The arrival of August and Leo season means that the new academic year is just around the corner. I’ve been seeing a lot of advice for first year grad students, and as a now fourth year grad student (my only qualification tbh), I would like to try to pass on advice I wish I received my first year. This post is part of a series that I will be publishing in the coming weeks that will cover topics like: building a support network, contacting possible advisors, and choosing an advisor part 2 bad advisor boogaloo. If there any other topics you would like me to write about, please let a comment below!
This post was inspired by this tweet by Itati, which points out that your graduate experience is so much more than your relationship with your advisor. I find myself getting a little frustrated by the grad school advice that hyper-fixates on the idea you have to find your perfect advisor and 1. you’ll easily be able to do that 2. a good advisor solves everything. While its true that a healthy advising situation is important, my personal belief is that a strong support network is just as vital to your success in grad school. I believe a strong support network is these parts:
At the bottom is the people you know already before you get into grad school. These are family members that you are close with, friends from college, friends from undergrad, best friends. Basically anyone in your life up until now that you could call late at night upset and they would answer the call. These people are an important part of your network because you can always rely on them to believe in you even when you’ve lost faith in yourself. They’ve known you for a long time, and will rightfully hype you up when you need it.
Second from the bottom is non-grad school friends. These are new friends you will make when you enter grad school, and most importantly, they cannot go to your school, and ideally they cannot be in a grad program. The value of these people is that they will remind you to touch grass. Your friends and family are there to affirm your confidence, your non-grad school friends are there to tell you that you are smart and that grad school is kind of a non-sensical pursuit. Non-grad school friends are important because they force you to do something that few grad students manage – not talk about grad school. It is so easy to develop tunnel vision about school because it can easily become your whole life — you live there, you work there and you are reminded all the time you could be doing more. It can feel like grad school is everything. But it is not. There are working professionals out there, ones that work normal hours, that think your work is cool but would rather talk about other things, and those people are so important. Grad school is a job to learn more about an area you’re interested in. Don’t let it be your whole identity. Hang around people that think your smart, and enjoy the fact you can do things that aren’t a part of your PhD.
The next tier is department friends. This will blur pretty closely with lab friends, but I’d like to make the distinction because I think there’s some intrinsic value in department friends that may not inherently be present in your lab. First, department friends are important so you can compare grad experiences. It is very easy to normalize your experience in your lab, after all, its the only lab you’ve ever been in. Talking with other students in the department can teach you more about what are some of the unwritten expectations of your department’s PhD program. Additionally, talking with others in the department can highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the department in terms of their support for different groups. Just because your grad experience is going smoothly doesn’t mean its that way for everyone. Its important to listen to others to understand what you can do to create a better environment for everyone in grad school.
For people that come from a marginalized background, there is a decent chance that you are the only one in your lab. Expanding your network to the whole department means that you can (hopefully) have other grad student friends with similar lived experience to bond with. For example, I am one of the few out nonbinary people in my department. There are no other nonbinary people in my lab. However, through the LGBTQ working group that my department has, I am able to build a queer network of friends and talk about queer related things like bringing up pronouns with advisors and being out in industry. It’s been an incredible asset to talk with other people that understand..
Next up is labmates. Ideally you should vibe with your labmates, but I’ve definitely been in labs that weren’t social at all. I’ve had labmates I’ve literally traveled to other countries with, but I’ve also have labmates that have never asked once how I am doing. While you will probably see your labmates the most, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get along with them. Ultimately, you want to be able to go to your labmates for feedback because they also know what your advisor likes. If you can maintain at least neutrally positive reputation with them, that will improve the quality of work you are doing. Anything else is a bonus (a super sweet bonus tbh).
Finally is your advisor. Lots can be said on this one. A good advisor will give you clear attainable expectations, communicate with you clearly, be patient with you when you don’t understand something, direct you to resources to help you, and encourage you to keep at it. I will save more discussion on advisor selection for a later blog post, but remember that advisors are there to be a positive influence on you. It is not worth grinding it out under an advisor that takes you for granted.
But what I want to point out with this graphic is that a support network of labmates, department friends, family, and other friends can compensate for some of the shortcomings of advisors. While you should definitely leave if you have an abusive advising situation, if you’re advisor is not very complimentary or if they’re very hands off, building up these other networks can help cover that difference. Your labmates can help answer some of your technical questions, your friends can tell you that you are great and the smartest person they know. Similarly, if your advisor is great but the department is hostile, I think its really hard to have a positive grad experience. You need both to succeed.
The people that I’ve met in grad school are a huge part of what has made this experience so special to me. It is truly a rare experience to get to hang around a group of such high-powered, driven, compassionate souls. As you start grad school and meet all these people doing absolutely incredible work, remember to appreciate how far you’ve come and that you are considered equally worthy and capable. There is enough success for everyone, so practice compassion, make new friends, and trust the process.