mental health and establish proper boundaries to protect yourself. I understand this really well, although we won’t get into more severe anecdotal examples here. You will be able to make that distinction, and having a support system of friends, family, colleagues, or even random and unbiased internet strangers can really help you figure out what to do.

5. Take breaks. Don’t take your health for granted.

I developed multiple stress-induced health conditions during grad school that required lifestyle changes and medications, and it has really made me realize just how much I was taking my health for granted when I started. I have them under control now, but I do wish I was more careful with my stress management! I had a friend who developed a digestive/IBS-like issue as well, in her 2nd year of grad school, simply from stress. She couldn’t eat solid food for a while. I know another colleague who experienced a major change in their weight during grad school as well – I couldn’t recognize them anymore because of how different they looked.

It’s so important to have a good work-life balance and take care of yourself. Your health is so precious, and you aren’t going to be 23 forever. It’s so important because once you lose that convenience of optimal health and start to have to manage health conditions, you’re going to really wish you took better care of yourself before it all. 

Not everyone is going to be unlucky and develop a lifelong condition during grad school. Still, you have to take care of your health. Labwork, research, science, none of that is more important than your own mental and physical health and wellbeing. Some students seem to forget that!

The healthier you are, the better you’ll be able to function.

If you want to learn more, here is another post I wrote about 6 very important personal things I wish I knew when I started my Ph.D., and I hope they help you out, too.

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