An open letter to my younger self, an aspiring graduate student in the sciences

Dear Paul,
 
I know what you’re thinking: “This will be a snap. I’ll be out in four years!”
 
You can brush up on your class schedule, fill up your book bag with shiny new notebooks and highlighters with more colors than a Skittles packet, and march into your new endeavor with determination. However, there are a few words of wisdom that I would like to share with you before you take this long, strenuous and, yes, sometimes crazy journey as a graduate student.
 
If there’s one thing you should do immediately, it’s to immerse yourself in the academic and scientific community. These people are not only your colleagues and friends but also your potential collaborators. The scientific community is a tight-knit collective. But its members will be there for you when you are feeling down on your luck or need advice (which will happen often!) or even help you procure jobs. Networking, networking, networking. Do it now or else learn the hard way why it isn’t just a buzzword.
 
Balance work and play. It’s easy to be sucked into lab life — slaving away at the bench, trying to finish just one more experimental replicate to show that your amazing results are reproducible. But don’t forget to engage your peers and attend social gatherings or even just take coffee breaks to catch up. Many people struggle with separating work life and social life. Why can’t it be combined? After all, we are all here, presumably, because we want to be, so why not make it productive and enjoyable now and for the rest of your career?
 
Diversify and volunteer. Many times the research problems you are trying to solve are so specific and narrow that it becomes easy to lose track of the bigger picture. Even more tragic: You might lose the ambition to develop skills outside your field. Public speaking, presentations, scientific writing and networking are crucial skills that can be helpful not only in your research but in your social life as well. You can develop these skills by helping others with projects, listening to your peers’ presentations, or even proofreading essays and papers. These skills will be even more important if you decide to search for a career outside of basic research.
 
Before I close, I want to talk about something that may seem unfathomable at this moment. Your experiments that you thought were foolproof will sometimes fail and may even cause you to doubt yourself. It will be discouraging, time and time again, having one positive result for every five failures. Or there may be a time when you get some questionable results that will have you stumped for weeks on what to do next. Having only three classmates in your Ph.D. program to ask questions can be difficult when no one has an answer for you, and being in an unfamiliar and disorienting new setting only adds to the initial struggle. While it’s normal to doubt yourself and wonder why you are putting yourself through such hardships when things consistently don’t go as planned, your failures are really what make you a better and more informed person. Perseverence, determination, patience and a sense of humor will help you get out of any mishaps unscathed and will make you a stronger person.
 
Graduate school, and much of life from here on out, is much less structured than you have experienced previously. But it can be summed up with brevity: You get out what you put in.
 
If there’s disorganization, then take the initiative to make sense of things, even if it’s a little extra work. Be confident, take action and don’t procrastinate. You’ll find your way. Life can be difficult at times, but it also can be rewarding and wondrous! So make the most of your time and enjoy the ride.
 
Oh, and your geek T-shirt collection is getting out of hand, so try to save your money for something more useful, like a house.
 
Sincerely,
Your older and wiser postdoctoral fellow self

Paul SirajuddinPaul Sirajuddin (psirajul@jhmi.edu ) is a first-year radiation oncology postdoctoral fellow at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. A native of Michigan, he ventured to the East Coast for a postbaccalaurate fellowship at the National Cancer Institute in 2008 and then earned his Ph.D. from the Georgetown University Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in 2013.

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