I was warned countless times not to do graduate school. “It won’t lead anywhere.” “You’ll never get a job.” “You won’t make any money.” “You will be miserable.”
I went for it anyway and I have no regrets so far.
I’m now in the first year of my PhD in Medical Geography at UBC and I’ve learned a few things about surviving an advanced degree.
1: Your supervisor makes or breaks you
You might pick a university for your undergraduate degree because the campus is pretty, it has a great gym, it’s close to home or the program is prestigious.
When you pick a graduate school, the biggest factor should be your supervisor.
Your supervisor is, in a way, your boss and employer. They guide you (at least, they should) throughout your graduate degree, pay you, provide you with a working space, expect progress and result, and may even send you on trips abroad for conferences or workshops.
Before applying to any graduate school, research your supervisor and meet them in person. What do they study? Does the lab have ample funding or will you be expected to provide your own through scholarships? Do you and your potential supervisor get along? If you don’t get along with your supervisor, you won’t likely be getting your degree anytime soon.
2: Apply for every kind of funding you possibly can
The truth is, you can make money in graduate school. Graduate students are already paid an annual stipend for research and teaching assistantships. In addition, there are tons of opportunities to apply for large and prestigious scholarships.
Sure, you won’t win most of them, but the ones you do win can help pay rent and other costs. NSERC awards at the Master’s level go up to $17,500 for one year. At the PhD level, they go as high as $35,000 for three years. The prestigious Vanier scholarships are worth $50,000 a year for three years. This scholarship list is not exhaustive. Better yet, it’s all free money that you never have to pay back — assuming you don’t drop out and do some actual research.
3: Collaborate with others and publish like mad.
The stereotypical graduate student portrayed in the media is socially awkward, sticks to themselves and always works alone — think Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory. In the real world, some grad students may be that way, but they don’t get very far.
Academia is all about publishing your research. You may spend two years slaving over a paper, but unless it’s published in a peer-reviewed journal, that paper isn’t worth much. A steadily growing trend is the collaboration of groups of scientists on one paper. Undergraduates are also noticing this trend and collaborating with older students on publications. The earlier you start publishing, the better you’ll look to potential supervisors and scholarship committees.
4: Graduate on time.
A lot of graduate students don’t realize that they are no longer eligible for funding once their expected graduation date has passed. The rapidly approaching deadline for my Master’s degree pressed me to finish on time. After that deadline, I was no longer top priority for TA positions, I was no longer eligible for large scholarships (e.g. NSERC) and I would get limited or no funding support from my school to help pay tuition. Also, the longer you take to graduate, the worse it looks to a potential employer. They might ask themselves why you took so long to finish.
5: Pace yourself and have a life
If you don’t learn to pace yourself each day, you can easily burn out early or graduate years after you were supposed to. Graduate school is refreshingly unregimented compared to undergrad, but this can throw graduate students off. There are no longer regular course schedules, exam periods or assignments. You set your own deadlines.
When you start a Master’s or a PhD, you need to brace yourself for a long haul. In my Master’s, I had to deal with abandoned group projects, late nights to meet conference deadlines and rewrites of entire papers. Paradoxically, if I didn’t exercise regularly, sleep well or force myself to take time off and go out with friends, I would probably still be doing my Master’s degree. I needed time away from my work to keep myself healthy and happy, to have a life and to return to my work with a refreshed view.
6. Gain experience during your undergraduate degree or take a gap year between degrees.
Competition is becoming increasingly fierce with every generation of students. The star undergraduates often take Undergraduate Student Research Awards and work in a lab to gain research experience. Others volunteer in labs or sign up as research assistants. Not only does the experience help students learn whether they like research, but it also helps them network with professors and improve their résumé.
If you miss these opportunities, take a gap year. I took a gap year between my undergraduate degree and Master’s and loved every minute. I worked three part-time jobs, made money, relaxed with friends, researched graduate schools and thesis ideas with less pressure of deadlines, volunteered and travelled. Gap years are the norm in most of Europe and help students to slow down, enjoy some time off, gain experience in fields they’re curious about and catch their breath before the next degree.
7: Love what you do.
Graduate school is not for everyone. It is not a fallback plan if you are unsure what your next step is, if you want to see whether you like research or if you are doing it because everyone else is.
However, if you are passionate about research, curious about answering questions and have the grit to handle challenges, then graduate school can be a wonderful and unique experience. During my time in graduate school so far, I’ve lived debt-free, had an expenses-paid trip to Tanzania and Montréal, published papers and met incredible and inspirational people.
If you love your work, then graduate research won’t feel like a job to you — and that’s the best job there is.