In a recent post on The Rare Knowledgesphere, I mentioned that I when I tell people that I went to graduate school or explain what I do now, the replies can be overly modest or self-deprecating. Sometimes, people tell me that they don’t feel smart enough to make it through grad school or to do what I do. Graduate school or other professional schools aren’t for everyone, but there is a big difference between not wanting to go and not feeling good enough to go. In my experience, people who think they can’t do it aren’t so much incapable as incapacitated by Imposter Syndrome. In my 9 total years of acquiring higher education, plus 2 years and counting of post-doctoral training, I find that when it comes to academic success, academic achievement frequently takes a backseat to having the right personality. In this post, I thought it would be helpful to describe some of those qualities that help set the most successful researchers apart.
Learning is a skill
Don’t get me wrong, you need to pass the graduate record examinations (GREs- general and subject) in order to be accepted, be able to understand the material once you are there, do well on exams, and maintain a certain grade point average (GPA). While grades and exam performance can be good metrics for intelligence, there are a lot of circumstances that could preclude someone from doing well, thus they aren’t the only metrics. Certainly you need a solid knowledge base in any subject in order to participate in it. But I don’t usually get asked by people I pass on the sidewalk to explain how 20 different enzymes react instantaneously when you consume a meal in order to alter your metabolism to maintain homeostasis. I am asked on a daily basis to assimilate new information, process it, and then apply it to my work. Whether it is learning a new skill (like learning to perform a laboratory technique or how to analyze data I have not worked with before), whether it is evaluating a proposed experiment and looking for flaws in the experimental design, or whether it is reviewing someone’s manuscript for validity and publish-ability, I need to be able to learn new things efficiently.
Learning is a skill, just like wood-working or weight-lifting: you need to start small and practice regularly. Learning a new skill, language, or activity challenges us. Not only can it broaden our view of the world, but continuing to learn throughout your adult life can improve health and cognitive function: essentially, the more you learn the better you become at learning. In addition to physically performing new tasks, reading is a great way to inform yourself while improving your reading comprehension skills, verbal IQ, and critical thinking so that you can assess the accuracy of the information. Scientific texts, even for those who are trained to read them, can be extremely difficult to fully comprehend. Articles are full of very technical language, explain new concepts, and often rely on a certain amount of knowledge inherent to the field. It’s tempting to read quickly, but in order to do this you efficiently it can help to be systematic and thorough.
You may not feel you are ready for graduate school, that you belong in grad school, or that you are ready to leave, but grad school isn’t the end point- it’s a learning experience to become a good researcher. Even once you leave, you never stop learning. Good graduate students don’t have to know everything, but they do need to know how to learn and how to search for answers.
Put on a happy face
You don’t need to love grad school, your work, or the process of research every second of every day, and you don’t need to pretend to, either. It can be difficult, and like with any job, there are good days and bad days. A hardy personality falls a close second to being able to learn new skills. The road through graduate school is arduous and different for everyone, and it takes a tough person to make it out of the labyrinth of Academia. Moreover, you are truly surrounded by your peers; everyone in graduate school has already maintained a high GPA, passed the GREs, gotten into grad school, etc. You are probably never going to be the smartest or most accomplished person in the room again, certainly not for a long time.
You need to be able to take criticism, and not just the constructive kind: not everyone maintains polite professionalization and at some point, someone will bluntly tell you that you don’t belong in graduate school. For me, this occurred about two years in, when I submitted my first manuscript. A reviewer mistook my statement that a certain type of photosynthetic, water-based bacteria were present in the rumen of moose (who acquire them by drinking swamp water) for saying that those bacteria normally lived in the rumen of the moose, and commented that the latter was incorrect, that I did not know what I was doing, and that I did not belong in science. To be sure, being able to deliver information in journal articles in an accurate manner is critical, and if a reviewer mistakes what you say in a manuscript, then you need to clarify your statements. If a journal article is found to be unsuitable for publication, the reviewer can recommend it be rejected and offer commentary on how to improve re-submissions. However, it is widely accepted to be inappropriate and unprofessional to make personal comments in a review. I was taken aback at how one misinterpreted sentence in a 5,000 word article could lead someone who had never met me to determine that I wasn’t suited for science.
In the end, I clarified that sentence, resubmitted, and the paper got accepted. Four years later, that article has been viewed over 6,500 times and several other papers have come out identifying bacteria of that type living in the gastrointestinal tract of animals. Research is a competitive field, and by its nature requires repetition and trouble-shooting. You need to be able to fail on a daily basis and still find the enthusiasm to learn from the results and try it again tomorrow.
Two heads are better than one
Working well with others is extremely important in graduate school (and really any work environment). In graduate school, other people can challenge you, help you reason through problems, identify holes in your logic, or add a perspective based on their personal experiences. In science, you can never be an expert in everything, and to be able to really answer a research question you need to be able to look at it from different angles, methods, or fields. Collaborations with other scientists allow you to bring a breadth of expertise and techniques to bear in projects, and can improve the quality of your research (1, 2, 3).
However, it can be difficult to wrangle so many researchers, especially when everyone is so busy and projects may span years. Emotional intelligence, the ability to empathize, has been found to contribute to academic intelligence and can foster interpersonal relationships and collaborations. When money, prestige, and ideas are on the line, the drive to be recognized for your work needs to be balanced with empathy in service to completing the experiments and disseminating the results. At some point in academia, personal conflict will jeopardize a project. As much as you have a right to recognition and reward for your hard work, you need to remember that other project members are due the same. That being said, as a graduate student you don’t always feel in a position to negotiate and may feel pressured to minimize your contribution or the thanks to which you are due. Settling on an order for authorship, or credit for contributions, is a conversation that needs to happen early, often throughout the project, and inclusively to acknowledge that you all worked hard for this.
Being able to juggle taking classes, teaching and grading, performing research, attending meetings, and all the other hundred things one must do in an academic day, takes a high degree of coordination. Your calendar is your friend: schedule everything from meetings to reminders about tasks. And using shared calendars really helps to schedule meetings or remind others. There are plenty of apps that are specific to laboratory scheduling needs to help coordinate meetings or assign tasks across multiple parties.
Even more important these days is digital organization: whether it be your email or your hard drive. You need to be able to confidently curate and store data or electronic materials so that you or someone else can find them, even years later. You never know when you will need to resurrect an old project or check on a method you once used, and without a solid paper trail you may not be able to locate or understand your digital breadcrumbs. Lab notebooks, protocols, data files, and knowledge need to be accessible to future members, and it is your responsibility to make them available and intelligible. There is nothing more frustrating than finding an unlabelled box of samples in a freezer and being unable to identify their owner or contents. While the Intellectual Property might be yours, if that research or your salary was paid by a university or governmental agency, you have a responsibility to make that information public at some point.
A high degree of organization can help you manage your time, keep track of your results, coordinate with others, and maintain a project schedule.
A spoonful of extra-curricular helps the biochemistry go down
Work-week expectations, course load, teaching load, research load, and financial compensation of graduate students vary by the nature of their appointment, by university policy, or even by department within a university.
Graduate Teaching Assistants are paid a stipend for providing undergraduate teaching and other miscellaneous help to the department (typically 20 hours per week), and may receive tuition compensation for the classes they take. Depending on the nature of the program, they may do research as well in order to write a thesis (masters) or dissertation (doctorate), or not do any research for their degree (non-thesis major). Graduate Research Assistants (GRAs) are hired strictly to perform research (again, usually 20 hours per week), for which they receive a stipend and/or tuition compensation, and also take classes. Most programs require GRAs to teach for one semester to gain the experience, and GRAs are almost exclusively performing research for a thesis/dissertation-based degree. Regardless of the type of appointment, there are a certain number of classes and hours of research which must be logged before a degree may be obtained. Between courses, teaching, and research, there is enormous pressure on graduate students to work more than 40 hours per week.
It might seem that immersing yourself in graduate school is the best way to be a good student. Or, maybe you are overwhelmed by the amount of work you are being asked to accomplish and feel pressured to spend 12 – 18 hours a day at it just to meet deadlines. Firstly, you are not lab equipment and should not be treated as such. As a student, as an employee, and as a person, you have rights in the workplace. It’s worth looking into university policy to see exactly what it required of you. Secondly, over-working yourself is a terrible way to be more productive, as I discussed in a previous post on work-life balance. To summarize that post, over-working yourself negatively affects your health, your cognitive function, and the quality of your work. On the other hand, taking regular breaks and vacation can help keep you focused and solve abstract problems.
In addition to helping you manage stress, having an active life outside of your program helps give you other experiences from which you can draw upon to aid your graduate work. For example, I worked for several years at a small-animal veterinary hospital before going to graduate school, at which I trained employees and had extensive interactions with customers. There, I gained the skills to manage others, simplify technical information, be very specific in my instructions, or maintain a professional demeanor in the face of emotional or chaotic events. My interests in painting and photography have improved the quality and presentation of graphical results, or visually document my experiments.
Learn to Type
Seriously. I spend most of my time at a computer: reading, writing, cut/pasting. If you can type as quickly as you can gather your thoughts,you’ll find that you are much more productive.