I love graduate school.
I love having the freedom to think creatively, to obsess over tiny details of experimental protocols, to throw myself into the literature and learn as much as there is to know on a subject that almost no one knows anything about. I love pouring myself over hypotheses and predictions, waking up at un-godly hours to slide over to my computer and just.keep.writing. I’m less fond of spending a week trying to figure out my model won’t run because I forgot a comma, accidentally missing a small but critical detail of fruit fly care (I work with Drosophila), trying to fix a nonsensical paragraph of a manuscript, or realizing that I fell behind on ordering lab supplies and now I have 20 minutes to troubleshoot that shit.
I decided to come back to school for my PhD after my finishing my Masters and working as a wildlife biologist/museum specimen preparator/lecturer for 3 years because I was never as passionate about those jobs as I was about doing research. And I love my PhD research; my advisors are awesome, the department and the university are fantastic. There are so many amazing things to keep me motivated everyday.
But then there’s the darker side: the culmination of self-doubt, imposter syndrome, never ending guilt, missed deadlines, and fear for the future. And if that soup weren’t spicy enough, my recipe adds a cup of anxiety, a few tablespoons of depression, and an ounce (or ten) of borderline personality disorder. All of this is to say that while so many aspects of graduate school give me the energy to fuel my best self, there are also long, draining days where I… just can’t. Given the high prevalence of mental health issues in academia, and that we’re only just starting to talk about it, I have a feeling I’m not alone.
Universities are often full of great resources to help students get through these rough patches. Sometimes, these resources are directed more toward the undergraduate student body and aren’t quite suitable or helpful for grad students. But grad students have a secret weapon. We have this invisible and resilient safety net, where we can both act as fibres giving it power and simultaneously gain strength from the toughness and durability of the other strands. What is that secret weapon? Labmates.
I have been incredibly lucky in both my Masters and my PhD to be sharing a lab with an assortment of supportive, caring, and generous people. These are other grad students who, although going through their own daily peaks and troughs, are there to point out
the missing comma in the R code, to read over the paragraph that our advisor keeps saying doesn’t make any sense, to help keep up on the lab supplies (because they probably need them too). But this safety net doesn’t end at academic expectations. My labmates have been there to reel me back in when I’m obsessing over irrelevant details; to take a walk with me when the day becomes overwhelming; to remind me that I’m not alone. And even better, when I am in a low point, my labmates have been there to feed my fruit flies, or submit that order form, or even just to tell me it’s okay if I can’t come in to the office that day.
My experience is one of incredible privilege: I am lucky to be working with open-minded, compassionate people who are willing to listen and learn from each other. Sadly, this is not the case for everyone. Some people may be (understandably) reluctant to share with or lean on their labmates, and some students do not want to listen or be leaned on. It’s easy to get swept away into our theses and to forget about the rest of the world. With the stresses and demands and expectations of graduate school, spending time and energy to build a community based on trust and understanding has the ability to empower each of us.
Academia is full of outrageous expectations that can seem almost impossible to achieve. These feel even more unobtainable as a woman, as someone with mental health issues, as a queer person. And for students with other marginalized identities (people of colour and indigenous people, trans folks, people from low income families, different nationalities or ethnic backgrounds, people with different abilities) the bar of expectations can seem entirely out of reach. This secret weapon then becomes even more important.
A funny thing about this safety net is how, for many of us, we can decide how much we want to use it. I have found that the more I contribute to the safety net, the more strength I get out of it. By providing care and support for my labmates, I can trust that they will give me that care and support right back. They are the secret weapon that will always be there for me. And I will always be there for them.
I love graduate school. And I love my labmates.
- Julia Kilgour