Advice to my first year graduate student self

In response to a request from a friend who is just starting her PhD, here is what I wish I could tell my first year PhD Student self, and what advice I can give to other graduate student Women in STEM. This was written during the first week of my field season, so the thoughts are short, but I am happy to discuss them more if folks have questions or comments.

So here it goes.

These are my thoughts, based on my first three years of graduate school. I come from a place of privilege in these comments in that I am married with a very supportive long-distance husband, I am being paid enough in school to keep my head above water, I am healthy and I don’t have kids so I have time and flexibility that others may not. I have a very hands off adviser and am on an RA part of the year. Your mileage with this advice may vary, but some of these ideas are universal, I think, and I hope this could be helpful.

Things to do your first year

  • BACK UP YOUR DATA/COMPUTER(S) ALL THE TIME - I recommend Dropbox or Google Drive (check with your university you may have free space available, otherwise either one is relative cheap). Also if you do lots of coding using version control software such as Git would be a good thing. Whatever you do, DO NOT, EVER, let your data, or your paper, or anything be on only one computer.

  • Read, read a lot and read widely! Take tons of notes on what you read, and organize them in some fashion. I use Mendeley and Evernote for this, but there are many other ways of doing it. The key is to read and write and make connections. Also, Use a citation manager it saves you tons of time!

  • Find a way to organize your tasks, to-dos and reminders. I really like Todoist but there are many ways of doing this.

  • Take stats courses early, and you should probably start learning some kind of statistical or programming language (which one depends on you, your research group, your field, etc. Software Carpentry is a great place to start for R and Python). Learning how to do your work reproducibly will make your life easier down the line as you have to rerun your analysis dozens of times and is a great skill to carry forward.

  • Look at the CVs of people who have jobs that you think you might like to have one day, see what they did as graduate students, consider trying to do some of those things. Also talk to these people, ask their advice, the job market changes quickly and they may recommend doing different things then they did. The end seems far away, but you will be much better off if you start chipping away at things now.

  • Have the awkward conversation about what the funding situation is for both you and your project, that way if you need to find more money you can start early. Its crazy how much time it takes to find money and how easy it is to ignore this question until you are totally sunk.

  • Do not assume anything & ask lots of questions

  • Join a graduate student organization or group, find a cohort to support you on campus, work to support them back.

  • Put the time into setting up your data collection/research in such a way that will make your life easier.

  • Reach out and start collaborating with people outside your lab. Even if you have an amazing adviser you will benefit greatly from the thoughts, opinions and challenges of other researchers. They can provide you with perspective and advice along the way and help you when your adviser is busy or falls through.

  • Start acting like a peer, even if you don’t feel like one

  • I found these books helpful
    Getting What You Came For
    A PhD Is Not Enough
    So Good They Can’t Ignore You

  • I have found having a month by month plan Sort of like this 5 year Plan Really helpful. I am able to set goals, see what is coming, and plan ahead. I keep mine in a google drive spreadsheet and try to look at it once a week.

  • Do not take on too much - learn to say no - being involved is good, especially if it is in things that you enjoy and/or help you with professional development. But do not say Yes to ALL THE THINGS, or even MOST of the things.

  • Take advantage of the flexibility of being a student. I am lucky that my adviser is very hands off and I can take off and visit my husband who works out of state over spring break, or for several weeks during the summer. Carve out time to enjoy the fact that you do have some flexibility more then likely. I love to travel, and I do so as much as I can

  • Don’t forget your friends/family back home/other places. Make time to connect with them, keep up with them, engage with them.

  • My first year was super hard, my second year was super hard (comps), my third year was relatively easier. You will begin to get the hang of it, just keep on keeping on.

  • Work Hard, Rest Hard - take time for yourself, have hobbies, take time off and do things you love outside of school!!

Thoughts on Women in STEM during graduate school

  • Seek out mentors who support you (not necessarily women, but I would encourage finding some women) they don’t have to do exactly what you do, or being in your field, but find someone who has been through a PhD and come out with some passion left for science, learn from them.

  • Support other women, above, peer, and below. Do not pull up the ladder behind you.

  • Remember that women are not the only minority in science, and are not the worst off minority in science. Act Accordingly.

  • I have found it very helpful to realize that since I have flexibility in my degree regarding who I do and do not collaborate with that I can screen out the really sexist/racist/awful people and try to minimize their influence on my life. That isn’t to say that they are totally eliminated from my life, but I try to limit my contact with them. It helps.

  • There are horrible sexist people in the world. I doubt this will ever change. Try to make your corner of the world better for everyone, don’t let them get you down.

  • Join twitter, reach out to others in your field, engage with them, ask their opinions on things, give your own. Some of them may become your great friends.

  • Be yourself, being a women in STEM can be a little scary, and intimidating, but you can totally handle it. Just remember to be you, whether that person is super feminine and loves to wear heels or if that person would rather wear jeans and converse every day. STEM is a diverse and wonderful community and we are better for having you in it.

Edit 8/23/2015 - Additional Thoughts

  • Listen to everyone, but don’t take everyone’s advice. Mine included. Most people giving advice are trying to be helpful, BUT their advice may not fit your situation, or they may have another agenda. Find people you can trust to bounce advice off of, and learn to sift through the B.S.
Written on August 17, 2015