Every time someone asks me “how was your first year of grad school?” the honest answer is “fast”. I truly can’t believe that it’s been a full academic year; I half-jokingly tell my friends that a whole year has passed, and I have nothing to show for it. In a sense, it feels true. I didn’t submit any papers to any conference, I worked on a project for 3 months before completely abandoning it and shifting to something different, and even on my current project, I sometimes don’t know what I’m doing or where it is going. But as I reflected further, I realized that although I haven’t hit measurable milestones in my research so far, I’ve without a doubt learned a lot. Here, I wanted to share about four lessons I’ve learned so far.
Disclaimer: this is all very dependent on my own personal experiences.
First, there’s no “track” in graduate school and “progress” often feels non-linear. In my first two months, I kept asking myself “am I on track?” Coming straight from undergrad, I was used to a program with clear structure. Being “on track” towards my degree entailed doing well in classes and contributing to projects and internships. I knew what I needed to do; it was just a matter of executing under time-constraints. Now, in graduate school, the path to my degree is much more free-form. When choosing directions and hypotheses to test for my projects, there’s rarely just one right answer, and if there is, it won’t be handed to me. I like to imagine undergrad being like conducting a train. To get to your destination, you just need to choose the best path. Grad school, on the other hand, is like conducting a train while simultaneously laying down the tracks with a semi-functional compass and a coffee-stained map. The new freedom can be empowering or paralyzing.
I am learning to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, with what is often referred to as “non-linear” progress. In undergrad, I could measure my degree progress broadly on the number of classes I’ve taken. Daily progress could be measured by the number of lines of code I committed or how many hours of lectures I watched. There was a generally positive correlation between time spent doing my work and progress, and it felt rewarding. In grad school, rewards from research can feel sparse. When I know what to do, coding for a few hours can feel very productive, reminiscent of undergrad progress. But I’ve also spent hours and hours trying to figure out research questions, identify an interesting problem, or interpret my results without feeling like I’m actually “getting anywhere”. And that’s okay—this is still progress!
The second lesson is my advisor and senior collaborators are there to give advice, not approval or answers. Sounds obvious, right? The words advisor and advice come from the Latin root “visum” which means “to see”; advice is just someone’s perspective. Yet at the beginning, I found myself seeking my advisor’s approval of every idea or for her to tell me what direction to go. In the back of my mind, the goal of our meetings was to gain validation and approval of my progress, when really it should be about refining and reshaping my ideas. Perhaps it’s a subtle difference in mindset, but it has made a world of difference.
In the old mindset, I couldn’t think of ideas beyond what we discussed in meetings. I was scared that my original ideas would be rejected, and this fear of failure paralyzed me. With the new framework, I realized I shouldn’t be trying to impress anyone with my ideas and that it’s okay to bring simple or half-baked thoughts to these meetings. Like a good advisor, she’ll take what you bring to meetings and add her own thoughts to refine it into something better. Sometimes this refining comes as tough and challenging questions, but it’s important to remember the questions are not meant to trap you, but to further develop you.
Granted, it’s easier said than done. I often feel a vulnerability in sharing my ideas; I tend to link critiques on my work to critiques on myself. But, I’m learning to separate my ideas from myself and share them with my collaborators, entrusting them to reshape and contribute to them with good intentions.
Third, I think the goal of my PhD is to learn how to identify and solve problems, rather than becoming an expert in a subject matter. Becoming an expert is the means to achieving this goal. Before you read too far, I want to emphasize that becoming an expert in a subject matter is a very important aspect of the PhD. However, I think that the skills we develop are more critical than the specific area itself because they are skills that are applicable no matter where life takes us next. Perhaps I stay in computer vision research where my expertise and problem solving skills will both be useful, but perhaps I don’t. Regardless, being able to make new discoveries and face uncertainty will help me contribute meaningfully anywhere.
As concrete examples, some intuitions I hope to develop are knowing how to proceed after each experimental result or strike the balance of how deep and broad to follow various hypotheses. In all honesty, these skills don’t come naturally to me, but I know with patience and experience, I’ll get there. As one of my professors says, “it’s something that’s caught, not taught”.
My last lesson is that a PhD is more than research. As I was writing this, I found it funny that my last three lessons are all related to research, which perhaps makes this one especially important. It seems a bit counter intuitive because we apply to doctoral programs in order to do research. And it is a huge part of graduate school, if not the biggest, but I’d suggest that graduate school is not–and maybe should not–be all about research. Being a grad student is a unique stage of life: you’re an adult (whether you accept that or not), you have a lot of freedom in your work and time, and you get to enjoy the perks of being at a university beyond the undergraduate bubble. You’re in this unique position to mentor younger generations and help spark a love for curiosity and discovery. Isn’t that exciting?!
Perhaps a hot take, but I think that if you make your PhD all about research, it does more harm than good. Academia often lacks the external boundaries of industry (e.g. no “official” holidays off and no standard of 9-5 work days) and grad students often have personal investments in their work. Together, these factors can cause research to easily overtake our time, mind, and life. We start to experience tunnel vision with research, and our most pressing problems are whether our submission will be accepted. These are good things to care about as a grad student, but it’s important to recognize your worth is not in your work.
Personally, an important experience has been volunteering for the Prison Teaching Initiative where I tutor incarcerated students twice a month. Tutoring always reminds me that there are bigger issues out there than my grad student work. When I bury myself in my research, it can feel like I am digging an endless hole. Having experiences outside of academia is like raising my head out of the ground and looking at the world around me. There’s so much to the world and life beyond our work. While we are responsible for doing good research and caring about it as grad students, it shouldn’t consume our entire life. It’s helpful to the soul (and our work!) to expand our graduate school experience beyond research. I especially advocate for service: tutoring, teaching high schoolers, helping at a homeless shelter, volunteering at church–take your pick, the choices are endless!
Thank you for reading! And a special thanks to Eric Anderson, Susan Tan, Ruth Fong, Sunnie Kim, and Juan Banchs for their time to read and give feedback on my reflection.
What are your thoughts? Did any of the things I’ve learned resonate with you? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in your first year or beyond? Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @allisonchen_227 with your thoughts!