Schrödinger’s Graduate Student

The paths to success in graduate school are as arbitrary as the goal itself
MAR 2020
Tyler
S.
Biology

Four years into graduate school, I still struggle with a simple question: what makes a successful graduate student? I don’t mean the end product of a student with a flashy C.V., a long list of publications, or a dream job. Instead, I wonder: what does a successful graduate student look like in their day-to-day life? How should I model myself as a student to successfully accomplish my goals?

Aphorisms abound for achieving success, but I often find myself overwhelmed by contradictions and inconsistencies. Should I “seize the day” and cram in that one extra experiment before going home or should I remember to “stop and smell the roses,” taking time for myself? Should I “look before I leap” and meticulously plan out every possible complication of an experiment or should I “throw myself into the deep end” and cross those bridges when I get there? Should I become a versatile “jack-of-all-trades” or should I become a “master of one?”

These thoughts become all the more confusing when I study the “successful” graduate students. One individual’s precision and carefulness may allow them to work reliably and efficiently, but at times, their tentativeness slows them down and stalls their progress. Another individual’s speed and ability to “throw caution to the wind” allows them to quickly pump out large volumes of data, but their hastiness also leads to mistakes, inefficiency, and failed experiments. Focusing on the positives of these traits is easy after success, but had these students failed, would we not be pointing to the negatives as their Achilles’s heels? It is usually not until after the fact that we assign merit or flaw to their behavior.

Recently, at 2pm on a Friday, I found myself done with all of my necessary lab work for the day. I had a choice: go home early and relax, or stay and get work done on my neglected side projects. I went home. Having worked the entire previous weekend, I told myself that I deserved a break, but it was hard to escape the internal monologue of guilt. Every sports coach that I’d had in life opined that the extra hour in the gym separated the good from the great. But graduate school is a marathon and not a sprint: I need to pace myself. While that dilemma didn’t keep me up particularly late that night, it did reflect a much larger internal struggle of graduate school. If I do end up succeeding in graduate school, I will look back on this moment and attribute my success to the “marathon” mentality. In case of failure, however, this moment will represent my inability to persevere and  unwillingness to give 110%.

The complete lack of structure and arbitrary nature of success in graduate school is dizzying and, at times, overwhelming. During periods of failure and struggle, insecurity chews at my self-worth. “They were unorganized and successful because they were skilled at X, Y, and, Z; you’re not.” “You tell yourself you’re carefully planning that experiment, but you’re really just being a slow worker.” During periods of success, I feel vindicated in my approaches. It is only after the result that I know whether my traits were a boon or a bane.

When new and prospective students ask for my advice and insight into graduate school, I give it as honestly as I can. “Here are the things that have worked for me and here are the things that have not.” But while I have written chapters of my graduate school experience, I am yet to finish the book. The end of my story as a graduate student remains unwritten. I have no idea whether my choices will lead to my goals. I am a Schrodinger’s graduate student, both successful and not. It is not until I reach the end that I will be able to look around and state which.

I would love to confidently give an answer to this conundrum. Unfortunately, by the rules of the conundrum itself, I will have to wait till the end to know whether my answer is good or bad. Success itself is a fluid concept, varying not only person-to-person, but moment-to-moment. There is no “secret recipe” or path to success; otherwise why else would there be hundreds of books preaching different “magic tricks” to help you attain it. But do know that if you feel as hopelessly lost in this journey as I sometimes do, we are lost together. The only option really is to keep experimenting and to forge onwards toward our goals. After all, while curiosity may have killed the cat, fortune will surely favor the brave… right?