GradLife McGill is proud to present a 3-part, guest blog series by McGill alumni Dr. Christopher von Roretz as part of #AfterGradLife. In his much anticipated last post, Dr. von Roretz outlines four critical life lessons he learned from graduate school.
Now that I’ve already stretched my introduction into 2 blog posts, I want to share some lessons I learned during Grad School that have stayed with me and continue to be helpful today:
1) Be responsible: It is important to realize that your research project is YOUR project, and the degree you are earning is YOUR degree, and the years it takes are years of YOUR life. If you’re not happy with how things are progressing, it is first and foremost YOUR problem. You might be fortunate to have a partner, family, friends, or supervisor who actually does care about our well-being and success, but you should never assume that someone cares more about your welfare than you do yourself. If your situation is not what you’d like it to be, despite whatever misfortunes and circumstances you cannot control, take as much ownership as you can of your situation. If your project isn’t advancing and you worry you’ll be in grad school for 5 more years, get the ball rolling to rectify the situation.
2) Understand: I was once told that the best way to make sure you understand something is to “be a dummy”. Essentially, don’t hesitate to ask any seemingly stupid questions you might have. In the moment, you may come across as a bit ridiculous, but if the outcome is that you have a complete comprehension of what you were being explained, the ends justify the means.
If you’ve just had a meeting with your supervisor and you sort-of-but-not-exactly understood what she/he was telling you to do, get back in there and get clarification. No one benefits from only a partial understanding of what’s going on. It is far more valuable to have a student show genuine interest in understanding something, than to simply have the student agree and then later reveal that he or she didn’t do what was expected. There may be some immediate frustration, but it’s much, much better to properly understand initially than to realize after an experiment or study that you didn’t know what was going on.
There’s a second important point in this too – call yourself out on your uncertainties. Don’t kinda, sorta convince yourself that you understood “enough to get by”. If you’re hesitating about something, it’s better to check. This is something I still do today when a student asks a question and I can’t give a fully confident answer. Accepting that you don’t completely know something is an excellent opportunity to improve.
3) Learn: Don’t lose sight of the fact that graduate school is still SCHOOL, and as such, the emphasis is on learning. Yes, getting publications is important, and yes, being able to have competitive grades to get funding is a necessity in certain fields. But don’t let this eclipse that at the end of the day, the point of graduate studies is to further your development and to gain a higher level of skills and abilities. Seek opportunities to learn new things and try new experiences. Don’t let your research become formulaic, especially in later years of your degree when there’s a risk of going on autopilot.
And be willing to step out of your comfort zone if you’re not sure what more you can learn from your immediate peers. At a university, there is no shortage of learning opportunities through seminars, workshops, presentations and auditable classes!
In fact, I feel obliged to give a shout-out to a partnership that exists between the Research Institute of the MUHC and Concordia’s John Molson School of Business (JMSB). JMSB offers a 15 or 30 credit program in business administration to graduate students, and for many people, learning about Accounting or Marketing will truly push you outside of your comfort zone. I enrolled in the 15-credit certificate program near the end of my PhD, and constantly see examples in my day-to-day life where what I learned comes in handy.
4) Live your life: Grad school can very easily take over your life, especially if you’re living close to campus, or have moved away from home, and have a smaller network of friends. Graduate studies don’t have a reputation of offering a healthy work-life balance, but it is extremely important that you find time to pursue interests outside of your research. Whether you join a Quidditch league or learn fencing, it is necessary for maintaining good health that you pull yourself away from your work regularly. It also allows you to be more focused and approach your work with a clearer head. And while this can certainly include social activities with your grad student peers, there’s also value in having other networks of friends, to diversify your life.
This will become especially important if you later start exploring non-traditional career options as you finish your work. Every activity and experience can either help you find something you’re enthusiastic about, or it can steer you away from something that isn’t as appealing.
In addition to teaching, I’m an elected City Councillor for my municipality (Dorval).Getting involved in local politics was DEFINITELY not something I planned for while in school, but as I became more involved in my community and saw that I could make meaningful suggestions and approach challenges with original solutions, I decided to give it a try. And while teaching remains the job I look forward to going to each day, I find a different type of fulfilment through my work as an elected representative. I mention this not because I want to encourage you to run for office (though everyone should consider it!), but rather, because I want to encourage you to approach life with an open mind and an eagerness to try new things. It can often lead you in unexpected, but possibly rewarding, directions, and in my experience, most people established in careers they love attribute it to exploring different opportunities.
My graduate experience provided a solid foundation on which I have been building my life in the five years since I received my degree. I can look back at the lessons I Iearned, and can easily see how those skills carry over to many aspects of my life. There were plenty of trying times along the way, but as I tell my students while boring them in class, challenge yourself to find the growth opportunity in everything you do. We’re each writing the story of our own lives, and no one likes a boring chapter.
Chris von Roretz is a guest blogger for GradLife McGill. He completed his Ph.D. in 2012 in the department of Biochemistry. His graduate research focused on the molecular regulation of cellular suicide, and he now teaches full time at John Abbott College. He is also an Affiliate Member of the McGill Biochemistry department, and a municipal Councillor for the City of Dorval. In his spare time, Chris enjoys volunteering, outdoor activities, and has recently tried his hand at amateur theatre. Instagram: @cvonroretz LinkedIn: Chris von Roretz