So, what do new grad students need to know?
I’m a new graduate student.
As such, I just spent the past week being properly oriented for the journey I’m about to undertake. It’ll be (in the words of various orientation presenters) amazing, hard, depressing, enlightening, enriching … basically, a grab bag of adjectives! In between the heartwarming-if-cliche welcome speeches, excited conversations with fellow newbies, and getting lost in the tunnels under MIT, I’d like to think I picked up some useful tidbits of information.
Expectations and communication
The biggest thing is to communicate. Surprise! Who would’ve thought that the key to successfully working with your colleagues, classmates, labmates, and advisor would be to communicate with them? The top three pieces of advice:
- Tell your advisor/classmates/colleagues what to expect of you.
- Ask what to expect of your advisor/classmates/colleagues.
- Be your own advocate.
For example, if you run marathons and thus go for a long run every day at noon, tell your advisor and labmates this. That way, they don’t expect to find you in the lab when you’re out running. They might tell you that they have three kids and leave work every day at 6pm sharp — so don’t schedule meetings after 5pm. Or that they’re so not a morning person, so never expect to see them working before noon — but if you need something at 3am, they’re the person to contact.
It’s not just about when to expect to see people in the lab. Ask about communication styles. Does this person like emails? Phone calls? Meetings? Texts? Some people prefer a quick five-minute conversation in person to a lengthy email exchange. Ask what this person’s expectations are about you. Does your advisor expect to see you in the lab eight hours a day? Does your labmate expect you to help out on project XYZ? Ask questions whenever you’re unsure of something. After all, every relationship is different. So what works for this relationship?
The key is to share enough relevant information with each other to know what to expect. Be up front about who you are, what you do with your time, and what you want to get out of the situation or the relationship. This way, no one’s left wondering. If everyone knows what to expect, you won’t get into a situation where someone’s upset because they didn’t get what they were expecting.
Communicate both when things are going well and when they’re not. If you’re working on a project with someone, give regular updates on your progress — whether you’ve achieved awesome results, or are stuck in a rut. Sometimes, the person you’re working with can help you out of the rut. I worked with someone once who said, if you don’t update me, I’ll assume you’re not working. While that’s not true of everyone, make sure the relevant people know what you’re up to.
If you remember one thing, remember this: People assume too much. People will build up their own image of you whether or not you tell them anything. So be proactive. Be your own advocate. Make sure they build up an image that correctly reflects reality.
- Leave your lab. Make a point of getting out of your lab, out of your department, and meeting people. Meet people from everywhere! You can meet people through campus-wide events, lectures, your classes, clubs, outside activities… pretty much anywhere there are people, really.
- Leave your comfort zone. Try new things. Try hard things. Learn.
- It’ll be hard, but that’s okay. The orientation events I attended had a common theme — grad school is hard. Grad school is supposed to be hard. You may not be motivated every step of the way. The key is persistence and perseverance. Find ways of keeping yourself on track. And:
- Take care of yourself. Don’t put the rest of your life on hold. Leave the lab once in a while. Do outside activities — whether that’s walking your dog, spending time with your family, or backpacking in Kenya. What do you enjoy besides your research? Make time for it. It’ll help keep you sane.