wood bridge with rope railing stretched over a green ravine

So, what do new grad students need to know?

I'm a new graduate student.

As such, I just spent the past week being properly oriented for the journey I'm about to undertake. It'll be (in the words of various orientation presenters) amazing, hard, depressing, enlightening, enriching ... basically, a grab bag of adjectives! In between the heartwarming-if-cliche welcome speeches, excited conversations with fellow newbies, and getting lost in the tunnels under MIT, I'd like to think I picked up some useful tidbits of information.

Expectations and communication

The biggest thing is to communicate. Surprise! Who would've thought that the key to successfully working with your colleagues, classmates, labmates, and advisor would be to communicate with them? The top three pieces of advice:

  1. Tell your advisor/classmates/colleagues what to expect of you.
  2. Ask what to expect of your advisor/classmates/colleagues.
  3. Be your own advocate.

For example, if you run marathons and thus go for a long run every day at noon, tell your advisor and labmates this. That way, they don't expect to find you in the lab when you're out running. They might tell you that they have three kids and leave work every day at 6pm sharp -- so don't schedule meetings after 5pm. Or that they're so not a morning person, so never expect to see them working before noon -- but if you need something at 3am, they're the person to contact.

It's not just about when to expect to see people in the lab. Ask about communication styles. Does this person like emails? Phone calls? Meetings? Texts? Some people prefer a quick five-minute conversation in person to a lengthy email exchange. Ask what this person's expectations are about you. Does your advisor expect to see you in the lab eight hours a day? Does your labmate expect you to help out on project XYZ? Ask questions whenever you're unsure of something. After all, every relationship is different. So what works for this relationship?

The key is to share enough relevant information with each other to know what to expect. Be up front about who you are, what you do with your time, and what you want to get out of the situation or the relationship. This way, no one's left wondering. If everyone knows what to expect, you won't get into a situation where someone's upset because they didn't get what they were expecting.

a large pumpkin-shaped, translucent balloon

Communicate both when things are going well and when they're not. If you're working on a project with someone, give regular updates on your progress -- whether you've achieved awesome results, or are stuck in a rut. Sometimes, the person you're working with can help you out of the rut. I worked with someone once who said, if you don't update me, I'll assume you're not working. While that's not true of everyone, make sure the relevant people know what you're up to.

If you remember one thing, remember this: People assume too much. People will build up their own image of you whether or not you tell them anything. So be proactive. Be your own advocate. Make sure they build up an image that correctly reflects reality.

Other advice

  • Leave your lab. Make a point of getting out of your lab, out of your department, and meeting people. Meet people from everywhere! You can meet people through campus-wide events, lectures, your classes, clubs, outside activities... pretty much anywhere there are people, really.

  • Leave your comfort zone. Try new things. Try hard things. Learn.

  • It'll be hard, but that's okay. The orientation events I attended had a common theme -- grad school is hard. Grad school is supposed to be hard. You may not be motivated every step of the way. The key is persistence and perseverance. Find ways of keeping yourself on track. And:

  • Take care of yourself. Don't put the rest of your life on hold. Leave the lab once in a while. Do outside activities -- whether that's walking your dog, spending time with your family, or backpacking in Kenya. What do you enjoy besides your research? Make time for it. It'll help keep you sane.


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_rain splattering on the pavement in front of a green bushy area_

Your expectations define your perceptions

It's raining.

Fat, corpulent water globules cascade from the sky. Plop, plop. A drop, and a few of its compatriots, dribble down the inside of your collar. They're cold. Wet, and unpleasant. The drops slither down your neck.

"Take my cloak," he [Lord Golden] suggested. "It would only get as wet as the rest of me. I'll change into dry things when I get back." [Fitz] He didn't tell me to be careful, but it was in his look. I nodded to it, steeled myself, and walked out into the pouring rain. It was every bit as cold and unpleasant as I expected it to be. I stood, eyes squinted and shoulders hunched to it, peering out through the gray downpour. Then I took a breath and resolutely changed my expectations. As Black Rolf had once shown me, much discomfort was based on human expectations. As a man, I expected to be warm and dry when I chose to be. Animals did not harbor any such beliefs. So it was raining. That part of me that was wolf could accept that. Rain meant being cold and wet. Once I acknowledged that and stopped comparing it to what I wished it to be, the conditions were far more tolerable. I set out.

--- Fool's Errand, Robin Hobb

Keep it in perspective

Keep what in perspective? Well, everything, but particularly the bad things, the frustrating things, and the irritating things. So it's raining. So you cut your finger slicing potatoes. So it's ninety-nine degrees Fahrenheit and humid. You are in some set of circumstances and you wish to be in some other set of circumstances. You wish to be dry. You wish your finger didn't hurt. You wish to be cool and comfortable without drops of sweat sliding down your neck.

Unfortunately, we don't live in a world where wishes change the world's physical properties. We have limited control over our environments. We have slightly more control over our reactions to our environments.

"Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes that see reality." ---Nikos Kazantzakis

What you expect significantly influences how you will perceive your circumstances. The thing is, a lot of times, we don't explicitly set out our expectations. You leave the air-conditioned building with the continued implicit expectation that you'll be cool and comfortable, and when that blast of muggy, sticky air hits you, it hits you twice as hard because you're expecting something else.

What can you do about this? Try explicitly setting up your expectations. It may help prevent the disappointment of being wrong (and feeling unpleasant). Instead of thinking "Aaugh, I'm getting wet and the rain is cold, why can't I be warm and dry?" try thinking "Okay, I'm going out in the rain so I'll be wet and cold. That's just how rain is." Keep in mind that this works both ways--sure, you can set yourself up to expect to feel better about your circumstances, but you can also easily set yourself up to expect to feel worse.

As a final note, I'm sharing to a quote I occasionally turn to as a reminder to keep things in perspective, from Nick Hornby's High Fidelity (on the subject of pop music):

"Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music?"

Are you miserable because of your circumstances, or are your circumstances miserable because of your misery?


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Improbability and confidence

Scene: One of those big college gyms, set up with fencing strips from wall to wall. People everywhere, fencers shouting and scoring machines buzzing, referees struggling to be heard above the din. I'm about to start my next 5-point bout. "You've got this!" my teammate says. An optimistic pat on my shoulder accompanies the words.

Stop right there.

I don't "got this." I won't have "got this" until the score is 5-something in my favor. Sure, it may be improbable that I would lose the bout, given my opponent. My teammate was merely expressing confidence in my abilities (and I appreciate that). But the way the encouraging statement was phrased expressed an assured certainty that I personally cannot associate with future events. The outcome of a bout--the outcome of anything, really--is in no way fixed until it's over.

Maybe that's just semantics and a personal irritant. Expectations can, and do, go a long way toward fixing an outcome.

No harm in faking it

During a lesson with a coach last year, I was having a lot of trouble executing a particular action. He stopped the lesson. He looked me in the eye, and said, "Repeat after me: 'Hells yeah I can do this action!'"

His intent: Increased confidence. If you expect to succeed, your chances of success improve dramatically.

I repeated the phrase, as directed. I then had to repeat it several more times before I achieved the desired level of confidence in my tone. The action I was practicing worked better after that, though. I was a little more convinced I could do it.

Of course, just being more confident won't win a bout. Expecting to win--not doubting that you can win--still needs to be paired with good performance. If you think you'll beat your opponents because your opponents just isn't good enough to beat you, well, you still have to do your part and be good enough to beat them. Over-confidence sets you up for disappointment. The reverse is true, too: If you're convinced you'll fail, guess what, you probably will.

Another sports analogy Presentations!

We're not all athletes here, so I have another example! Have you ever had to stand up in front of a roomful of people and talk coherently and engagingly? Presentations: the bane of our existence.

One class, three folks and I were going to give a half hour presentation. The morning of, our professor asked us if we were ready. I told him, of course! It'll be great. "What if you stuff up?" he asked us. "What if your voice squeaks?" No, I said, it'd be fine. If my voice squeaks, my voice squeaks. I didn't let the possibility of anything other than "this will go fine" enter my mind. "Can't faze you, can I," he said.

Truth was, I could be fazed. Like many people, if I stopped to think about it, I'd forget what I was saying, talk too fast, stumble over words--I have experience with that. But in this case, I was remembering all those little bits of good advice I'd been given. Hells yeah, I could do this. Or my dad's advice: "Act like you're supposed to be there, and no one will question you." Act like you know what you're doing and everyone will think you do--including yourself.

Conclusion

Confidence is good. Over-confidence is bad. Go figure.


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