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Six Lessons I’ve learned in graduate school: PhD, more than the degree

“The product of your PhD is not your dissertation, the product is you.”

– anonymous.

There are many perks of being a full time graduate student. The liberty to explore, discover, learn, and even the privilege to add new knowledge to this world. Before I share some valuable lessons I’ve learned, I just want to paint a picture in your mind of what graduate school is and share some things we commonly experience as graduate students.

In graduate school, no one is telling us what to do, when to do it, and how to do the things that we need to do. There are no detailed job orders, no required classes to attend, no direct person to report daily, and no strict company systems to comply. Basically, there is no prominent workflow structure. If we are lucky enough, we will be given a theme and a working title to work on, while some needs to read a lot of literature and find those gaps of knowledge to get started.

We are solely responsible for our own growth. Sure, we are part of a laboratory. We have lab mates to ask about how to properly use the machines and limit our chances of blowing them up. Still, each person has their own project to tend to. Some may work on the same protocol, but sometimes the same protocol doesn’t work to another person’s advantage. Tweaking these protocols –  both an enjoyable and frustrating thing to do, sometimes takes a day or two or sometimes months.

Graduate school is a world of uncertainty, where every day we ask ourselves if what we are doing now leads to something worthwhile. Once in a while, we hear that perfectionist person inside of us gently whispers thoughts like – is this okay? Is this enough? Is this correct? Am I wasting my time? Should I do something else? Is this method worth pursuing? Do I actually know what I’m doing? How sure am I? What is the percentage of success? Of error? Am I near my goals? Do I deserve to be in this program? These voices are mentally draining and sometimes damaging.

My heart goes out to those people who are silently experiencing these mental pressures in the academe. I just want you to know that you are not alone. We sometimes hide these things for a lot of reasons and I may not personally understand some of them. Life itself isn’t perfect. We are not perfect. We fail. We commit mistakes. But, what matters most is how we get up, accept those mistakes, learn from it, and move forward. Learning as we go.

As I enter the last leg of this course, I would like to share six important lessons that I have gained so far that I will surely bring and apply for the rest of my life.

1. Clarity.

We should be clear with the reasons behind our goals. I suggest that we do this before we enter graduate school or during the first few weeks into it. I honestly failed doing this earlier and went to a lot of confusion and frustrations because I did not know the reasons behind my pursuit. In my case, I jumped into a Master’s program because I was lost in what to do with my Bachelor’s degree. I was only curious and curiosity was not enough to sustain me throughout the program. Then, suddenly, by God’s grace, an opportunity opened for me and I proceeded to do a PhD degree in a foreign country.

The transition between the two graduate school seasons was fast and somehow a roller-coaster ride. I was only able to sit down and think of the reasons behind my whys ten months into the PhD program. The previous ten months tested my sanity and increased my need to prove something in life – I was honestly unstable in all sense. But, I’m thankful that God’s grace is sufficient and His power is made perfect in weakness.

I learned that when I surrender my wants to Him, He graciously gives me the “why” – a purpose. I believe that our God-given purpose is what guides us in our course of life, and if this is clear, we will not run off-course even if there are a lot of difficulties that will arise. I learned that when we are clear with our “Whys”, we will have a better position to understand life’s uncertainties and gladly run the race that is set before us.

2. Plan.

Plan early, plan with the end in mind. I could never overemphasize the need to plan in graduate school or in life in a bigger sense. Plan your yearly, monthly, and weekly goals. Plan your ideal process on how to go about and achieve your goals. Learn to say no on non-essential things and think through your priorities wisely. Experiment on different time-management techniques during the early days of your program. Understand your learning style, working environment, and productivity hours. It will save you a good amount of time during the latter part.

Plan your rest time. Plan your long vacations. Plan your fun time. Plan your time with friends and family. Occasionally, plan to not plan at all. Plan to be bored now and then, it’s good for your mental health.

But as much as I am so fond with planning things, I also want to warn you of its disadvantages, which I personally experienced.  Don’t let this madness of planning control your life – if abused, this leads to self-destruction because it is prone to disappointment and pressures.

Let your plans help you achieve your goals but do not let these plans lord over your life.

Give room for errors. Allow God to change it. Allow God to stop it. Allow God to improve it. Allow God to make miracles with it.

Learn to submit all your plans to God. We can only control as much as we can. Life itself is full of uncertainties and we need to choose our battles wisely.

Let us learn to let go our need for control and humbly trust God with the process.

3. Diversify.

Do not put all your eggs in one basket. Any financial guru will understand this famous quote. This is also applicable in graduate school. It is very tempting to concentrate and give all our efforts and resources in one area because we think this is the best way to go – the unnecessary pressures that we give to ourselves. I’m not suggesting that we should be a jack of all trades and master of none, and I understand that sometimes we need to focus on things that matters most in our life. But, for this instance, I strongly advise that you diversify your priorities in graduate school.

In most cases, your experiment will get the highest priority in the early days. Do not invest all your time, effort, and sanity in your experiment alone. This will lessen your disappointments and frustrations when you face the inevitable and countless failures that goes with the trial and error in an experimental-based program. I learned this the hard way and it made me feel like a failure and it felt awful. But, I learned my lessons and decided to get back in the game, but this time with a different perspective.

Be proactive and work smart. Maximize your waiting time. I recommend you to invest in reading at least one or two scientific articles every day during your experiment’s down time. While, you are waiting for your autoclave to finish, try to write a short summary of what you’ve just read, even if it is just a sentence or two.

Try to finish some administrative stuff while you wait for the sequencing machine to give you your data. Learn how to analyze your future data and familiarize yourself with the software tools that you need to use to achieve this while waiting for your PCR results. Write the method part of your future article or sometimes even just brainstorm the title and flow of possible arguments to be included.

Read self-development books while waiting for your competent cells to multiply exponentially. Go out for a walk or bike around your campus and breathe in some fresh air after you’ve cloned your DNA samples. Find time to read some PhD blogs, talk to your lab mate or do networking with your colleague from other departments.  Learn the local language bit by bit if you are studying in a foreign land. I’m not suggesting you to do all of these things in one day, but I think you get the idea of diversification.

Remember that it is easier to swallow the impact of failing in one part than failing the whole thing.

When you diversify your priorities in graduate school, it will lessen the blow of failures in your experiments. You will still have the audacity to get back on the drawing board, laugh at things, brainstorm possible solutions, and move forward.

Success does not happen overnight.

You have to work on it slowly but surely, little by little, sentence after sentence, being faithful with the little things. Don’t forget to enjoy the process rather than the results. In due time, you will be amazed of your growth and how far you have come near to your goals. You will enjoy reaping the harvest of your hard work. Just be faithful and do not lose hope.

Don’t box yourself with your career. Remember that you still have a life outside the academe. Enjoy the things you love to do. Explore the other side of you. You might find yourself to have some hidden cooking and entrepreneurial skills. This may spark a dream and who knows, it might lead you to building your own business one day. You also might discover that you have some skills to work on in other creative areas like photography and creative writing.

Start a new hobby, bring back old hobbies – appreciate your life outside the academe. Do volunteer work or help someone going through difficult times. Go and travel the world with your friends or do a solo travel. You can also prefer to stay at home with a cup of hot coffee, a good Spotify playlist, and read a good book if that’s what makes you happy.

Invest your time with your family and friends. If you lost contact with them because you went through a solitary period of just doing your own thing, it’s okay, go and reach out to them first. If they are truly your friends, they will lovingly welcome you back.

Encourage that adventurous heart of yours.

You will never know what lies ahead in every step of exploration that you do outside the academe. Allow yourself to dream – dream outside the academe. Have other goals. Life is needed to be enjoyed and enjoy it with a purpose. Remind yourself that you are someone before you entered the academe. In my case, I need to remind myself that my identity is rooted in Christ and that I am first a child of God before anything else.  Don’t let the academe consume you and don’t allow it to be your sole identity. Live your life to the full.

4. When in doubt, ask.

I lose count of how many times I did not ask for the help of others and went to a lot of embarrassment and stress. The pitfall of pride and self-reliance in graduate school is real. The lies of “I’m smart! I got this! I can make this happen! No need to get help from others. I want to prove that I am capable. I’m emotionally and mentally strong.” I sometimes wonder why we need to make our lives more difficult.

An African proverb once said, “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”. The choice is ours to make. I chose the first part during my early days into the program. But, I learned that what matters most is the latter part of the saying – go together.  Journey with someone together, they may be your lab mates, Professors, other international graduate students, church community, friends and family, or even the lady cashier at your favorite convenience store. Please don’t walk this life alone. It’s a lonely and scary world out there. Learn to go together.

Maximize other people’s knowledge and experiences. There are a lot of people who went ahead of you, and who have experienced and gained a lot of wisdom in their respective field. Don’t hesitate to learn from them and apply what you have learned.

Also, you might encounter people that have a different perspective from yours. Don’t be afraid of them. Listen to them. You don’t really need to agree with them all the time. Learn to respect their opinion, understand where they are coming from, balance the pros and cons of what they are saying, research the facts, and make your own conclusion about the matter. Respect, collaborate, learn, and form your own opinion. Most of the time, people are there to help you and not to pull you down.

Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and ask for help. It’s okay to ask. You don’t need to have everything figured out. You don’t need to know everything. You don’t need to prove anything. That’s why you are in graduate school, you are there to learn.

5. Reward yourself.

Celebrate your progress, big or small. It is easy to get lost and be busy with a long term projects like your dissertation. The time frame between publications and your graduation is just so long that it is easy to shrug off those minor momentous times. Times when you made a full paragraph in your discussion after a full day of reading more than 20 articles for it, or when you are done processing half of your samples, or when you finally found the right conditions for your experiment. Don’t forget the days you finished your first draft, when you got accepted in a conference, or even that milestone of receiving a message from your professor that your data is enough for a dissertation. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to celebrate your hard work and God’s evident grace in your life.

Sometimes, we are too hard on ourselves. Don’t be and give yourself some slack. No matter how big or small, they are all worth celebrating, even if people don’t understand the reasons behind your joy. Go celebrate and appreciate God’s grace in those milestones. Celebrate your achievements with the people who knew how rough was the road that you’ve went through, who have seen you in your hardest moments. These are the people who understand you more and most of the time, are more than happy to celebrate your wins. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Celebrate life as it happens.

When all is said and done, you really don’t need to have a grand milestone to have a heart of gratefulness.  

6. Learn to be content.

“Contentment is a state of being at peace, rested, and satisfied in whatever circumstances you are in because you know God is sovereign and He cares for you and has your best interest”. I learned this definition of contentment from a preaching and this definition pierced my heart to its core. 

How many times do we find ourselves wanting for more?  Thoughts of “If only I have this and that, I will be happy or I will be content”, or “No! I can’t settle for only two publications during my degree… I want more! I can do more! I can be more!” I’m not against giving your best and challenging yourself to its full capability, I’m more on the reasons behind it? What is your purpose of wanting more? Do you really need more? Are you not satisfied with what you have right now?

He who is not content with what he has, would not be content with what he would like to have.


In a career that is highly unpredictable, we sometimes do our best to take control of every situation in order to make it less unpredictable. But, sometimes, even if we have given all our efforts, certain things don’t go with the way we wanted it to be… and it’s okay. It will be frustrating and depressing at first. But, as you move along, you will learn to understand, accept, let go, move forward, and be content.

Also, I have learned to appreciate roadblocks as they are one of the best teachers that humbly reminds us to return to God, rely on His daily grace, and be content in His presence.

Ultimately, only God can really satisfy the longings of our hearts and no amount of material things, fame, prestige, ministry, relationships can deeply satisfy it.

That’s it for now.

I’m excited to enter the last leg of this program. I thank God for the grace that He has given me, for His words that anchored and comforted me, and for His love that sustained me all throughout the journey. Holding on to God’s promises has never been this enjoyable and peaceful even in the midst of uncertainties.

As I enter the final part of this program, I will remain confident of this,

“…, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 1:6

Let us continue to remain confident in Him because He who promised is faithful.

Published by empatheticbiologist

Hi, I’m Aye Mee. A lady with an adventurous heart. I spend most of my time discovering new places, thoughts and ideas. This blog is dedicated to sharing my thoughts and favorites with you! I'm also a nature enthusiast who loves to connect and think deeply as the screen name empathetic biologist connotes.

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