Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting Graduate School

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Recently, people have been asking me for advice about careers after college. Often, they want to me to describe graduate school in the biological sciences. Each and every time I have this conversation I have to hold back my laughter because if these folks knew my path to graduate school, they would give me a crazy look and slowly back away. (That is another blog post for another day).

So I usually just share what I wish I’d known before embarking on my grad school journey. Here are my top five things:

1. The atmosphere from undergrad to graduate school is a complete change of pace.

Coming into my graduate career at Northwestern, I somewhat expected it to be an extension of undergrad. I imagined there would be more responsibilities, but never in a million years would I have thought the next step would be what it has become…life-changing.

My future depends on the success of my research project, and I am in sole control of the direction and flow of the project. Having that amount of leeway is a different, if not scary, feeling, but with a little bit of luck and opportunity, everything can go well. There is a particular emphasis on finding your success through this part of the journey; finding what makes you happy and progresses you, because success is personal, not standardized. Understanding that concept initially took some time.

2. Everyone is a superstar, some more than others.

In my undergraduate university, I felt like a big fish in a little pond. I thought I was doing everything right and that what I was achieving was monumental. I started my graduate career, and I immediately became the little fish in the biggest pond I’ve ever seen! Everyone here was just like me. Some had backgrounds that were way more extensive than mine.

The intimidation factor is intense at times, but the journey is not theirs to walk, it is yours (or rather mine in my case). Embrace and strengthen what you bring to the table, and use it to progress your success while enhancing and refining your skills. Think of it has having a wealth of resources at your disposal, and all you need to do is ask the right people for the right information.

3. Failures are the biggest lessons.

Learning through failure is a must. Undergraduate studies concentrate on learning through the success, while professional/graduate school flips the script. From that perspective, it is hard to really concentrate and think that you are making progress if the ultimate result the majority of the time is failure. The key lies in learning the details in why the ultimate result was a failure instead of concentrating on the fact that it did fail.  Which leads to…

4. Flexibility and adaptability is a must.

The quicker you learn these different lessons, the easier time you will have adjusting to achieving your goal. Life at this stage is no longer linear, and there are multiple solutions to a problem that could be posed at that moment. Understand this, and things will eventually become easier to handle. Yes, I’ve had months and months of failed experiments, but what do I know now? J

5. What you put into it is really what you get out of it.

This is just another stepping stone in life that gives you ultimate control over your future. Everything you do today, prepares you for tomorrow, either positively or negatively. Take advantage of those moments for learning, those moments where you have to be flexible, those moments of clarity, and better yourself. You don’t get many shots to better yourself before it starts to count, and this is one of the few times you can take advantage of that. The investment is worth it.

Besides, who wouldn’t want the chance to practice finding and being a better you?

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