Aishat Motolani, PhD Candidate, Pharmacology and Toxicology
Every year, I like to reflect on my past academic year experiences to assess my personal and professional growth. This past year has been a hodgepodge of high and low moments. Nonetheless, in those moments, I have learned a few things that I will be applying to the rest of my graduate school journey and beyond. Below are six things I realized as a third-year graduate student.
- Deep focus enhances productivity
There are so many productivity-related hacks out there intending to make you do more with less time. The cornerstone of these hacks is your attention. When you channel your undivided attention toward a task of interest, you get things done. The book, Deep Work by Cal Newport, covers the topic of intense focus in detail. I highly recommend! The idea is to focus on a priority task with undivided attention to the point where you achieve a state of flow. In this state, the task becomes automated and effortless, and the rate at which you churn results grows exponentially. I experienced this many times when I started writing more in my third year of grad school. I often get stuck at first and have no idea what to write. However, once I have read a number of articles in a pin-drop silent space, the ideas start forming, and like magic, the previous sentence births the following sentence. I become in sync with my thoughts, and the words begin to flow easily. I am constantly amazed by my output after exiting the state of flow.
- What encompasses self-care can be different for you
Recently, mental health has become an important topic of discussion among graduate students and institutions. Given the different stressors that graduate students face daily, self-care should be a non-negotiable. There are different mainstream approaches to improving self-care, such as therapy, meditation, exercising, good nutrition, and so on. I try to incorporate some of these methods into my daily routine to improve my overall well-being. But I learned that sometimes they are not enough to alleviate my stress. As an international student, I realize that indulging more in my faith and culture, talking to my family and friends, and engaging in acts of service make me feel ten times better. So, if self-care for you looks like playing sports, spending time with family, a spa trip, having dinner with friends, cutting out a bad habit, or other unique activities, please immerse yourself in it. Personalized self-care is the best!
- Being involved improves your graduate school experience
As a graduate student working in the lab, my daily routine can be mundane. I used to have the same meme catchphrase when anyone asked how my day was: “It’s fine. This is fine.” It is easy to be engulfed by lab work. But I have learned to do other things that I am passionate about without compromising my research progress. I love writing, creating social media content, mentoring, gardening, among many other things. As a result, I sought opportunities that helped me cultivate these passions. They kept me levelheaded when things were not going as well with my research. They have also helped me become well-rounded as I have been able to connect and network with people outside my school and develop important skills relevant to the professional world. I still can’t believe I wrote a large part of the script for a major award ceremony on campus. It was fun! Also, I remember volunteering with my fellow emissaries at an undergraduate research event. It was such a great boost to start the day, interacting with students and sharing diverse experiences. I think in a couple of years from now after I graduate, many of my fond memories will be those that had nothing to do with my research project.
- Share and celebrate little wins
This is one of the good problems that people with type A personalities and a boatload of humility have. I used to disregard this point earlier on in my academic journey. But ever since I read Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, I have had a change of heart. In my third year of grad school, I realized that sharing your wins is not about bragging but about celebrating your incredible value as a professional. Did your work get published? Please be thrilled to announce it. Did you get an award or get accepted for a conference? Do prepare a thank you speech for any audience you may have. Did your experiment work after a thousand tries? Feel free to tweet about it and order your favorite dessert. In both my school and my department, the culture of celebrating and sharing the wins of graduate students is widely practiced. This helps if you don’t like shining the spotlight on yourself. Also, these announcements and celebrations can bring unexpected and great opportunities your way. A bonus point: it also crushes imposter syndrome. Sometimes although I cringe when announcing my graduate school-related wins, I still do it because my future employers may just be on the sidelines watching.
- Experience is the best teacher
Once upon a time, I studied my class lessons, took my tests/exams, and aced it all in one try. I soon realize that this process occurs in many iterations in a laboratory. Experiencing failure several times while conducting research is a hard pill to swallow. You feel stuck, frustrated, tired, unmotivated, and doubtful about your decision to attend graduate school. I had all these feelings as I did not have an extensive wet lab experience. However, the tides began to turn at some point. The more the repeats and reruns of an experiment I did, the better the results. I started to develop something I termed “experiment intuition,” or in a less fancy term— better judgment. Although the protocol says X, the intuition I had developed from several repeats and literature search informed me to try Y. Through experience, I have been able to discern loopholes in my experiments, plan my tasks efficiently, and perform experiments with great care and patience. So do not beat up yourself too much in the beginning. Experience is truly the best teacher of all!
- Lower your expectations for things you can’t control
Put a finger down if you have ever applied for funding, did everything so meticulously, got feedback from the experts, and eventually came back empty-handed. I will assume your finger is folded. Otherwise, congratulations! I have realized that there is only so much I can control. As a biomedical graduate student, I pipet and mix transparent liquids all day with the hope of getting a glimpse of the unknown and proving/disproving my hypothesis. Naturally, we are biased towards a particular outcome. When the intended outcome is not observed, we repeat the experiment several times to eliminate self-made errors or chance. If the intended outcome is still not observed. Then, it is what is. It is outside one’s control. Lowering my expectations for things beyond my control has done wonders for my mental health. It has also helped me dissociate my self-value from my work output. I try to do my best in whatever is within my control, and the rest, I do not worry about it. I will try again or look in a different direction.
Are there any lessons you have learned in this past academic year? Feel free to share them below in the comments.