Many times during grad school I felt as if I were standing still, making no progress towards an actual degree, and then all of a sudden, I’m finished…I’ve submitted my dissertation and will be defending my dissertation in less than two weeks! So, for my last official Donahue lab blog post I thought I would reflect on some of the lessons I learned in grad school, in the hopes of helping someone along who is still a few years out.
One of the best ways I spent my time in grad school was actually helping other people with projects far outside my comfort zone. Helping with other people’s fieldwork, experiments and even giving guest lectures expanded my skill set tremendously and greatly helped me contextualize my own research. In addition, it was super fun! Helping others was partially fun because I live in Hawaii and helping out with fieldwork usually meant diving in exotic locations. Even more importantly though, helping with other people’s work allowed me develop strong relationships that will last long after my degree is over. There is something that allows you to easily bond when you’re helping someone collect water samples at 3AM or when you are being circled by sharks and ulua in remote waters.
Surround yourself by bright people, but make sure they are nice people as well. Spending your time with people who stimulate your thinking and challenge you regularly will make you a better scientist, but in my opinion, it is only worth your time if they are nice people. I’ve been fortunate to work with so many wonderful and brilliant people over the course of my degree, but I’ve worked with a few difficult people too and I’ve decided it’s not worth the stress. As a result, I’ve also learned how to improve the way I offer criticism to others as well, in order to make my comments as useful and constructive as possible. For some people, there is simply no way of getting around working with that one brilliant scientist who will shape your career, but if you have the option, try and collaborate with people who make you happy.
Travel as much as possible, without taking away from your work and productivity. Graduate school provided me with the opportunity to travel to some amazing places such as the Marshall Islands and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and all of those experiences have shaped my world perspective. At the same time, I wish I took more time off to travel just for fun. Graduate school is one of the only times in your life where you may have as much freedom as you want and you should take as much advantage of it as possible. For me, there was always the excuse that I had no money, or I was teaching, or when I did take time off, I had to use that time to visit family. Even though I had some great travel experiences during grad school, if I were to do it again, I would throw all my excuses out the window and find more time to travel for fun!
Don’t be afraid to fail. When I started grad school I was so worried about doing my experiments and fieldwork wrong it took me forever to get started. And then I just had to redo my experiments and fieldwork anyway. I wanted to prove to my professors and colleagues that I was capable and self-sufficient, but in truth, the way we get capable and self-sufficient is through failure. As I near the end of my graduate degree, I’m much more comfortable in my “scientific skin”: I’m okay with failing something and I’m okay with saying I don’t understand something. I now realize that as long as you don’t give up, this is how you improve and make progress. Sometimes its embarrassing and it can make you feel vulnerable, but it also makes you a much better scientist.
Live in the present and have fun! Wherever you go to school, take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves and invest time in making new friends. Even though most of your friends will disperse, your friendships will last. Also, you may not live in your current state forever, so take advantage of the unique opportunities where you are now. For me, I didn’t go surfing enough — but I hiked and dived more than I ever could have imagined. So, between now and when I leave Hawaii I will be making it a goal to continue doing the unique things that Hawaii has to offer.
Mahalo nui to my wonderful labmates and friends at the University of Hawaii!