02 Get a Cat
For our second episode, I interviewed one of my great friends who is in the midst of finishing her PhD in Engineering. She was one of the first people I reached out to when I first started this podcast; on top of being an amazing woman in STEM, I knew she'd make a great guest for her impeccable wit and infectious aura. And she gives great advice!
In this episode, we discussed the importance of creating your community in graduate school and staying connected to your support systems. Graduate school in particular can be extremely isolating; finding and nurturing your community can be an overlooked aspect of your degree. We hope this episode encourages you to find your community and, when needed, seize moments to be near them when your experiments fail. Or at the very least, get a cat!
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Guest: In terms of loneliness... Is that what the question was?
Asma Bashir: Basically!
Guest: Yeah, I don't know... It's pretty sad. Get a cat!
Guest: I have no idea! Also don't get a cat 'cause it'll die if you don't take care of it!
Her Royal Science jingle
AB: Oh, hey everyone, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Let's get started with today's interview. We'll be talking to a phenomenal young engineer, talking about the ups and downs of a PhD, and the trepidation one might feel being a very visible minority. She's one of my good friends and we live on opposite ends of the continent, so I'm pretty excited to catch up. And since I'm not entirely familiar with PhD degrees in the US, much less in engineering, let's start with the very basics. Did you have to do any courses for your PhD?
Guest: Yeah, so we had to do a couple courses that I believe were core classes, but our department's pretty small, so by virtue of that, the number of professors that are available is pretty small. So, you don't really get the kind of course that you want until later on.
I got some advice my first year... So, you're supposed to take all your classes in the first two years, maybe not do that much research, and then do all [your] research in the next three years, but I got some advice in my first year [from] an older person who had done their PhD many years ago. They were saying that classes sound annoying to your PI, but they're actually really good for you, because 1) they keep you exposed to the community. You have to go see a certain group of classmates every once in a while. And then 2) topically, they keep you up to date, right? It's like, if you're so focused [on] your research, maybe you won't be reading about such and such topic. So, I kind of spread them out a little bit, but one nice thing is that once you finish your classes, you get a master's degree.
AB: So, you have a Master's!
Guest: Yeah, I got it this year, which was a lot later than most people, but I got it!
Guest: Thank you so much!
AB: Was it a bit of a relief once you finished that?
Guest: The relief part is that we get a pay increase after we get that, so that was really, really nice! But yeah, it's definitely been kind of a struggle towards the whole thing of the non-linear nature of everybody's experiences. In a department when there's certain standards and timelines for everybody, it's really easy to get overwhelmed and be like, 'Well, this person's already done this. This person already has these papers.' So, it's really easy to become alienated in a community where they're the ones who are supposed to understand you—
AB: And support you!
Guest: Yeah, and support you—exactly. And like, even within the group, maybe within the close group of friends that you have... that's definitely been something I'd have to manage of being like, 'I'm on my own path. Everybody's on their own path.'
AB: Which is, I think, something that a lot of grad students feel. I don't think anyone feels like they're at the top of their class, because when you're an undergrad, I think you have such tangible assessments of how you're performing, whether it's, I don't know, your GPA or something that your professor says, like, 'Everyone performed in this kind of bell-shaped curve,' and you know you're at the upper end of that curve. In grad school, there's no... There's no metric. There's no, like, 'I am acing grad school right now!'
Guest: And the metrics that potentially exist—which is number of papers, conferences, all these things—they're not equally weighted. You can have three really stupid papers versus one quality paper that takes you five years to get, right?
Guest: So, just because somebody has so many papers or somebody doesn't have papers, it doesn't really mean anything. And I feel like when you start, nobody tells you this. They just tell you that, 'Oh, you need so many papers.' And you're like, 'How to write a paper?' You know?
I definitely feel like—and this is something that I try to do both with people in my group and also people in the department—[for] people who come in, it's really important to let them know what's coming, because I feel like you don't really... Nobody tells you about PhD life in undergrad because you just assume, right? You just assume it's the same. You take classes, you go into lab, but it's so different.
AB: It is so different! It is. Not only are the actual requirements different, but I think the expectations and the interpersonal relationships are dramatically different.
AB: The way that a principal investigator or PI [would] treat an undergrad is also very different in terms of what they expect, but they don't say that at the very beginning.
Guest: Unspoken rules, right?
AB: Yeah! It's unspoken, and then you kind of feel bad because you know you're under-performing, but you don't know how. And I don't know if it's something that we all feel, but sometimes you feel like you can't ask. You can't be like, 'So, what is it that you actually need me to do?'
AB: And a lot of people I find—I don't know if you've experienced this too—who end up in grad school are often perfectionists and they want to do well. And they want to exceed beyond the expectations of their supervisors in many respects, or at least be passable! Unlike undergrad, where you have people who are like, 'You know what? I'm okay with Cs.' Or, 'You know what? If I failed something, I'll do it in summer school!' And then you have the other people who are like, 'No, I cannot not get an A.'
AB: Or, 'if I fall below this GPA, my life is over and I can't go home 'cause I'm really disappointed in myself.' But yeah, in grad school, I just don't know if I ever found anybody who knew exactly what their PI wanted or needed, partly because PIs don't tell you, but also because I think, as students, we don't wanna ask all the time, because you feel like you're supposed to know. Sometimes I feel bad about not knowing an answer, even though that's the whole point of science. We're asking questions to try and figure out the answers as time goes on, but I don't know if that'll ever change in the culture. We'll have to wait and see.
Anyway, tell me about your research a little bit!
Guest: I do a lot of materials research, so I'm in mechanical engineering but I work with a lot of biology. I do a lot of materials development. Very specifically, I think the theme that runs through almost all of the projects that I do is nanotechnology, so working on the nano scale. Nanotechnology and mechanical engineering on the research level are very compatible, but as an undergraduate degree—at least where I got my undergraduate degree—mechanical engineering was very much 'classical', so thermal, fluids, and a lot of physics.
I did a lot of extra stuff for my undergrad degree, and I took this elective, which was an 'Intro to Nanotechnology' class with a professor who—and I stayed at the same institution for graduate school—has come up in my life multiple times. At the time when I was taking that class, it was a really stressful time and she was always such a beacon of kindness to me, so it's [been] really nice to have her. Anyways, 'nanotechnology' is a buzzword that you may have heard in the news, but basically when you make things really small, so nano... I like to do this in outreach—a single nanometer is about three carbon atoms, so it's very, very small. When you talk about nanoparticles or nano emulsions or something, you're talking about particulates in matter that have only a couple of different atoms. And so, the biggest thing with nanotechnology is once you get really small, the surface area to volume ratio really changes. On the bulk scale, you have significantly more volume than you have surface area, and so forces that are specific to the the volume—body forces, for example, gravity, are really important on the macro scale, macro being like greater than a millimeter. Like me, you, table, chair, all these things, right? But then on the nano scale, things are really different. There's a lot of chemical interactions, lots of different things that are happening, and most significantly you can't see them with your eye because they're smaller than the wavelength of light, so you have to develop different techniques to see them and stuff. So, yeah!
AB: What's your science story? How did you get to this portion of your life and in your career as a PhD student at this point—or PhD candidate since you've already done your quals?
Guest: Yeah, I used to have a mentor that always said that everybody has a non-linear path to where they are right now. Especially for the women, especially for the minorities that I've talked to, it's never been like, 'Oh, well I was interested in this, so I followed this and then I did this.' It doesn't really happen to us that way, or maybe it does...
I come from a Middle-Eastern background, so my math and my sciences were very strong, just because that's what got nurtured by virtue of the culture and everything, and so I was really good at math and science, but I never understood that engineering was a path for me, just because I thought medicine, more of the softer sciences were a better fit.
Two summers before my undergrad, at my mosque community, I met this woman who was working—the further I get from that time point, the more I forget about what she was doing exactly—but basically she was in a NASA-adjacent program in which she was developing products to prevent muscle atrophy for astronauts that are in space.
Guest: So basically, if you don't use your muscles, the muscle atrophies, and then you come back to earth where gravity pulls you down and things get messed up. I remember this conversation so clearly because it was such a nice cross-section between math, science, and then helping people, right? Like, that was such a nice thing.
It just so happened that the Mechanical Engineering department was connected to the Aerospace department, so I had wanted to go into aerospace, but I ended up being in mechanical engineering. And the story goes further back [to] all the teachers that I had that kind of gently prodded me left and right based on all the things that happened. And then from there, undergrad was pretty straightforward. I didn't really know what I was doing afterwards. Like I said, the department was more classical and I had really fantastic female mentors who I reached out to. That was definitely something I had to do. I think [going to grad school] wouldn't have happened if I hadn't had the initiative to actually just go and talk to them and be like, 'I have no idea what I'm doing.'
After undergrad, I had a research assistantship position for the summer after my undergraduate degree, and then I was able to start with my PhD, so it was definitely not the traditional path. I know it sounds a little bit traditional now that I think about it, but for me, at every time point, I was like, 'I have no idea what I'm doing at the next step.' I was like, 'Well, I have 50 things that I wanna try, but I don't know if I have the opportunity to try them.' And so, it was really important for me to have mentors that were like, 'Just try it! If you fail, you fail. Just try it; it doesn't hurt to try.'
AB: Were there moments where you did feel like being a [woman] was a negative thing and that's why you did seek out those female role models at each junction of your trajectory? Or was it just something that happened stochastically?
Guest: I don't know! I've asked myself this question. I don't know if it's organic or not. I do know that now I do reach out to female mentors because I know that if you have—not the same, but similar trajectories—similar struggles, very, very vague on the similar, the advice that they give you would be a little bit more relevant, versus somebody else who's, I don't wanna say maybe had it easy, but maybe not gone through the same... jumping over the same hoops. [Someone might be] like, 'Just apply for this, and try this.' And then maybe it doesn't work that smoothly for me.
It's been really nice to have people who are like, 'Okay, I understand, therefore, do this to correct whatever negative thing that comes with it.'
But I think the first thing you asked was, has there been any negative things? I don't know. I don't know why I didn't consider engineering as an undergrad, but I will kind of do a whole spiel about FIRST Robotics, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Some highschoolers might be familiar with it. So, as the mentor, now that I go to the competitions and stuff, I see that most of them are men or male, right? The students are male, and I remember hearing that my high school had this program, but I had never heard of it, and I went to that high school! I was never, I don't know, like, exposed to it or maybe I wasn't going to where the flyers were; I don't know. But these things, you know, it happens once or twice, then you're like, 'Oh, it's a coincidence.' But it happens a lot of times and happens to many people with different experiences, and you wonder if there's a bias in the system, which of course there is, right?
Guest: Yeah, so I don't know if these things were outright, like I was led away from a certain path, but maybe I was just wasn't exposed to it. There's always this thing where it's like, there's less women in STEM, but that doesn't mean that women are worse at STEM. Like, that logical fallacy is really bad.
AB: Talking about jumping through hoops and that being somewhat of a common thread for women, what are the hoops that you feel you had to jump through?
Guest: I feel like I have to say this before I say the rest of the sentence: I feel extremely privileged to have not had terrible experiences. I've had a family that's been extremely supportive of my endeavors in STEM, which is not always the case. I have a culture that really appreciates that, so that's maybe made me blind to some of the small things that I miss. But, you know, in my experiences, some of these hoops might have been things like I remember so clearly in so many of my classes where I was definitely the only person of... Can I say hijab? Is that okay?
AB: Yeah, of course!
Guest: I was definitely the only person wearing hijab, definitely in my department at the time, in my graduating class. That was definitely the case. Then, also very many times, especially in mechanical engineering, I was the only girl, maybe in a big [class]. Like, these are not small classrooms. These are big classrooms! And I'm not saying this to toot my horn, but it's just saying that you're visible. You're extremely visible. So, maybe the hoops that I was talking about before—again, I feel very privileged to not have any serious hoops to run through—but it was definitely a lot of like, 'Do I deserve this? Am I worthy of this? Maybe I'm dumber than everybody else. Maybe this is why this is happening', but it's just ubiquitous across the board. I think it's just really amplified by virtue of being kind of very seen and being in the spotlight.
AB: It kind of goes both ways. You're aware of your own individuality, and the fact that you're one of your own kind, but I think everyone else is cognizant of that and sometimes points it out. I don't know if it that's been the case for you, but people tend to commend themselves for allowing you to enter that space.
AB: —and it's not necessarily a compliment. I don't know if I would consider it a compliment in the truest sense, but the truth of the matter is one should not celebrate because one of us made it. We haven't made it because one of us is there.
Just to converse a bit about that whole topic... I know [it's] meant as compassion and [it's] really, really sweet, [when] people look to me and go, 'Wow! She made it. One of us made it to the other side. Oh my goodness, this never happens,' but that inherently is very sad to me.
Guest: Yeah, same. I feel that way. My institution has these advertisement flags as you go down the street of the campus, and there's one with a female that's wearing hijab and on it, [and] it says 'Empower.' And to me, I don't like this parallel thing of... like, I am extremely empowered and so are all of my friends! This is kind of like putting the blame on [me], like maybe I was strong enough, but that girl wasn't strong enough, right? But that's not the case at all. Everybody's working as hard as they can. It's just the system introduces hurdles to people that are different than the average.
AB: Yeah, and a lot of people don't recognize those challenges. [One] problem with the whole system though is if a person decides that they don't wanna do it anymore, I think there's an automatic assumption that has something to do with the visible differences.
AB: And I've thought about it even as a woman that if I chose to just drop out of science, I'm now a part of the statistic.
Guest: It's because you're a woman, not you as a person just don't like whatever you're doing.
AB: Yeah, so everywhere you go, you're not yourself. You're an identity that everybody else wants you to be. They want you to be 'The Woman.' They want you to be 'The Person of Colour.' They want you to be 'The Person in Hijab.' And sometimes you just don't want the title.
Guest: That's an extreme amount of pressure!
AB: It's a burden!
Guest: Yeah, I know! It's like, I have to watch everything that I say! I was gonna say this before about the classroom thing where it's like, I have so many memories of again being the only one in the class, and I had so many times where I'm like, 'Should I answer this question? I think it's right.' And I wouldn't say it. I ended up being right, maybe wrong, but all these boys would answer and they'd be very confidently wrong! And then there'd be no pause, right? I feel like if I would answer and I would be wrong—maybe it was psychological—I felt the pause and I'd be embarrassed for the whole day. I'm like, 'Oh my God, I'm the only girl and I'm an idiot!' [But] no, it doesn't work like that. It has taken me a long time to get over that. Also, I don't like the word 'confidence' because I think it gets used incorrectly. It has nothing to do with confidence, right? It's more of a situational thing. Like, you can be plenty confident and then still feel very spotlight-y.
AB: Absolutely. It's crazy how I didn't know that anybody else felt that way. I thought it was more because of my own social anxiety, not wanting to be wrong and raising my hand and everyone scoffing at my answer. But I know a lot of people who have no issue being wrong, and I think it's because they don't have the burden of representation. You don't feel like you're carrying all these people.
In 2016, I went to a conference—I think I've told you this story—Society for Neuroscience. And at every single point where I was either interacting with people who were not necessarily attending the conference, but custodial staff or [people] helping with the actual administration of the conference, hanging out badges and booklets and things like that, if it was a person who looked like me, they would pause and they'd go, 'Oh my goodness, we're so proud of you.' And for the rest of the day, I carry that with me. Like, these are my sisters, my uncles, my aunties who actually want me to do well, but [I also think], 'Am I embarrassing them?' God forbid I do something wrong and all of them are [disappointed]... and I'm sure they wouldn't be, but you really do internalize that as a burden.
AB: It's not fair. And I wish there was a way to not do that, but the only way I know how to not feel that way is to not feel like you're the only person of your group, because then maybe you share the burden? I don't know. But also, it doesn't exist as a true burden.
Guest: There is a society—and I don't know if all schools have this, but I hope they do—Women In Science and Engineering, but it's Graduate Women In Science and Engineering, so GWISE. I was recently at an event where Kim Churches came to visit and she's the CEO of the American Association of University Women, and she was a phenomenal speaker; shout out to her! I was so inspired, and you really need these inspirational things in grad school. So, she said this thing that I cannot get outta my head because it's so accurate, and I'm definitely gonna get the specifics of it wrong, but she was like, 'If you have one woman, it's like a token. If you put two of them, then they're gonna get competitive. You need three or more!' You need a percentage of them—and by them, I mean your employees or your cohort—to have diverse backgrounds so that you can stop pinpointing them just for being different, and they can be the actual person that they are, right? That's so important.
AB: Do you think there will ever come up point where—and I've heard this argument before and I disagree vehemently, so I'm curious what your thoughts are as well... There are people who believe that having quotas will at some point become detrimental to what is now the majority, which in STEM fields, is men. And so, there are a lot of schools that are saying, 'Okay, for the higher levels of academia, we're going to set a quota of 40% women or 30%,' 'cause the numbers are still really low at the professor level. There's a fear of, 'But what if it goes the other way? What if higher levels of academia become predominantly women? What are we gonna do then? We're gonna need affirmative action.'
Guest: That's totally fine. No worries, we can make up for the millennia of male-dominated stuff.
Guest: Sorry, that came out mean, but that is definitely what I think! Everybody's like, 'Oh, there's women everywhere.' It's like, there's been women everywhere! We're half of the people, come on. Get it together... Yeah, it's fine. You can have quotas, but I think one way that I've heard about—I don't know if this is actually a thing, so maybe we shouldn't be discussing it—that this can go wrong is [one] becoming resentful with affirmative action in the United States. There's this thing where it's just like, 'Oh, you got hired just because you're of a certain ethnicity or you have a certain skin color.' So, that's definitely probably gonna happen, you know?
AB: But I feel like that already happens! I think a lot of times when women get hired—
Guest: Oh yeah, definitely!
AB: —they go, 'Oh, but there was probably another guy who could have done it better, but they were trying to meet the quota,' which honestly just makes the person feel like they were never even going to be considered had they been, you know, compared on equal footing? I don't think that's accurate.
Guest: It's complicated, right?
AB: Yeah, I've met some spectacular women, sometimes even better than the men at an equal position, but there's never that feeling of, 'Oh, but the guys only got hired because they knew somebody, or because of their last name, or because of how much money they had.' That conversation doesn't happen as much. We do not discredit men as much as we discredit women. And that seems to be a universal thing. I don't think it's just North America. I don't think it's just STEM. I think it's generally a worldwide thing, where we have to find reasons why women did not deserve it, or minorities in general did not deserve the position that they were given, as though history is a predictor of what today should look like. 'Well, if all scientists look like Darwin and they all look like Einstein, well, they should continue to look like them because that's what we [think of] when we think of the word scientists,' but I don't think that's fair and I don't think that's true. And I think it makes the person feel like are not worth their position, or not worth the work that they've put in, because all of the people that I know that have made it past the point of a PhD have put in a lot of effort. No one stumbles into grad school and then stumbles out with a PhD.
Guest: <Skeptically> I don't know...
AB: Really? <Laugh>
Guest: I don't know. Sometimes when you have a harder time, it seems like everybody around you is doing well. But I know... The logical part of my brain knows that's not what's happening. Yeah, definitely.
It's certainly complicated, and I definitely on no level claim to know any of the answers, but there do exist certain discrepancies between either people of different backgrounds or different genders or identities. And so, the way I view it is those inequalities, or if there are any inequalities, exist because of the systemic inequalities that exist. One thing that I always think of is—it's a recent story—but Stuyvesant, which is, I believe, is the top school in New York City, recently accepted their next year, which included seven Black students, out of however [many], and if you've ever been to New York, it's very diverse, so seven is not great out of however many [students], unless it's like 14! I remember reading about that and certain people's reactions to that were were like, 'Okay, well, they're just hiring whoever is better.' But then, you don't think about that one thing I mentioned before. I feel very privileged to come from the background that I did. I grew up in Massachusetts, where they have some of the best schools in the [country], the best public schools, and where you go to school is dictated by, for example, where your parents work, and the quality of your school is so highly dictated by the taxes that are paid. Then it becomes, 'if you're wealthy, you get a good education,' generally. That is the correlation, right? If you're wealthy, you get a good education. If you're not, you don't. And then, we are not blind in the United States as of even 2019, there are so many racial inequalities that exist, especially in urban city environments—
Guest: —where different schools get different resources and capabilities based on, you know, the majority of the students that attend that school, so it's extremely unfair. I think just looking at it at one level and being like, 'Okay, they're two candidates. This person didn't perform as well as the other candidate'—I think we have to stop thinking about it of like, 'This is the girl. This is a boy. This is whatever, right?' You have to think about their story.
Guest: Especially for graduate school, because—I say this so many times, I feel like it should be just like tattooed on my forehead—graduate school is not about how smart you are. It's about how persistent you are. This ideology that like, 'I wanna be as smart as possible; you aced your undergrad. I should go to grad school.' That is not how that works!
AB: No, not at all!
Guest: You are gonna fail. And I don't mean you, the listener; everybody fails all the time in graduate school, where when you succeed, you're like, is this real? Like, is this a legitimate thing? By nature, by design, you're not supposed to succeed that much. It becomes this division thing where like, you know, people who are under-performing undergraduate, based on whatever background you come from, they're like, 'Well, I wasn't smart enough for undergraduate. I'm not gonna go into graduate.' But you have to be just persistent. It has nothing to do with how smart you are. It's just, can you search for this thing? Can you try to ask the right question? So, it's really complicated.
AB: I don't think that has ever been said to me in that way. And I think that's why so, so many individuals feel like grad school kicks them in the pants so hard, because there is that mental equation of, 'Oh, but I graduated with a 3.9 GPA; grad school's gonna be a breeze, but all I have to do is—
Guest: It's just more classes, right? That's not... That's not it at all.
AB: That's not how it is. And it's seems like the kids who actually did better in undergrad, who've never actually tasted failure are the ones who really do struggle the most because it's so un... not unnatural, but it just is so far out of one's comfort zone that they panic and they freaked out and it's just like, 'How can I not be good at this? I've been good at everything that I've done thus far, and anything that I wasn't good at I just dropped off to the side.' I mean, I can definitely speak to that. Anything that I've ever done in my life that I wasn't good at, I stopped doing it a long time ago because I just didn't feel like it was worth my time. But I don't know why we don't tell students, not even at the undergraduate level, starting at high school that first of all, intelligence does not equate performance in school—
AB: —although we do think that a lot. And that's why we think about perfect SAT scores, and MCAT scores, and whatever the test is—
Guest: Tangible metrics, right? You said that before; I like that.
AB: Yeah! It's just... There are no tangible metrics for your performance in your PhD or in grad school in general.
Guest: You are a perfectionist and you notice that a lot of people around you are perfectionist, so how does this sit with the idea that, you know, you don't necessarily have to be that smart to succeed in grad school?
AB: It's been a struggle in some respects, because I was kind of speaking about myself two sentences ago, not being good at something can really take a hit to your self-esteem. Like, you just don't know what to do to be better. Back in the day you just studied harder or you studied better, or you just figured out what you needed to do to get the better grade. And it's not that I had perfect grades all the time, but the one time I would not do so well, I'd come back so hard and so strong by the end of the semester, I didn't really have anything to worry about.
Guest: That's a way of persistence! That also shows your persistence though, you know?
AB: Yeah, I persevere probably far too much! You definitely need that, but that's not one of the qualities people talk about in grad school as something that's really important. A lot of people are perfectionists and they don't know how to handle when experiments don't go well. And especially when you're working with something that needs to have multiple repetitions, whether it's a physical experiment or if it's in the clinic or something like that, there's gonna be variance. There's gonna be differences between batches, so sometimes you feel like, 'Oh my God, I did so well on this day. If I do it again in exactly the same way I'm gonna get the same [results].' That doesn't happen!
Guest: I've had so many experiences where I have maybe a set of five or six experiments that I'm supposed to do, and I make certain decisions on the first experiment. And then on the third one, I'm like, 'I'm such an idiot. I should have done this. Let me start over.' The first couple years, I also struggled with this thing, and now I'm just like, 'Pick one and go; just like be decisive.' Yeah, I definitely get that.
AB: I do want to talk about ways people can reach out if they are feeling alone, especially in the later years of graduate school.
AB: I know the first couple of years are hard in their own way, but I think when 1) you don't feel like there's an end in sight or 2) you feel like everything that you're doing is so flawed and broken, and you don't have the papers that you're supposed to have, what have you found, other than the community, [helpful]? Have you found reaching out to people within your program helpful—people who've graduated with their PhDs, who have an idea of what timelines look like in your department—has that ever been something that you sought out to kind of calm your own fears and your own self-consciousness about what you're doing?
Guest: I know I already said this a million times: female mentors! More specifically, when I started grad school, I was a little bit out of my ways because it wasn't necessarily... I hadn't really planned on starting grad school at that time, so I wasn't super prepared. What I had done both at that time, and also kind of towards the end of my undergrad, is try to get close to people who are in the midst of their PhDs, just to hear about their experience. It's one thing to read on a brochure, but it's another to actually see their day-to-day and understand that. That's been really helpful, but now I'm getting to the end of it, so I feel grateful to have had the words of advice from the older PhD students who now have a job or now have a postdoc.
But in terms of loneliness... Is that what the question was?
Guest: Umm, I don't know. It's pretty sad. Get a cat!
Guest: I have no idea… Also don't get a cat 'cause it'll die if you don't take care of it!
Guest: But yeah, I mean, it's really hard. I think it helps to know it's not forever. Right? That really helps. Another thing is—just to briefly talk about Double Shelix, which is another podcast I was listening to this morning—just the connection between your work and the loneliness comes from, like you said, the failures and all these things that go wrong. Your emotional [response] to the ups and the downs of the research, they really have to be managed [well] enough that you care, you come to work, and you do a good job, but not [so much so] that it affects you.
And I've gotten better at that! I used to do this thing where it's like, I would plan an experiment for the whole day and then maybe at eight o'clock I'd be like, 'If I just put in two more hours of work,' and I'd just be there until midnight and it wouldn't work. Now I'm just like, 'You know what? Even if it fails because of me, it's okay. It's totally fine.' This is one piece in the giant, you know—I don't wanna say puzzle, but—puzzle of grad school.
That kind of helps, to not dissociate, but to be like, 'You know, my research is my research, and me is me.' I am a different person.
I know you said besides your community, but the community really helps! And other grad students—I gravitate more towards female grad students just because the stories are similar and that you can kind of let loose a little bit. Sometimes when I complain to the older guy students, I don't want them to ever respond like, 'Oh, do you feel like that because you're a girl or because you're sensitive?' It's like, 'No, it's because it's valid!' I know people are like, 'Well, you're biased.' No, because the experience is much better in that way in that you can communicate with them. How about you? What have you found to be helpful?
AB: Having a partner helps. I think I also got lucky with my PI. She is very supportive. I think she actually wants me to succeed.
Guest: That's fantastic!
AB: I know she wants me to succeed, and that's a big part of it. And my parents! Having a support group—and I often joke with my mom that I'm not getting a PhD on my own; we all are because they're all so involved! They listen to my talks, even though half the time I think they don't quite understand it at a deep level, but that's okay. They still ask questions, which is really sweet as well.
AB: Feeling like what I'm doing is not a singular effort can be a good and a bad thing, kind of what we talked about before, but the good thing is it's a shared burden too. If I'm going into my committee meeting, I get a bunch of texts from the WhatsApp group saying, 'Good luck! Let us know how it goes. Take a photo.' That kind of thing. And having someone who's also within the exact same field, [who] knows what it's like to feel the pressure especially from your PI when they're in grant writing season, or when they're in paper writing season, and they're like, 'We just need to get things out the door, put together your stuff!' Knowing that if I have to be home late, it's not this guilt trip. It's not, 'But you said...!'
AB: Because he understands. 'I know I said I thought I was gonna be done at 5:30, but things went late and now I'll be home at 7:00.' And knowing that when I get home, he'll still be just as happy to see me then as he would've been happy to see me at 5:30, and vice versa. That's a blessing in so many ways. It's nice to have a support system. I don't think anyone can truly do a PhD on their own, whether their family is here or away, or their PI travels a lot. You always have people that you rely on. Or things that you rely on, like video games or music or—
Guest: Hobbies! Yeah. Also, quick thing: I know of grad students whose PIs don't let them go to conferences and stuff. I've loved going to conferences! Meeting other grad students or maybe other PIs that you know from papers, it's such an experience of 'My work matters.' And then other people that you only see on paper, seeing them in real life is like, 'Oh my God, you're a real person! Let me discuss stuff with you.' Now, maybe if your PI doesn't have funding for you to go to conferences, I know departments have travel funding. You can always reach out to the Chair and be like, 'Hey, I wanna come, but I don't have money.' Or like, 'We don't have money in the grant.' Definitely go to as many conferences as you can. It's weird to say, conferences are good for your mental health because you stress out a lot before—you're making the slides, making the poster, whatever—but I found them to be really, really nice way of actualizing my research and being able to say, 'Here's my place in the field. Please listen to me.'
AB: Funding for this episode was provided by the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health and the Graduate Program in Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. I'd also like to say a massive thank you to absolutely everybody who's listened to our very first episode. The feedback has been insanely positive thus far, and we can't wait to continue our Her Sci journey with you. And as always, don't forget to follow us on social media, on Twitter at her_science and on Instagram at [her_science]. Peace and blessings.