As the academic year comes to a close and the mass exodus of undergraduate students from campus has taken place, it is a good time to reflect on graduate student life.
We, the remaining minority of students on campus who continue to press on with work, research, conferences and life, are now the life-blood of the University. The world rankings of these institutions is largely made on the basis of the research publications that we write and create, and there is no time like the summer to feel the vibrancy of graduate student life.
Personally, I feel very privileged to be a graduate trainee. I am currently completing my PhD in neuroscience. I don’t come from a long lineage of scientists, doctors, lawyers or business magnates — my grandfather was a welder who came to Canada, didn’t speak English, and did the best he could for his family, and my dad worked in a soap factory. My situation is nothing special, and many of you have way more inspiring stories to tell. But I hope you feel as I do, and make the most of your time here at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.
With all of that in mind, here are a few of the reasons I love being a graduate trainee.
The opportunities we have
As graduate students we are not only able to take part in life in the lab — we can also continue to get involved in graduate student life and culture here on campus. And more importantly, gain unique skills which few others have. We have opportunities to speak about our research in front of other trainees, faculty, members of the community and even celebrities.
Participating in events such as the 3MT Competition are fun and exciting, and also provide us with useful, translatable business skills, such as elevator pitches to clearly explain a complex idea.
While attending the event two years ago, Christine McGee, CEO of Sleep Country Canada, was telling me and a few others how impressed she was by this and that she was going to implement training so her employees could gain these same skills.
The places we go
Conferences are an amazing opportunity to learn about amazing science, meet new people and make connections. Each of these alone would be great reasons to make an effort to go to conferences whenever possible.
If your lab doesn’t have a budget to facilitate this, there are bursaries and scholarships that exist for trainees showing financial need and academic excellence, so I strongly encourage everyone to apply.
The additional benefit of attending conferences is that you get to travel to different places. Prior to graduate school, I had never been on a plane — or left Canada beyond going to Chicago one winter with my high school orchestra.
Since I started my training, I have had opportunities to present my research in San Diego, Vancouver and Munich. Beyond this, I would encourage everyone to take a little bit of extra time after the conference ends to see more of the places you have the chance to visit. An extra few days can go a long way and give you some exciting stories to bring back home, along with your new scientific ideas from the conference.
While this may not apply to every graduate trainee, many of us receive funding. I know this may not be a lot of money, but it’s enough to stay in the black if you are careful about things.
How many students can say they are being paid to get their degree? Personally, I would not be able to attend graduate school without this, and feel very fortunate that Schulich Medicine & Dentistry has allowed me to pursue my dreams. An additional silver lining about the modesty of the stipend is that if you can learn to live off the money you take home, it is a useful financial lesson and formed habits that will be useful for the rest of your life.
The people we meet
Scientists are a really diverse bunch. I have made friends from all over the world just with people I have met in my program. I have met people who have overcome hardships I can’t even imagine, people who I aspire to emulate, and even made friends that I now consider family. I have also had the opportunity to meet and get to know a diverse group of professors — amazing, worldly, intelligent and impressive people who are leaders in their fields.
Beyond trainees and professors, sometimes we have the opportunity to meet other notable people. Politicians and celebrities frequently end up at events and conferences, and as a graduate trainee they may just come talk to you (if you want to see my collection of selfies sometime, come see me)!
Oh, the possibilities
“Grad school, huh? What are you going to do with that?” It’s a question we have all been asked by strangers, family members, and even fellow graduate students, and it has rattled most of us at some point. The fact of the matter is that we are getting an education most people will never have. We are learning to think abstractly and critically in a way most people will never be able to. We are learning to make sense of hundreds or even thousands of facts, many of which may be seemingly unrelated and obscure. And, at the moment, this training is accessible to many of us in a way that it is not available in other countries.
For for those of us who are able to do this right now, we are lucky. Whether you stay in academia, go into business, pursue another professional degree, become a writer, or take on really any other career, the experience and skills you have gained through your training will help you succeed if you want to.
Graduate school isn’t easy. As I’ve mentioned many times already, you are doing things no one else has done before. While it’s exciting and lovely when things are working, the reality is that you are on your own sometimes. It is your project, your responsibility, and your burden to bear if things don’t work. While your supervisor will support you as much as they can, the fact of the matter is that sometimes they can’t help.
When you give presentations and defend your research, you are the one answering the questions. Sometimes it can feel isolating, overwhelming, unfair, personal, painful and terrifying. But it is transformative. You will learn things about yourself, others and the world through this process, and will emerge a more mature, intelligent, self-reliant, tough, competent and ingenuitive person at the end of your graduate training.
That first moment of discovery
Now I’m going to nerd out and get a little bit sappy. After almost a year of negative results and feeling really down on myself, I was sitting in a dark room alone one Sunday night in August 2013, looking through a microscope as I had done hundreds of times already. For the first time, I saw that my experiment had worked and that I had the phenotype I had been trying to get since I started.
I cried. I ran to the phone to call my supervisor who did not answer (rightfully so — it was late). I had never felt that way before, and may never again. Even thinking about it now makes me emotional. It doesn’t always require an experience like that for the magnitude of what we do every day to be obvious. Think about the first time you do an experiment no one else has done and see the result. For that moment, you are the only person who knows something. If you never told the world, no one else may ever know. If no one else knew that fact, no one could build on your knowledge. No one could implement that piece of information in treatments for disease, and by extension, nobody suffering from that disease may ever benefit from what you have found.
Keep up the good work, keep on making those discoveries, and tell the world. Tell your lab mates, tell your supervisor, tell your friends, tell your family. It doesn’t mean you are cocky or conceited if you are excited about what you do.
PhD Candidate, Department of Neuroscience
Chair, Graduate Students Council, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry