3 January 2014

What I’ve learned in grad school

Posted by Jessica Ball

My home for the last five years...I'm gonna miss it!

My home for the last five years…I’m gonna miss it!

A couple of weeks ago was my (gasp) six-year “blogiversary”, which I always forget about. But the end of one year and the beginning of a new one always seems to call for more introspective posts, and for my first post of the new year I thought I’d write about the main reason I started this blog: graduate school.

I defended my dissertation in October, and for the past couple of months I’ve been finishing up revisions on the document and formatting a lot of my data for publication/archiving while getting used to a new job. The shift away from all-research-and-writing-all-the-time has given me a chance to reflect a bit on what I’ve gotten from the experience, and what I know I still want – or need – to learn from it. I know this time of year posting is rife with lists and navel-gazing, but maybe some of you will find this helpful or thought-provoking. So, here goes…

I’ve recognized my own impostor syndrome, and that it doesn’t have to stop me from being successful. If you’ve ever met me in a conference or work setting, I might come across as reasonably confident. I might sound like I know what I’m talking about when I give a presentation or show off a poster or chat on a panel. But inside, I am constantly second-guessing myself, even when people tell me that I look confident or that I’m a good writer or that my ideas are interesting. There isn’t a day that goes by in my professional life that I’m not thinking Do I really know this stuff as well as I think I do? or Are my ideas actually valid? or I must have sounded like an idiot when I tried to answer that question. I’ve felt this way all the way through grad school, right up to the moment when my committee members shook my hand and congratulated me on passing my defense.

It’s not because I don’t have self-confidence. When it comes to other parts of my life, I don’t have as much trouble being secure in the knowledge that I can do things. I’ve been performing onstage musically for years, and you just don’t do that if you have no confidence in yourself. But when it comes to being a scientist, I always wonder if some of it doesn’t stem from our inclination to question everything, in the process of being rigorous in our work. I think impostor syndrome happens when you take it so far that there’s always something niggling at you even when you know you’re doing good science.

Obviously I spend a lot of time thinking about this, and I’ve had conversations with my friends in grad school about how they get past it. Jacqueline Gill at The Contemplative Mammoth has a great take on how she’s done that, and I agree with some of her conclusions. Knowing that other people feel the same way is reassuring, and I find confidence in knowing that I’m not the only one hiding insecurities. And talking with other people, especially friends, is a good way to objectively evaluate my fears, especially when they remind me what I have to be proud of and confident in (and vice versa). I’m still fighting it, even after passing my defense, but maybe someday it will have faded to the background and be nothing more than an awareness of where I can do better.

I’ve learned to be adaptive. In this past year, I’ve had to adjust to having my academic advisor on the other side of an ocean and no longer just down the hallway from me. I won’t say it wasn’t difficult, because it has been; different time zones, different schedules and a whole new set of job demands for my advisor made it hard for us to keep up with each other and along the way, there were a few snafus. But they were, for the most part, unavoidable ones, and I had to change the way I worked to make sure they didn’t derail my whole research process. For the most part, everything turned out okay; I was probably the first person in the department to have my advisor Skype into my defense, and it worked out just fine. I had a lot of support from my committee and friends, which made it easier.

Seriously, it was tough, but it wasn’t THAT painful. (http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1662)

But the end of my grad school career hasn’t been the only time that I’ve needed to be adaptive; in fact, I could probably say that my entire dissertation has been an exercise in adaptation. When I first started, I intended to do a masters just to try out grad school, and had an appropriately limited scope for my research (I think some of it originally had to do with pyroclastic flows formed by lava dome collapse). But then I got funding, and got encouraged to go for the PhD, and it became necessary to rethink my research drastically. I ended up adding entire sections on remote sensing, aqueous geochemistry, a whole bunch of numerical modeling and groundwater flow – and I’d originally intended to just do physical volcanology!

Being adaptive about big things like that means it’s been easier to deal with smaller hurdles along the way – it puts things into perspective. When I couldn’t get hold of some papers I needed to use to write bits of my dissertation because of the recent government shutdown, for example, I didn’t panic. (I didn’t have time to panic!) Within the space of an afternoon I asked for help from my peers, got a few of the papers emailed to me and then tweaked the section so it didn’t depend so heavily on what I couldn’t access. If I hadn’t already been dealing with the difficulties of having my advisor in another country, the whole episode might have upset my workflow much more than it did.

I’ve learned that I can be a teacher. In my family, this has a great deal of significance. My mother is a teacher; my grandmother was a teacher; I wouldn’t be surprised if my great-grandmother and her mother spent time in their Italian villages teaching as well. On entering grad school, I knew I would be continuing this tradition by TAing. Granted, TAs (and most academic scientists in general) get little training on pedagogy, so I was completely terrified at the prospect. And starting your teaching career as a TA in an intro course is a particularly unforgiving experience, because intro students are generally not there because they really want to be. The reviews I got from those semesters were what you’d expect of any intro lab; some people liked it, some people held grudges over things they thought were unfair or didn’t like, and the rest didn’t really care enough to write much. But I don’t think I scared anyone away from geology then, and some of my first students are now (yikes!) grad students at UB.

Just one of these students makes the whole thing worth it! (http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1084)

Just one of these students makes the whole thing worth it! (http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1084)

My second round of teaching was what really got me to this realization. This last year, I TAed for our structural geology lab and actually co-taught the intro course I TAed for my first year. I’ve always liked structural geology, even though I’m a volcanologist now, because my undergrad advisor was a structural geologist and a great teacher. Thinking in three dimensions is a challenge that I love, and I hope I was able to translate that into a good course for my students. (They liked the stress/strain lab we did with candy at Halloween, at least, so that’s one success.) My intro class was an even better opportunity to try out my teaching skills, because I had the guidance of the professor I was co-teaching with, and because I had a (thankfully) small class that I could interact with a lot. I wasn’t the most exciting lecturer sometimes, and I stumbled once in a while, but I tried. And I found out that I could do it, and my students learned something. I know that most student reviews aren’t a good way to judge how effective a class was, but I was really happy to find out that they thought I did fine – and some of them were even excited about the class. It’s not to say that I wouldn’t benefit from formal training, because I know that I can still improve – but now I also know now that I can teach, and do it reasonably well.

I’ve learned to separate criticism from emotional attachments – to an extent. This was one of the hardest things I learned in graduate school. I’ve always loved to write, and writing for school has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve done as a student. That said, when I was in college it was easy to let myself be overly proud of a highly-graded effort and feel upset when something came back that I thought was good, but really needed work. I would get upset about these things pretty easily, but it always blew over quickly; college classes are necessarily a short-term thing, and disappointment didn’t last too long.

But in grad school, I found that I couldn’t afford to keep up that pattern. My good writing from college was up to the standards I faced in grad school, but only if I really worked at it – and when I received critical feedback, I simply no longer had time to be emotionally invested in it. Between teaching, taking classes and writing thesis proposals, I just couldn’t allow myself to dwell on a bad performance. It was much easier to make a note of what went wrong, then calmly ask what I could do to make it better, and do it. It doesn’t mean I didn’t feel happy or proud when something went right, but it made it easier to keep on going when I found out that I hadn’t done as well as I thought. I simply didn’t have the time to be upset. It makes much more sense to tell yourself that a negative comment is not going to ruin your life, and then move on.

I’ve learned to indulge myself when I can. Even if it’s something little like buying the expensive chocolate at the grocery store, or going out and getting a manicure or a haircut, or just taking a weekend off to go hiking or watch movies. Being a grad student is difficult, financially and in terms of your social life. (If you’re a grad student and you have a social life outside of your department, bravo! It’s tough and I didn’t manage it until I got a few years into my degree.) It sucks not having enough money to go on exciting vacations or buy those fancy boots you’ve been wanting for ages.

It gets better, I swear. (http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1210)

It gets better, I swear. (http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1210)

But treating yourself well helps get you through the tough times. My officemates and I had a constant chocolate supply for the bad days, we knew when it was time to get outside for some sunlight (providing it wasn’t January and frigid) and a curry at the Indian place on campus, and we recognized the value of taking a night off to snark at awful disaster movies. You have to take time to do these things in grad school or you’ll go nuts. I promise that spending a couple of dollars on a treat once in a while won’t bankrupt you, and every so often you just need to take a break from your work. That’s not to say that the thesis guilt won’t set in the next day, but at least you’ll have relaxed for a little while.

And I promise once you finish your thesis or dissertation, there will be a moment when everything stops careening forward and you can just take the time to breathe. You’ll probably have editing to do and papers to write, but for just a little while, you can pause and take it all in. For me, this meant that my heart rate dropped precipitously and I finally didn’t feel guilty about sleeping in, which was an amazing relief. And you know what I did after I submitted my final thesis edits last week?


I went out and bought the boots.