Being in graduate school is a truly unique experience because, for the rest of your life, you will rarely have the opportunity to be surrounded by so many young people from diverse backgrounds with an unmatched intellectual curiosity, zest for life and passion for doing something spectacular.
However, it is sometimes really hard to realize this fact especially because after joining your Masters/PhD program you find yourself inundated with challenging classes, unyielding project deadlines, demanding professors and overwhelming thesis and defense requirements.
In this scenario, it is easy to lose yourself in the confines of your own laboratory or department and completely forget the essence of the rest of the campus. However, it is this “rest of the campus” where I found my solace and my emotional boost to successfully complete my PhD with six first-author publication in top journals with more than 175 citations in five years. Through this article, I want to give a personal account and highlight the importance of cultivating and nurturing yourself outside your lab and how that can positively impact your graduate education and serve you professionally later in your life.
Needless to say, graduate school is stressful. However, the key to your success lies in how you manage that stress and emerge unscathed with a better understanding of yourself and others. One of the biggest realizations I had since leaving grad school was that I not only gained a degree but, more importantly, gained a lifelong network of people. These people have become my friends, colleagues, partners and mentors who have and will in the future shape me both professionally and personally.
However, I met most of them outside my lab and my immediate department. I met them at the social and professional organizations that I joined, at a friend’s party, at the school gym and dance classes I enrolled in and at the hundreds of events organized by the graduate student organizations across campus.
Despite a very heavy course load and lab responsibilities, I regularly attended these on-campus activities, which ensured that I had a social life outside the lab. I found this to be very important for maintaining a sense of balance, sanity and connectedness, especially when I had to work in the lab, sometimes alone, for hours for four years at a stretch. It allowed me to come back to lab each day with new vigor and interest rather than the lethargy and boredom that I detected in a lot of grad students who did not think they had the time or interest to participate in on-campus activities.
The diverse set of people I met took me away from that one singularly most important PhD topic that I was working so hard on and made me aware of the other interesting things happening around the campus and around the world at large. This made me grow intellectually and, perhaps, also served as an antidote for the “socially awkward scientist” syndrome that we all suffer from, from time to time.
The myriad experience of sharing meals, rooms and attending events with fellow grad students from different backgrounds during the very formative phases of my life allowed me to get to know people at a personal level and see them transition from grad school and blossom into professionals.
From a career standpoint, these types of social interactions can become very valuable, especially when one is thinking about changing jobs or changing career fields altogether. In addition to your advisors and department mates, you can always reach out to your diverse group of friends and acquaintances from grad school for professional support, mentorship and referral.
In the recent past, I have reached out many times to my grad school peers and seniors for career guidance, and I am sure I would not have been able to have this effective network of people if I chose to limit my social interactions within my lab or department alone. You hear the buzz word “network” once you leave campus and join the real work force, but I say start networking from your college days.
It does not need to be a forceful or intentional exercise, but just a natural extension of your social group where you willingly and happily interact with people outside your immediate department. You build relationships with people over time so that if and when you need them, they feel comfortable to talk to you and introduce you to their network without much hesitation.
In addition, I encourage you take a leadership role in an organization dedicated to a cause you care about. Some of the positions I held on campus were President of the Indian Association at Penn, the Vice-President for the non-profit organization Association for India’s Development, and Resident Advisor for graduate housing.
These positions helped me hone my abilities to organize large-scale events, fundraise at community and national levels, work in a team, draft fliers and do marketing, manage projects on a strict budget and effectively communicate with people with varied backgrounds and skill sets. All these transferrable skills become a very important aspect of your resume and make you stand out among a plethora of job seekers who more or less have the same set of lab skills.
But I should also caution you that assuming a leadership role for a big organization is not easy, and you have to be very good at time management if you want to excel in your lab which should be of prime importance to you all throughout your grad school. Instead, you can also choose to develop a personal skill such as yoga or dance or become a devoted volunteer at a soup kitchen or charity organization and have a meaningful impact over time.
Whatever you chose to do outside the lab, just make sure to do it well, do it regularly and do it with utmost sincerity and discipline and, most importantly, enjoy it. Then, towards the end of grad school, when you sit to write your resume, you will surprise yourself with how far you have come along by following your heart and developing a skill or an art form or simply choosing to lead your fellow grad students.
You are very fortunate to have the opportunity to be part of an extremely small community of global scholars who have attained or are in the process of obtaining a Masters or a Doctorate degree. So seize this opportunity and take the time to cultivate and grow yourself both professionally and personally. The campus life is all set to offer you one of the best grounds for learning and interacting with people. So step outside your lab and enjoy the company and come back refreshed knowing that “YOU” are cultivating yourself.