Five tips from five years in grad school

It’s difficult for me to write a piece based on personal experiences, even though I think it’s worthwhile. As a somewhat private person, I’d much rather write about the many benefits of using Evernote (yes, I am one of those people) or why the weather is a perfectly reasonable topic of conversation. Nevertheless, for today’s bite, I’m going to list some things that have helped me keep moving in grad school, and in life. Before I launch into them, however, I want to acknowledge that some of these attitudes can only exist alongside a large helping of privilege. So, my intention is not to preach to anybody but merely to share my experiences in the hope that someone else will find them useful.

Year 1: You’ve got to talk to people

“Duh”, you say, but let me tell you, this is not something that came naturally to me back then and it doesn’t come naturally to me today. My desire to learn physics brought me from India to the US, and even though I was very excited, being an introvert in an unfamiliar environment 8,000 miles away from my closest friends was not always fun. I had no clue how the US university system worked and I didn’t fully understand the social norms either. All of this made me want to turn even more inward. This worked for a little while, but I eventually realized that I was wasting too much time trying to figure things out on my own instead of having a few conversations with people who, it turned out, were genuinely happy to help me. Talking to others saved not just my time but my sanity, and later would yield interesting project ideas as well.

Year 2: You can’t keep waiting to be “ready”

Sure, there are a few occasions when you truly know you’re not ready to do something, like running a marathon without training. However, any time you find yourself turning away from an opportunity, leaving it to some perfect future version of you, you’re falling into a trap. Take your shot now. You cannot failure-proof yourself and you shouldn’t try. The experience that really drove this home for me was thinking about starting research. I was very hesitant because I had studied engineering as an undergrad and felt that I couldn’t possibly know enough physics already. The question then becomes, when would I know “enough” physics? The answer was never, which left no reason to wait.

Year 3: Don’t make promises to yourself that you won’t actually keep

With classes, research and other commitments piling up, I found myself stretched a bit thin. I let my to-do list grow beyond control, making unrealistic plans about how to accomplish every single thing on it. When I (extremely predictably) couldn’t execute these plans, I’d feel upset with myself. Almost all of the things I was failing to do weren’t very important to me to begin with, but every failure made me think less of my ability to follow through. At some point, I decided I wouldn’t say I was going to do something unless I was really truly 100% going to do it. That meant absolutely no half hearted plans of any sort. This forced me to choose which specific things really mattered to me and I stopped making myself miserable over fluff.

Year 4: Cynicism is not the same as wisdom

I’ve been more worried about the world in the last few years than I’ve ever been in my life. It also seems to me that somewhere along the way, cynicism (not the greek philosophy kind) has become very “on-trend”, masquerading as realism, whereas optimism is seen as naive and sincerity a tad embarrassing. I’m not advocating burying your head in the sand during difficult times or adopting fake cheerfulness. I do believe in hope though, and I believe even more in taking action. Does this have anything to do with grad school? Yes, because it has to do with grad students. No matter what you tell yourself, it’s not possible to entirely compartmentalize your life. You need to be clear-headed to do good science. So how does one cope? Everyone will need to figure that out for themselves, but what you probably don’t want to do is embrace and spread a sense of doom, making dire pronouncements without taking any action to improve things. Being cynical is the easiest thing in the world – it takes little effort. It also yields nothing.

Year 5: Always remember your “why”

Every once in a while, I have to remind myself why I do what I do. People say discouraging things, plans don’t pan out, I feel disillusioned in some way, and life goes on. None of these things change the fact that I do physics because I love exploring, investigating and understanding things. In an outcome-focused world, I find that I’m at my best when I’m in tune with my motivations and grateful for the opportunity to do what I enjoy, instead of obsessing over results. You probably have your own reasons for doing what you do. Remember them and protect them.

About Sanjana Curtis

I'm a grad student at North Carolina State University. I'm interested in extreme astrophysical events like core-collapse supernovae and compact object mergers.

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