This week officially marks one whole year here at UNC working on my master’s degree so I decided to take some time to reflect on a few broad things I learned. Hopefully this post will provide you with some perspective on graduate school and advice if you are starting soon.
1. Word soup is better than going hungry.
Maybe it is just because I am doing a lot of writing now, but I think this may be the most important point and wish someone had told me this a lot sooner. Starting to write an entire paper from zero words is daunting. Don’t wait until you have your whole project done and a complete story to start writing. As you do a new task, go ahead and write down how you did it for a methods section. Come up with a new point about your data? Write that down. Read an interesting paper that could go in your intro? Write a short summary of it. When it comes time for you to actually start writing, you will have a lot of tiny pieces already done that you can start stitching together and won’t have to spend so much time trying to remember what you did or wanted to say. Take really good notes too. It is much easier to start from something you can build upon even if it is bad rather than a blank page.
2. My research is interesting because it is mine.
My own samples, project, data, etcetera will always be more interesting and exciting simply because they are mine. I realized that think its obvious why people should care and fund me because I already think my research incredibly interesting and important. That’s why I got into it in the first place. Unfortunately, the truth is closer to no one cares, thinks its important, and deserves any amount of funding. Especially when it comes to fellowship applications, I wish I had spent much more time on big picture questions such as: Why does my research matter? What is the potential for meaningful contribution from this work? How can this be explained in a way that is exciting to people far removed from it?
3. Everyone knows things I don’t, and I probably know things other people don’t.
I can’t possibly learn and know everything and neither can anyone else. Don’t spend all of your time trying to be an expert in everything because you can’t. Most extra classes are probably not a very good use of your time. I also realized how prevalent imposter syndrome is this year (everyone has it). Don’t be nervous about other people knowing things you don’t. Learn from them. Inevitably, you will learn or know something others don’t and you can share that with them. That is just part of working with others in your department or lab.
I make mistakes all the time, but so does everyone else. It is totally normal. Of course you should try hard not to, but don’t beat yourself up when you do. I’ve seen professors admit to making mistakes on the simplest things in grants and huge errors in published peer-reviewed work from large to tiny journals this year. Just try to learn from it and move on. Don’t think someone else is right 100% of the time and if you believe you are, don’t be afraid to defend or investigate that position until you are more certain one way or the other.
5. Expect the unexpected.
It is impossible for me to plan for everything; there are too many unknown unknowns. I think most people will agree that their research never goes as planned. You don’t know what is going to happen or what opportunities will present themselves so be okay with that, be flexible, and enjoy it!