Contributor Shimi Rii
Almost an hour had passed since my committee members had excused me from the room where I had just taken my PhD Qualifying Exam. It wasn’t a good sign. When my advisor finally appeared, I took one look into his eyes and the outcome was clear: I didn’t pass. As I left the building in a zombie-like state, my phone rang. It was a fellow PhD student who had taken her exam in the past year. She understood the complexity of my emotions at that moment, helped me analyse each question and answer as well as the psyches of each committee member, and she even cracked a few self-deprecating jokes to keep me from melting into a puddle of worthlessness.
Shortly after the failed exam, my advisor moved across the country and I contemplated quitting school. Thanks to many influential people in my life, I stayed, passed my second attempt at the exam, and was even awarded a fellowship. Now, when I’m asked about graduate school survival skills I emphatically claim, “go and find yourself a learning community.”
In a study published in Science in September 2013, Mark Graham and his colleagues discuss the retention of students in STEM using a “persistence framework”, identifying learning and professional identification as its underlying constructs. According to Graham, “learning communities are typically virtual or physical structures that provide gathering places or events that enable students to work with and learn from each other.” Though this article targets undergraduates, the concepts are applicable to graduate students. The learning community formed by fellow graduate student peers provides support, understanding, and a safe place, allowing us to step outside of our comfort zones and persist through personal and academic growth.
When I first entered graduate school, my shared experiences with my peers were akin to those of undergraduates, studying and socializing to the best of our abilities. As I progressed into my PhD, my peers became the only people in the world who could fully understand our day-to-day experiences. We didn’t just commiserate following PhD tragedies. When learning new lab techniques, we taught each other the tips and tricks known only to seasoned scientists. We formed formidable groups when navigating through large international conferences. My office mates became my daily support group: we bounced crazy research ideas off of each other, joked about getting our research on the cover of Nature, tutored each other on new software, and advised each other on the tone of our emails to committee members. We became each other’s sounding boards, whether it was to celebrate an acceptance of a paper, or to rant about having to re-do an experiment.
As we head towards the finish line (and into our late twenties and early thirties), I notice a shift in the learning community dynamic. Our lives are now more than classes and experiments; we have spouses, children, aging parents, and mortgages. As we struggle to balance our lives as normal adults and as grad students, we can revel in our aging learning community, in those who understand our penchant for free lunch or our guilt for taking the whole weekend off. Our peers accept, no questions asked, the uncertainty of our career paths. In my safe learning community, I don’t have to endure the worried looks of my friends with normal jobs, as they desperately try to avoid any topics pertaining to graduation, or worse, plans afterwards.
Nowadays, with the popularity of social media, I’m realizing that learning communities exist beyond our laboratory building, into cyberspace. Each week through Twitter, I meet new peers across oceans and continents. This week, I exclaimed “me, too!” as I read Paige Brown’s confession of wanting to be a writer, a dolphin trainer, and a doctor. I felt my choices being validated by her advice to “spend a good portion of [your] time … doing things you are passionate about, tangential to your research.” Knowing that there are others like me out there in the world tells me that my identification as a scientist is purely mine, and that it’s okay.