This December will be two years of graduating with my MSc! Crap, I feel old. I've been wanting to write this kind of post for a while, but was afraid that I would get some backlash for not expressing a "oh my gosh, graduate school was the best" mentality. Looking back, there are a few of the things I wish I knew before I started on one of the hardest adventures of my life. I'm sharing them here in hopes that if someone is wondering whether or not to take the plunge, they fully know what they are getting into.
Do ALL THE THINGS
My MSc was only funded for one year, meaning I had a one year visa in New Zealand to get in, do the thing, and get out. It left me not really exploring NZ at all that first year, and instead only really got to see my computer screen.
I wish I had joined clubs, done more meet ups, participated in the extracurricular activities my university offered, and made more friends. Due to this time crunch (and having two jobs), I had to miss out on all of the guest speakers and lectures, didn't get to join any student societies, and didn't take advantage of helping out professors who were looking for grad students to help out in their classrooms. Had I taken advantage of all of this, I would not only meet people (I had woefully few friends in Wellington), but I would have also made some valuable connections that could have helped me out professionally.
You will be poor
I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship for my MSc that covered my international student costs (though not all the way). I dipped into my last Bright Future funds and applied it towards this new adventure, which meant I got to graduate debt free... but had no money otherwise to live off of. The first two months of my MSc I tried to make the meager funds last, living in a cheap long-term hostel (and that was a nightmare) and eating noodles. At the beginning of the third month, I got a job as a short-order chef which paid me... well, not enough to live of. Even though I was a student, I worked full time to pay off living costs-- this meant not only was I was full-time employee but also a full-time student on a time crunch.
I had to be very frugal in graduate school, rely on family support, and at one point even thought I was going to end up homeless (like, I was making a list of what things to sell, shelters, etc) because I was living at or below the poverty line. And I know I'm not alone in this.
I wish I had taken time to iron out more sources of funding (from TAing, to working as a research assistant, to taking an outside job) before moving, so that I could focus on my studies when school began. I would have also loved to have done more research on passive income to help me out during this extremely hectic time.
You will be away from home...
On the days I didn't have work at 6:00 in the morning, I would head up to the school (it had internet) to do work until about 30 minutes before my work shift started. I would close most days, and once I moved out of the city it took about an hour to get home, meaning I wouldn't walk through the door until close to 8:00 in the evening. Days I had the morning shift, I would do that until 2:00 - 4:00 pm (depending the shift) and then hike up to the school library where I would stay until 9 or 10 in the evening. I rarely saw my house, or my husband (unless he came up to the library with me and sat across me while I worked), and that put a strain on our relationship.
I wish I had strived for a better balance between my personal and work life so I could enjoy the time we had while in Wellington. I missed out on countless functions with the few friends I had because I was either always working or tired... and that's not the way life should be lived. And on that note...
Take time for yourself
It’s easier than ever to burn out (I did - and crashed hard), so it’s important to decompress and step away from your studies, be it through an exercise class (or walk/run in the neighborhood), going out with friends, meditation, a nap, or a binge session with Netflix. Sometimes it might seem like there isn’t enough time in the world, but those are the days where you need to step back and take a breath most of all.
I wish I had done this, but also had found a friend group who understood how little time I had/that I was constantly poor. The group we hung out mostly was people in high-paying jobs that griped when we said we didn't have money or didn't have time to go out. It made hanging out with them miserable, made us feel awful about our situation, and the friendship eventually went sour because we were in different stages of our lives. To the friends who stuck around, understood, and suggested cheap/free activities: thank you.
Your mental health should come first
Nothing else matters if your mind isn't okay. My brain was constantly buzzing from anxiety and the need to constantly get things done to prove that I deserved to be there -- and that sort of terror should not be the norm. If you're one of those people who 'jokes' about getting hit by a truck (and kinda sorta mean it), take several steps back and examine your life: sometimes, you need to re-prioritize. It's okay to ask for help... I found that out when I thought I was so deep no one would hear me (and someone did). Get help, lower your workload, and remember that prioritizing your health (especially your mental one) does not make you weak.
It's okay to work from home
While I had a cubicle set up at my university, I found the tiny room with PhD students (who were not interested in even so much as a hello) to not be the environment I did my best work at. The spacious library with the beautiful view was much more my vibe (and if the noise got too loud, noise cancelling wireless headphones are heavenly) and spent most of my time there.
Once we moved out of the city (too expensive) and got a place with unlimited wifi, I opted to stay home and do my work from there. It allowed me to walk away from work easier, and to be closer to my husband. However, I had a few people bad-mouthing my decision.
Whatever environment you find works best for your creativity or productivity, go there. And if that's home, that's okay! You are not "less of a scientist" for doing the same amount of work (if not more) from the comfort of your home.
Have more than one advisor
Don't idolize your professors. Look up to them. Respect them. Learn from them. But never forget that they're just people and put them on a pedestal.
I wish I had gotten more than one advisor to not only bounce ideas off of, but to also help when the other wasn't available. The experience left me wanting more out of my professor-student relationship and I wish I had networked and pursued having others be my mentor as well.
Criticism is not personal
As long as it's constructive, the criticism you get is there to make you a stronger and better researcher, scientist, and writer. It is not an attack on you (though there are some real shitty reviewers out there that do toe the line of this). At the end of the day: your work does not determine your value as a human being.
I wish I had gotten more practice at not only having my stuff reviewed (outside of my sole advisor) but to also be involved in the reviewing process so I could understand it better and see from other's mistakes. It's something I deeply regret not doing more of and hope I get the chance to do when in my PhD. If you have the opportunity to do this sort of stuff, take it.
The world is my oyster...one that didn't open up right away
Graduation day came and I happily crossed the stage to nab my Master's degree... and I don't know what I expected. I didn't expect a big change, or for organizations to come clamoring to employ me. No matter what you graduate with, don't expect you'll get a high-paying job the month you graduate. In science, like in many other fields, it just means you will be competing for the slim number of positions available to those who also graduated that year.
And I knew this... but the constant rejection freaking stung. No organization wanted me, and when I applied for a PhD position (and got it!) I got no funding what-so-ever. Realizing I wasn't 100% invested in the project, I decided to not pursue it, enjoy a year of just working full-time and save some money. Heck, I even got to travel around New Zealand a bit!
If you have those connections I mentioned earlier, the whole after-graduation process is a little easier. Your colleagues may have leads to share! The professors you worked with may help you get into great institutions or take you into their lab. Still, to put it bluntly: don't expect anything because you'll still need to work your ass off to get a job even with your shiny new degree.
Similarly, if you're expecting a miraculous sense of self-fulfillment or accomplishment when you graduate, you may be out of luck. While proud I had done it and gotten through the whole thing, some aspects of the process left a sour taste in my mouth and I was just glad to be done and out.
You are more than your degree or work.
One of the biggest things I still struggle to do today is how to put down non-academic roots. While in Sydney, I have been hoping (and not really succeeding...) to meet some new people, join a club, etc. Maybe May is the month to start doing that (I'm saying this to keep myself accountable). It's nice to step away from academia and the stress surrounding it and just... be a person.
We all could use this reminder.
Hi! I'm Melissa, an Australian-based Latina science educator, podcaster, and freelance writer. I spend a lot more time on Instagram and Twitter, but blogging is my first love. Thanks for stopping by — I hope you stay a while.
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