I would say one of my biggest struggles in graduate school is actually being able to define a project for myself. Coming into the lab, I encountered sort of a big change in the way that I needed to think about science. So I had come from a previous research experience in industry. I had actually never worked in an academic lab. So when I was an undergrad at Berkeley, I had a professor there who ran a group at a company.
And so I started working there for him, and it was a super exciting place to be. I’m in a genome editing company. I’m designing therapeutics.
And so it was an amazing experience, and it is what motivated me to come to graduate school. But the way that research is done in an industry perspective is quite different from how science is done in academia. So there, the goals of the research and the sort of motivations behind why you’re doing something are very clear, right? You want to help to develop this technology that’s going to have an impact on the clinic.
Versus in graduate school, or at least in labs that do more basic science, sometimes the question is much more ambiguous, right? You’re trying to figure out something that nobody else is thinking about and carve a little area out for yourself. And it’s a very different state of mind to be in. And so it was something that I was not familiar with at all. I never had to put myself in those shoes before.
And in addition, I was coming into a lab that worked on something completely different. It was a new field. So I wasn’t familiar with literature or really what was already known and sort of what the next questions were.
And so trying to figure out both at once was really, really challenging. I can just think back, and I remember it just being a very, very difficult time for me. I remember feeling not great about myself.
I think that I internalized the fact that I didn’t know what I was working on as an inadequacy of myself and not being good enough or smart enough to think of an idea. And at the time, I didn’t realize that I probably didn’t have to do it all myself and that in some ways, the best or most interesting ideas come through talking to people. But it was sort of just not something I realized at the time.
And so I would just sort of think that I needed to work harder, and I wasn’t working hard enough. I wasn’t passionate enough. And it’s really easy to compare yourself to your peers.
And you know, I would see people being so into this project that they’re working on and so excited about it. And it was like, for me, I didn’t even know what I was working on. And so should I even be here?
It was definitely something that would come to mind a lot, and I feel like every single new person I met or turned to, it was like, what do you work on? What do you work on? What do you work on? And I just did not want to talk about what I worked on at all, and all I wanted to do is just leave and be by myself.
It definitely made interacting with my peers a little bit more difficult for me. I would say I probably withdrew from a lot of social situations as a consequence. We do value our peers’ opinions. And for me, I think I didn’t want anybody else to know that I had this inadequacy and that I was not doing well.
And looking back, it’s not even to say that I wasn’t doing well. It was my own interpretation. And I think that so often, we can be the hardest on ourselves. But it was definitely how I felt at the time.
There were definitely some effective strategies that I was able to use to move past this. It was a really long period of time. And so the strategies, you know, of course, it’s not like one thing to fix it. One of the things was I decided to talk to someone and to seek out a therapist.
And I can remember at the time, I’m feeling very sort of strange about doing this because it just didn’t feel like a normal thing to do for me at the time, which is really funny looking back because it’s really just like such a healthy thing to do to talk to someone. And now in my lab, there’s multiple people who talk to therapists, and we’re all very open about it. And it’s not even– it just feels like such a normal thing.
I remember sort of sitting down, and it was sort of like, why are you here, and then really just a very emotional outpouring of sort of everything I’ve been feeling. Like, I don’t think I’m good enough, and it just– it was really a huge weight off my shoulders to be able to open up to someone and talk about that and not have to just keep it all inside anymore and then in addition to then be able to sort of break down why I was actually feeling that way and if those things were actually true or not and ways to think about it and reframe my perspective on what I was feeling. And so one thing that was really helpful I didn’t necessarily like or agree with at the time was to remember that I’m a student and that I’m here to learn, and I shouldn’t be expected to know everything because that’s the point of school is that you’re learning and then you’re growing.
I remember sort of in some of my tougher moments when I was really, really doubting myself, I would just repeat that to myself. Like, it’s OK. You’re a student.
You’re here to learn. So it was like a mantra to myself. I also had found an IAP course on the growth mindset, which I found to be really, immensely helpful for reframing my mind.
Basically helped me to realize that it’s OK to struggle and that through those struggles is actually how you learn and you grow and that you shouldn’t just place your value and self-worth on your successes and if things are working but rather if you know that you’re growing and that you’re learning and that you’re challenging yourself, that you should be– you can find happiness in knowing that. It was really helpful to have other things that I was doing at the same time. I started working as a fellow for the ODGE here, and that was super fun.
One of the first things I worked on there was writing articles for MIT News on graduate student accomplishments. And so I would get to meet graduate students across different departments and talk to them and learn about their research and what they were doing here. Being able to actually produce an article that would go up online and be able to see that would make me feel like I was doing something that was worth doing.
And so I think having that sort of outside thing that can make you feel successful, at least in some way, it didn’t even have to be like a big success, but just little successes, I think, was really nice, really nice as well. And then in the latter years of that, I worked on– I got to work on the committed caring campaign, where we recognize professors for good mentoring. And so that was also just like super enriching when I would get to see like the posters of the campaign I helped work on, like, hung all around MIT.
And so yeah, I think those are both valuable things because not only did they make me feel like I was doing things outside of the lab– you know, like I could define myself in other ways– but they were also at MIT. So it just connected me to MIT in a different way other than the lab.
Another thing that I started doing when I would come into lab– it’s surprisingly easy to get nothing done. And so I would sort of hold myself to making sure that I get at least one thing done every day. And of course sometimes, I would get many things done but at least one thing done every day because it’s really sort of the additive effect of everything you do and just, like, the very minimal progress you make every day that ends up adding up six years later to a PhD. And so I think just having that little strategy of, like, I just got to keep going, just got to keep going– at least show up every day, get one thing done every day, and it’s going to work out was really helpful for just moving forward.