As the one-year anniversary of me graduating 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 base 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) are your experiences with research: what techniques did you learn, how was the experience different than what you expected, how did youovercome 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, be it graduate school research, a particular field, etc. 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. I also took a graduate-level statistical modeling class my final semester and, while I definitely didn't master all of the complex R coding we did, being exposed to that stuff really changed my perspective on modeling in science.
And from a personal standpoint, I abide by the life philosophy that you should try everything at least once (except probably heroin and that sort of stuff). 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 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 was 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 in wild great tits, helping a graduate student in a project on sleep and predation risk in wild great tits, and recording and analyzing mate-pair vocalizations in captive ravens. 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, many of them on things you're trying for the first time. For example, I needed to replace the normal feeders in the plots with new feeders at the start of the 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 great tits vs. one that has mainly great tits but not as many? Well, think about what's most important in theexperiment 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 to help, buy the stuff. No idea if this works well or not, or what size paint container to buy. Let's try something that looks promising. Ok, paint the poles using my best guess on how to do it. 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. So, as you can tell, there are so many decisions that you can't even 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 remember all thegood decisions you make as well.
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, I believe.
p.s. this inforgraphic about how high schools frequently underprepare students for college work is relevant and quite interesting. Thanks to Alex Campbell for sending it to me!http://www.collegeathome.com/blog/2013/01/17/unprepared-for-college/
IBH students travel the world, publish research papers, and do all sorts of amazing things