Given that it’s that time of year when both my new undergrads and the new crop of postgrads appear like magic in the department, I thought I might scribble some thoughts about life at the start of Grad School. Call it egotistical, but given some of the rubbish I’ve been through in the last 3 years I feel like I might have a thing or two to share that newbie postgrads could find useful.
In my other life (well, one of my other lives… there are several) I review UCAS personal statements for a massive student website called The Student Room. In the 7 years (*gulp*) that I’ve been doing it, I’ve racked up several hundred reviews and come to know the UCAS system pretty much inside and out. One thing that I have learned along the way is that where a Biology personal statement is at its best when crammed with science; the medics, vets and dentists are all expected to provide much more evidence of soft skills. They’re the one group of students where we not only allow them to keep their extra curricular activities in to pacify their teachers: we actively encourage them. Med schools specifically tell us that students have to show evidence of effective stress management.
Applying for a PhD
Applying for postgraduate studies is very different to putting in a UCAS application. You can apply for wildly different courses (in my case climate change and bromeliads in Trinidad vs species biodiversity in East England vs crop domestication in India vs hardcore molecular biology) because there’s no common form. Different universities ask you for completely different things. Absolutely nobody gives you the opportunity to talk about your leadership, teamwork or dedication. It’s science all the way.
This is understandable, given that grad school is mainly about feeding members of your family to the vengeful lab gods, and pouring your own blood directly into reactions in the hope of replicating alchemy. But it strikes me as a little naive that – given the well documented stress of undertaking a PhD – at no point do we ask people hoping to start one about their support network or about how they cope with stress.
How we deal with stress
This is particularly on my brain at the moment because yesterday was a very very bad day scientifically speaking. PhD is going down the toilet, I want to pack it all in etc etc. Luckily, another PhD friend is back from collecting data up a mountain for a week, and was suffering from what I like to call greyhound syndrome. So in the interests of friendship, and me not being a danger to myself or other people, I let him roundly thrash me at squash for over an hour. Having spent the afternoon in a near hysterical funk, it took all of about 10 minutes for me to be grinning manically and wondering what all the fuss was about. I am not my PhD, my PhD is not me, and even if it all comes off the rails – which is, realistically, unlikely – the world will not end. I will sing, I will bake, I will play squash until I can return that stupid against-the-wall shot that he does all the frickin time!!! and life will go on.
So, newbie Grad Students: Your assignment this week is Find a way to destress. It could be running, it could be making music, it could be writing angry badly-rhyming poetry. But whatever it is I recommend you figure it out now. Cos Lord knows you’re gonna need it…