Nine months out of the college bubbleWritten by Matt Sosna on February 16, 2013
As the one-year anniversary of my graduation approaches, I’ve had some time to reflect on my college experience and the ways it has - and hasn’t - prepared me for graduate-level research.
1. Grades matter, but experiences matter more
Study for your classes. Good grades should obviously be a priority. But view your classes as the skeleton of your college experience; they are a foundation that you need to care for, but you need to add some flesh to it, too. From an academic perspective, your undergrad classes rarely come up in conversations in grad school… it’s all about the work you did in the lab or field. Much more important to graduate committees (and your future self) is your experience with research: what techniques did you learn, how was the experience different than what you expected, how did you overcome problems you encountered, how did it affect your perspective on science? There’s a difference between loving X and loving doing X, and unfortunately a lot of people figure this out once they’ve already committed a few years to doing X in a graduate program. Get your hands dirty and figure that out now! If you realize it’s not for you, you can redirect your energy to finding something that does make you happy.
2. Try things out
Say “yes” to more opportunities you receive. Get out of your comfort zone. Second semester senior year, I had the opportunity to volunteer for bird banding - taking mist-netted birds (birds that were caught by flying into a thin, big net strung between two poles or trees) and giving them color rings so they can be identified later. The grad student who sent the e-mail needed the extra help, and in exchange we would learn how to band and handle birds. This was when I knew I’d be working with birds in Germany for the following year, so I said yes (even though the work started around 5am). Even the little bit I learned about how to properly hold birds, distinguish male vs. female characteristics, and identify potential signs of illness came in handy when I started doing research with birds months later. I also took a graduate-level statistics class my final semester and, while I definitely didn’t master all of the complex R coding we did, the exposure to the topics really changed my perspective on modeling in science.
Attend a meeting for a random club, go to a play or performance you might not have given a chance to otherwise, call up a friend you haven’t talked to in a while. The worst that can happen is exactly what would happen if you don’t do it: nothing. And the best that can happen is that you discover something you really like, meet a new friend, or have a memorable time.
3. Accept that it’s ok to fail
While #1 and #2 are really important from a career perspective, I would say that this point is the most important from a personal standpoint. When I began my Fulbright year at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, I was anxious to make the most of it. I had been on the waitlist for ten weeks, so I felt incredibly lucky to have this opportunity at all. I became involved in three separate research projects: formulating and carrying out an independent project on social foraging, helping a graduate student in a project on sleep and predation risk, and recording and analyzing mate-pair vocalizations. I became essentially buried in work, and the grad school applications, bio GRE, NSF-GRFP funding application, and furniture shopping for a new apartment added layer after layer of stress to my life. I made two crucial mistakes: underestimating how much time fieldwork takes to prepare for and carry out, and overestimating how much I can get done in one day. November was pretty miserable, and it was made so much harder because I wasn’t used to things not going well.
Research is hard in that you have to make thousands of little decisions every day. When you’re started up a new project, most of these decisions are things you’re making for the first time. For example, I needed to replace the bird feeders in the plots with new feeders at the start of a foraging experiment. Which plots to choose? Well, I suppose I should film the current feeders to see which areas have lots of birds at them. What about cameras that are in pretty open areas, where anyone walking by could see and maybe steal them? Ok, I’ll park the car a little down the path to not disturb the birds and I’ll wait to see if anyone walks the path. Then, how do I decide between a plot that has lots of birds that aren’t my study species vs. one that has my study species but not as many? Well, think about what’s most important in the experiment and go from there. Ok, now I need to clean and paint the poles the feeders go on. I’ve never painted anything in my life and I don’t know where to get alcohol or paint. Ok, e-mail around, find the name of a store to go to. Drive there, ask around using a German dictionary, buy the stuff. No idea if this works well or not, or what size paint container to buy. Let’s just take our best guess. Then, paint the poles after watching a few minutes of YouTube tutorials. Then the feeders need to be filled and constructed, then transported to the plots, then carried to the places, then secured. Will any birds visit? Well, let’s put a handful of sunflower seeds on top and hang some fat balls around the feeder to attract birds. Ok, the feeders sometimes don’t dispense food because the cold makes the peanut powder clump together. Well, let’s visit the feeders every day to un-clump the powder for that day.
As you can tell, there are so many decisions that you can’t anticipate before you begin. It’s easy to focus on all the little mistakes you make (which can add up to big mistakes) and think you’re not fit for academia. But really, you need to accept that mistakes happen and just do your best to learn from them.
As for how things have turned out for me, I’ve found a much better work balance and have accepted my limits (for now). This doesn’t mean I’ve given up or am any less ambitious… I would say this means I’m smarter about my goals. But it took failing pretty hard, stepping on a lot of people’s toes and overworking myself and losing sleep, to learn this. So, don’t be afraid to try something and fail! Failure is a much better teacher than success.