Knowing what I know now: Grad school (Aleeza Gerstein)

Here’s a new contribution to our upcoming Knowing what I know now carnival, from Aleeza Gerstein, who recently completed her PhD with Sally Otto at the University of British Columbia. She is currently splitting her time between Tel Aviv and Minneapolis as an NSERC & Azrieli Postdoctoral Fellow working with Judy Berman on ploidy transitions and the acquisition of drug resistance in Candida albicans.
If you have advice for yourself in a past career stage, find out how to contribute to the carnival here — we’ve got several great contributions already!

012 - A glass of Scotch for Dad's 60th

Celebrate your victories.

Grad school is hard, it’s not just you. Many of the people around you were near the top of their class in undergraduate, so yeah, everyone is smart. The other difficult thing is that there are very few opportunities where positive reinforcement is given (there’s not too many A’s to get in grad school). Unfortunately, it’s just something you have to get used to. Celebrate the victories and try to brush off the failures. My officemates and I kept a bottle of scotch in our office and celebrated every paper published and every award received. But things aren’t always going to work, and sometimes it feels like it never will. It does get better. It’s possible to have what feels like nothing and end up with something great. Perseverance is important. Sometimes all you can do is force yourself to come to work everyday. Just keep going. Try not to lose sight of the big picture, and try to remember that sometimes the biggest discoveries emerge when your project isn’t working out at all like you predicted it would.
Community is important. You can learn a lot from the others around you. It’s shocking how much you can learn by diffusion about science at the pub, over a few (or many) beers. From the first idea of a project through the writing stage, tell people about what you’re working on and ask for help when you need it. Science is collaborative and there is absolutely nothing wrong with admitting that you don’t know how to do something and seeking out advice. I asked my grad school friends for help all the time – I made them watch practice talks, read my grant applications, and solicited advice at all levels of project completion. Go to small, specialized meetings as often as possible and go to the social events. This is where you’ll find your colleagues, future collaborators, and the people who ‘get’ why what you do is so cool.
You’re in the business of you. Invest in your business. If that means paying out of pocket to go to the really important meeting that your advisor doesn’t have the funds for, then sometimes you have to pay for yourself. Figure out what it is that you want to be an expert in, and pursue that. It’s important to be able to say, “this is what I do”, at the end of your PhD – you want to be known for something. Talk to people about your work as often as possible. Go out of your way at meetings to meet the people you think are important; if you can’t force a meeting with the big shot PI, try and meet their students or postdocs. And look out for yourself. Even if you have the most wonderful advisor on the planet, they are busy people, and have many obligations. If you don’t think your needs are being met, or you are being pushed to do something you don’t want to do, change it. Take responsibility for your own well-being. If you don’t want to pursue academia, make sure that you walk away from graduate school with tangible skills that will get you a job!
Don’t be scared of writing. Just do it.
Learn R.
Have fun! Find a hobby that you love (for me it was snowboarding) and pursue it as often as possible. I barely remember any of the very long days and weekends I spent in the lab, but I remember a ton of Tuesdays I blew off work to hit the mountain. The most successful graduate students I saw are also the grad students that took nearly every unique opportunity that graduate school afforded them.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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