Seven tips for success in graduate school (from the future)

I was recently asked tips for successfully navigating through graduate school. I thought about what advice I would give if I could go back in time. So I wrote just that - a letter to myself in my first year of graduate school. Hopefully this advice can help others.

Dear Past Ciera,

Congratulations, you got into graduate school! Turns out, yes, you do belong there. This is Dr. you, from the future, and I have some important information that you need to incorporate into your work immediately.

  1. Do failure fast and success slow: When an experiment is continually failing, focus your energy on it. Keep attacking it at every angle. You will need to fail to get to success, so do it fast to get it over with. When you have success, savor it. Take the extra time to record the results perfectly. If you need to take a picture, set up the lighting, position the sample perfectly, and make the figure right away. Write up the success in great detail and bundle that success together as a snap shot of how great science can be. Allow yourself time to digest the results. Read about what it means, take times to record all your ideas, and plan the next steps carefully. This is the best time of research. You earned the right to enjoy it.
  2. Evaluate all ideas regardless where they come from: Understand that a PhD does not make anyone smart. Understand how everyone perceives intelligence is seriously messed up. You will hear that someone is “a genius” a thousand times and often it is for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately an idea will sound better or worse depending on the person it came from. Gender, race, disability, economic background, personality, and titles all influence how you perceive ideas. Make effort to evaluate ideas over the confidence in which they were voiced. Do not fall into the trap. Make conscious efforts to de-tangle your biases. Idolize no one, including yourself, especially yourself.
  3. Actively seek experiences that scare you and do them: Everything that I am truly proud of in my graduate career scared me almost to the brink of not even trying. So if you feel fear towards something you really want to do, fucking do it.
  4. Learn to think with reproducibility in mind: This will make your work better and allow others to understand what you did. You will always need to make people understand exactly how you got to your results, including your future self (me). Along that vein, please learn Git right away. It is really hard to explain how awesome it is until you start using it, but trust me, you need it and will LOVE it.
  5. Take opportunities to teach and understand how learning works: This accomplishes three things. 1. Teaching is a skill you need for your future 2. By teaching you solidify what you have learned. 3. Learning how to teach well allows you to understand how you learn. This is a great book on learning: How learning works.
  6. Apply for EVERYTHING: As a graduate student, you get a thousand emails informing you of opportunities for funding, travel, awards, ect. I know there are ALOT. Do not ignore them. Turns out most graduate students don’t read them, which is good for you, because a lot of people don’t apply. Just scan them and if you qualify, apply. Even if you don’t win the award/$, you get the opportunity to be improve your skills of applying. You need this skill to survive later in your career.
  7. Figure out why programming is fun for you: Doesn’t matter the field, if you handle data, you will be a better scientist if you can program. Yes, it is important to learn programming, but even more important is to understand why programming is fun for you. Programming is a tool; I would argue the most important tool of the 21st century, but again, just a tool. Your excitement for the project will dictate how often you want to use the tool. Harness the power of play and build something fun. You will be tempted to learn how to program with scientific data. This will not work for you. If it is someone else’s data, the project is boring. If it is your data, the project is too precious to make mistakes and the play aspect is non-existent. Find and create projects that incorporate a side hobby of yours. Build fun websites to learn unix, git, CSS, and Javascript. Learn Python by data mining your favorite book. Learn R from making pretty diagrams using ggplot. Learn to program by learning to play and continually reinforce a love for programming in the process.

Good Luck, you will mostly have a good time.


Future Ciera

PS: There are hoverboards now in 2016, but they suck.

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