By Amy Webster

A Few Things I've Learned Along the Way: Advice for Thriving in Graduate School

Two lovely people I know are in their fifth and sixth years of doctoral programs -- one in theology, one in genetics. They are roommates and both named Amy W. (which may make for complicated labeling systems inside the fridge), but they are also women who have figured out how to thrive while also managing to complete their work. I asked if they would share their advice with us. Here is Amy Webster's, and don't miss Amy Whisenand's article, too. — Andrea Bridges

Back in college, I ran a half marathon. I ran it slowly and walked for large portions, but I eventually finished. While I may never run another (and certainly not a full marathon), I feel entitled enough from that experience to invoke a good running metaphor where appropriate. It’s often said, and I’ve found it to be true: A PhD program is a marathon, not a sprint. Like a marathon, graduate school is something you have trained for. It’s something that will give you a great sense of accomplishment upon completion. At the same time, dwelling too much on its end can be detrimental to making progress in the middle. It’s full of milestones and different phases. It’s a long haul, and it’s also an adventure. I now have the finish line in sight. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Make good friends (and take it one step at a time). I started my PhD program in genetics in 2015, a few months after graduating college. I moved to North Carolina from Georgia, making the six-and-a-half hour drive up I-85 to my new home. Despite not knowing anyone in the area, I was not particularly nervous, as I legitimately thought, “I already have good friends; why do I need to make more?” It’s true that my Georgia friends were (and are) wonderful, but it is not true that you don’t need good friends in the physical location where you live, something that I quickly learned. It’s important to not just have people who you hang out with, but people who are your real friends. This is beyond graduate school advice, and can be classified as simply “moving to a new place” advice, but it’s closely tied into graduate school success. Early on, make sure to find some good friends. This is easier said than done, of course. There may be some months of loneliness before becoming more settled (and this can strike at various points during your time in school, as you may make friends who move away). This is one place where the marathon metaphor can be apt. It can be tempting to view your current situation (being lonely or stressed) and ask, “How can I keep going for five more years until I graduate?” My advice here is to try to not project a current difficult situation into the future and to take it one step at a time.

Diversify friendships and find a church community. I’m going to expand on the friendship advice further, because I have come to believe that making good friends is one of the best things you can do for your own wellbeing and for your success in graduate school. First, diversify your friendships. It’s been beneficial for me to have friends in my lab, graduate program, and church, who can all bring unique perspectives and provide support in different ways. The program friends will likely fall into place more-or-less naturally. It may take a little extra initial effort to find a church and make friends who share your faith. A few months after I moved to Durham, I started going to the church I still attend, which in addition to being helpful in terms of making friends, has allowed me to become invested in a larger community. Church is a place where, at least weekly, I participate in faith traditions (such as worship and communion) as part of a community and converse with others who may or may not be in the same phase of life as me. There may be seasons when going to church feels more or less objectively helpful, but it is important to have as part of a routine. The community aspect also gives you a chance to serve others and allow them to serve you, when needed.

Choose your advisor wisely. In addition to building community in your new city, you will have practical concerns and decisions to make at the beginning of graduate school. Who will be your advisor? What will be your research topic? I think there are two main questions to ask when choosing an advisor which stem from respect and trust: 1) Do you respect your advisor’s contributions to the field, and do you like the way that they approach problems and questions in their field? 2) And aside from research, do you trust them? This person will need to be in your corner not only throughout your PhD, but ideally throughout your career. Tied in with these questions is the issue of whether your advisor respects and trusts you — an element of the relationship that is critical for gaining intellectual independence and feeling secure in your work environment. I would advise against a prestigious advisor or fashionable dissertation topic if it comes at the cost of these factors. In the sciences, by choosing an advisor you are also choosing a lab with a particular focus and working environment. The concept of “fit” is often discussed, and while it sounds vague, it’s true that you should sense a good fit in the right lab. In my program, we rotate through a few labs each for a few months to find a good match. I knew I found the right lab when I felt invested in the project, immersed in the lab, and wasn’t really keeping track of how many weeks I had left in the rotation.

Keep the big picture in mind. After the initial dust has settled, it’s time for the long-haul part of the PhD — or, in this extended running metaphor, the middle of the marathon. I have mentioned various factors that surround your graduate school work and will help you succeed: being part of a community, choosing a good advisor, and maintaining friendships. But what of the work itself? You likely come to graduate school as someone who is ambitious and idealistic about interesting questions. You want to know how some piece of the world works in depth and are investing a significant portion of your life to investigating a question. How you can you not lose sight of this goal?

For fellow scientists, I’d say to make sure to give yourself time to think deeply about your project. It’s easy to chug along with experiments and analysis without thinking about the big picture. Thinking ahead to plan the best possible experiments — rather than spinning your wheels to do every experiment — is ideal. Having a set schedule and routine can also be helpful in this regard. Graduate school definitely requires dedication and hard work, but you should leave some space for hobbies, exercise, and pure relaxation, which should ultimately improve the quality of your work and life. Second, allow yourself to say no to things that are distracting from your main pursuit. These could be side projects only tangentially related to your project or committees that are trying to get help planning some event. I have my fair share of side work, and at this point I only say yes to particularly tantalizing opportunities (like writing this article!). Saying no may require a difficult conversation, or it may just be a quick email. (And on that note, learn to write quick, to-the-point emails without over-analyzing them. This is a great life skill.) It is important to prioritize your time for what you consider to be the deep, important work. 

Celebrate the milestones. During the middle of the PhD, there will be at least a handful of milestones — finishing a 5K or 10K en route to the marathon finish line. You've finished your classes, passed your preliminary exam, or published a paper? Be sure to take time to celebrate these, as they are worthy of celebration. Your friends should be able to help you here. And you were also likely in a sprinting phase of the journey, so give yourself license to slow down for a bit (take a vacation!) before picking up speed again. In addition to times of celebration, you will likely experience difficulties at some point or another — rejections from jobs or journals, difficult interpersonal dynamics. Remember that your worth as a human being is not tied to your graduate school success (a truth even when things are going well). Again, the marathon is full of many phases, and this is par for the course within reason (and all the more reason to celebrate good times when you can). Get advice from trusted friends and mentors on the best specific course of action during these phases.

Bring yourself to your work. Lastly, I think it is important to try to bring your whole self to your graduate work, including the part of you that is a Christian, because that part is intertwined with everything else. This is not to say that you need to bring up your faith frequently in discussion, and you may need to be discerning about what you say. The goal is not to evangelize the department, but simply to acknowledge your faith and be willing to have conversations with those who want them (some people will). Even in fields like mine where the research can feel disconnected from Christianity, a Christian perspective can be a key motivator for pursuing certain research questions and provide insights on moral and ethical dilemmas.

Congratulations on beginning an exciting journey — all the best on finding your stride.

About the Author

Amy is a working on her PhD in genetics at Duke University. Her research focuses on how genes and environment affect an animal’s ability to endure stressful conditions. She is originally from Georgia, where she graduated from the University of Georgia (and will always cheer on the Dawgs).

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