We have a rule in bioinformatics to not reinvent the wheel. Most likely students that came before us already addressed the concern we’re having now. This is applicable to many aspects of life. We have to acknowledge that we are not the first person on the planet, someone, somehow experienced the same road blocks as we do. Hence, it’s practical to learn from them. Here, I’m sharing my favorite advice first before I share my own. These are my favorites since I consider them on-point.
Let’s start with some classics (or at least advice that I consider the classic)
- On Being a Successful Graduate Student in the Sciences by John Thompson
- Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students by Stephen C. Stearns and the less cynical reply
A more contemporary advice…
- How to Succeed in Science by Enrique de la Cruz. (The best I’ve read/watch so far!)
- What I Really Learn from Grad School by Paul Carini. (Yes we need to master R and Illustrator!)
- More from PhD.org
- Some tough love (Ex. Never get drunk in front of your supervisor! Haha)
- Reasons why you shouldn’t do a PhD (an interesting compilation of articles on having the right motivation in pursuing a PhD)
Moving forward to some of things that helped me during my MS, hopefully in my PhD as well:
1. YOUR LEARNING, YOUR RESPONSIBILITY
“You are responsible for your own success. You are in charge!” – Enrique de la Cruz
Grad school is very rewarding due to the fact that, in theory, by this time you found a research area that irrationally grips your curiosity. Craig Venter says “Science should be the most fun job on the planet. You get to ask questions about the world around you and go out and seek the answers. Not to have fun doing that is crazy.” This is the time when you get an apprenticeship from an experienced scientist. However, we have to recognize that the role of our advisor and program/thesis committee are limited. We need to be in control of our grad school training. This means that we should be in control on what subjects to take. Some schools even allow taking subjects outside our discipline, as well classes that develop soft skills such as science communication, writing and networking.
Another way to take control of your learning is to attend workshops and conferences abroad. In the Philippines, we lack equipment and sometimes mentors with required expertise. Hence, we have to turn to workshops and conferences overseas to learn. Good thing there are workshops and conferences that offers scholarship/fellowship for students in the developing nations.
For the marine science grad students, these links might be helpful:
- NF-POGO website https://nf-pogo-alumni.org/about/opportunities/
- IMBER website http://www.imber.info/
2. PUBLISH. “Publish or it didn’t happen!”
It is important to get feedback not just from your advisor and professors but from experts on your field who can objectively assess your work. Hurray for peer-review! This is not to say that peer-review is a fool-proof mechanism to bring out the best version of science to the public but there’s a plenty to learn in peer-review and scientific publication. We have to be aware that not all, but most published works are accurate (side note: some thoughts on preprints, impact factor and why peer-review is not that broken as everyone imagined, here and here). Less of a worry because scientists are fidgety kind of people and we have the process of post-publication peer review (by the way, you might want to follow Retraction Watch and PubPeer).
Personally, it brings me a sense of accomplishment reading the reviews. But I’m also aware that not all peer-reviews are encouraging, and even if the editors and reviewers did a great job in writing the review in a constructive manner, one will always feel discouraged when they get rejection. It’s normal. To make it clear, I’m not advocating publication for the sake of prestige but for the process of getting feedback, improving your work and knowledge dissemination. This is the only way science will advance, publish, so that someone can make use of your discoveries!
3. TURN YOUR DISTRACTIONS INTO SOMETHING BENEFICIAL
3.1. FOLLOW SCIENTISTS ON FB and TWITTER. Mute everyone else except closest friends and family. I’m part of a generation easily distracted by social media. I understand we cannot totally give up social media since we use it to communicate with friends and family so as a compromise, you can always lessen the time spent on social media and curate your feed so that you can see only the essentials.
3.2. EMAIL SUBSCRIPTION. By virtue of productive procrastination, I read blogs/websites that I find interesting whenever I need a break from reading scientific journals. Here are my current subscriptions, a mix of readings on science and life in general.
4. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE WHO INSPIRES YOU
Optimism is scarce so you have to surround yourself with people, both online and offline, who inspires you! (Shout out to Anna Oposa, Jun Lana, JP Alipio, Reniel Cabral, Al Gabriel, Michael Purugganan, Reina Reyes, Manu Prakash, Pardis Sabeti, Craig Venter, Ed Yong, the woke twitterverse and many more. <3)
It also important to keep people that appreciates what you do. In the Philippines, scientists are underappreciated. It’s easy to loss motivation when no one appreciates your work. Your friends in the scientific community doesn’t count (of course we understand each other :P), what I mean is people outside science. It’s refreshing to hear from acquaintances and friends that your work is exciting and relevant. Most of the time when we are so engrained with experiments and writing it is difficult to see the big picture, the reasons why we do what we do.
5. REST AND DO SOMETHING ELSE OUTSIDE GRAD SCHOOL “Working hard dulls the mind”
Did you know Charles Darwin is a slacker? This is his routine:
“After his morning walk and breakfast, Darwin was in his study by 8 and worked a steady hour and a half. At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters. At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary, greenhouse, or one of several other buildings where he conducted his experiments. By noon, he would declare, “I’ve done a good day’s work,” and set out on a long walk on the Sandwalk, a path he had laid out not long after buying Down House. (Part of the Sandwalk ran through land leased to Darwin by the Lubbock family.) When he returned after an hour or more, Darwin had lunch and answered more letters. At 3 he would retire for a nap; an hour later he would arise, take another walk around the Sandwalk, then return to his study until 5:30, when he would join his wife, Emma, and their family for dinner. On this schedule he wrote 19 books, including technical volumes on climbing plants, barnacles, and other subjects; the controversial Descent of Man; and The Origin of Species, probably the single most famous book in the history of science, and a book that still affects the way we think about nature and ourselves.”
You may ask, what’s the lesson here? Well, for one let’s stop glorifying being busy! And start emulating those colleagues who are able to go home early and spend some time off during weekends. Consider that you are also brother/sister, a son/daughter, a parent, a friend. You’re a person capable of creating other things, not just hardcore science. We can achieve an even richer life when we devote our time to our hobbies. Not to mention it’s good for our mental health. (side note: for those struggling, I find Tim Lawrence’s Resilience Manifesto illuminating, you might want to read it). Another new concept for me is to consider boundaries instead of aiming for balance.
6. FIND MEANING IN YOUR WORK
Grad school is the time when we feel insecure, inadequate and isolated. Fortunately for a guy belonging to an applied science, its easy to find significance in what we do. (Btw, fundamental research is very important too, read here). I consider my work to be relevant for several reasons. For instance our country is the center of marine biodiversity, we are an archipelagic nation and we are one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. With these in mind, I’m always reminded that what I’m doing is bigger than myself. Some friends would also say that I’m a ball of positive energy, that’s true most of the time, but sometimes I also feel isolated and sad. I was not born an optimist but I am practicing active optimism:
“Active optimism is more than a hope or a belief. It’s a mandate to bounce back, to be successful, to avoid being a victim. Active optimism is the belief that you can be an agent of change. Optimism breeds self-confidence that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy when it is honed with a dose of realism.” (more)
7. LASTLY, CREATE YOUR OWN RULES!
This is the main reason why I have this list. These advice works for me. It may not apply to someone else. I am also aware that this might be a case of survivorship bias. It is crucial to dedicate time for instrospection. Contemplate what matters to you, what works and doesn’t work. In addition, there are some nuances that I was not able to include in this list, in that case we can always chat. Send me an email 😉 Good luck to us! Cheers! 😀