Graduate student life is all about finding and nurturing a passion for science and discovery.
by Orlando Acevedo-Charry
During winter break in my first year as a Ph.D. student, my wife and I drove 3,800 km to visit my siblings, forcing us to get offline for some days. Family time, good food, and nostalgic memories created an atmosphere of calm and deep thinking, a pause that everybody needs in academia. Unfortunately, we received the notice that two iconic biologists (Tom Lovejoy and Edward O. Wilson) passed away. It reminds me of one of the letters to a young scientist by Wilson that I most appreciate, “put passion ahead of training.”
I am not a typical first-year Ph.D. student; I am one of the midlife fellows who waited to pursue a doctorate for many reasons. Contrary, my youngest sister and her husband are those beautiful fledgling minds with postdocs before 35. We join a conclusion related to Wilson’s letters; the best part about graduate school is experiencing enthusiasm for science and inquiry that eventually develops into a lifelong passion. Such passion for science rises in many forms: waking up early during Christmas to finish a presentation, drawing figures on the back of napkins in a bar, or planning an outreach strategy to bring recent research to non-scientific audiences.
As a first-year Ph.D. student, I am enthusiastic about a new broom that sweeps clean, but I am aware that this perspective could change; not all days will be sunny. Below I share four messages to my peers in graduate school: before the urgent, take time for the important. Graduate student life is all about finding and nurturing our passion for science and discovery.
Enjoy each discussion
Learning in graduate school happens when we are exposed to different ideas. These ideas came from different sources: lab and classmates, advisors, and other professors. I know how intimidating it is to enter a classroom to chat with an experienced professor. Do not get intimidated; let’s see this as an opportunity instead.
Professors are humans like you and me. They have lives, sometimes they get tired, take breaks, get stressed out by deadlines, and likely have experienced their fair share of struggles. Everybody has different personalities but do not let your shyness waste good opportunities to improve your knowledge.
Participate in seminars, lab meetings, and social activities; take advantage of any chance to explore your limits and go beyond your questions. Learn from your grad peers; many of them will be your collaboration team for publications or proposals. Some will become family, as it happened to me.
Finally, embrace the peer-review process. While it often leads to rejections, do not let them destroy your passion; use them as a learning process to improve your ideas and the way you communicate them.
Know the game
Be mindful of your academic program rules and requirements. Although having good grades is a graduation requirement, your experience, publications, presentations, and grants are assets evaluated in the job market.
Work closely with your advisor. They are there to guide you and are rooting for your success; that is why you picked them and why they chose you. Also, maintain open lines of communication with your committee.
As you are in a graduate program in science, you must stand on the shoulders of giants and play the game as it is currently framed. It is unlikely that changes during the process but be aware of changes.
Finally, explore the job market well in advance of completing your degree. Knowing the requirements of your dream job will help you plan your future steps. This will make you more competitive in pursuing your dreams.
Think, “Work, finish, publish,” and outreach
Sometimes, it takes time to define long-term career goals clearly, and that is OK. Grad school is the time to dig into the “nitty-gritty” of your research program. Enjoy that time!
Be aware of the big picture; you do not have to understand everything in detail. Give yourself some opportunities for collaboration. Strive to be inclusive with local/regional collaborators and other minorities in science. You will diversify your research perspective and demonstrate your commitment to inclusion and diversity in science.
Michael Faraday said the secret of his scientific success was comprised of three words “Work, finish, publish.” So, if your program requires peer-reviewed publications, let’s work, finish and submit! Once published, divulge your science to your different stakeholders. In your audience, try to include minorities, break language barriers (see the translation of this essay to Spanish), and keep dreaming big.
Your wellness is first
Never forget why you are where you are. Take quality time as much as you can with your family and friends, even a single call works. Think outside your research; about your finances, do any physical activity, and embrace spiritual advice if that brings you balance. Embrace any dimension of your wellness.
Establish your priorities in life, then you can pinpoint a realistic schedule and improve your experience. I think that happiness and wholeness could lead to a better experience in science. It is not mandatory, but for sure will be more rewarding.
Perhaps these messages and my perspective are personal and biased by my privileges as a man, born in Colombia’s capital city, a Hispanic-white researcher who has benefited from many opportunities. I came to grad school to keep learning, but my experience can help other graduate students. Everyone has to make a personal effort to leave a world better than before. Whether you are like me, an aged student or you are a confident young mind; I think you can use these messages to remind yourself that grad school is all about passion, as I am going to do.
About the author:
Orlando Acevedo-Charry @OAcevedoCharry
Orlando Acevedo-Charry is a Ph.D. student in the Interdisciplinary Ecology program in the School of Natural Resource and Environment and associated with the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida.
A Spanish version of this blog post is available at EcoLatino.