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You guys, I have a confession to make…
I hated grad school.
Yes, “hate” is a strong word. But really…in grad school I dreaded going into work every. single. day. I knew deep in my core that I was headed down a path that would lead to nothing but resentment. I was depressed, I saw no light at the end of the tunnel, and I couldn’t find a good reason that made me feel that doing what I was doing every day was worth it.
But it wasn’t the science.
Nor the seemingly impossible course work.
Or the 70 hour weeks.
It was the atmosphere.
While a little competition is good, people could become so self-absorbed in their own agenda that they would belittle others. Case in point: an international grad student in our building was relabeling chemicals in his native language and hiding them in his drawer so others couldn’t use it. Yep, really.
I wavered about leaving the PhD program for a long time, but getting pregnant tipped the scale. I just wasn’t the person I wanted to be as a mom in that environment. So I finished my project, defended my thesis, and left.
I won’t lie…the decision was a painful one.
But looking back, I appreciate that my experience in grad school made me a better mom. I may not have prepared myself for the situations I encountered, but I can prepare my kids for dealing with similar situations. Here are 6 lessons I learned in grad school that make me a better parent:
1-) Stand up for yourself
My advisor and I never saw eye-to-eye. While he wasn’t a bad person, he expected that everyone thought and worked the same way he did. As a result, he always convinced me to do things in a way that didn’t work for me. It hurt my efficiency, but I never built the guts to sit down with him and tell him straight that I needed to re-adjust.
The lesson as a mom:
There’s a kid at our local gym who loves to go around head butting other kids. While I don’t think he means harm, I can see that Little Grasshopper is not comfortable with it. So I lead by example: I lean down next to my toddler and tell the boy that Little Grasshopper doesn’t like when he does head butting, and that he doesn’t want to get hurt. I don’t push my son behind me or out of the way while I correct the boy. I make him stand there with me so he learns to tell people when he feels uncomfortable, even if it occasionally gets awkward.
2-) Don’t be concerned with stigmas
You know what is big taboo in Chemistry grad school? Popping out kids.
Gasp! The horror!
When word got out that I was pregnant I felt like the ugly duckling. The one who didn’t fit in. The reject.
It ate at me. I could feel the questions surrounding me: “What is she going to do now?” “How is she going to finish her degree with a kid?!” “What was she thinking?!”
No one meant to be mean, and many were supportive about me starting my family. But the stigma was there. After all, female scientists are already underrepresented….doing something as feminine as birthing a child will only highlight why female scientists are underrepresented, right?
The lesson as a mom:
Stigmas pigeonhole people. Concerning yourself with them too much is a waste of time and mental energy. Instead, I try to teach Little Grasshopper to focus on what he has going for him. Here’s the way I see it: if the “nerdy” kid wants to learn soccer, encourage him/her to try it. If a boy enjoys fashion, then teach him to sew. If a girl wants to be a construction worker when she grows up, buy her a tool set.
Very few people neatly fit a “type.” The only way we can break free of stigmas and stereotypes is to embrace people as individuals. We need to be conscious of when we stereotype or stigmatize others, recognize that that’s all it is, and dismiss it as such. Let’s teach that to our children!
3-) Know your value
I felt undervalued during most of grad school. My advisor handed me a project that after six months or so he got bored of. He didn’t realize that the equipment at our university was inadequate for conducting the studies we needed, and didn’t want to pay to go somewhere else to do the studies. He focused on his pet project with another student, and I went on my way to complete the work with less-than-optimal conditions on a project I didn’t particularly care about.
It wasn’t until I defended my thesis that I felt like my hard work actually meant something. As per routine after a defense presentation, my committee asked me to leave the room while they discussed whether I should pass or fail. After a few minutes they invited me back in:
“Congratulations, you passed! But could you tell me, why are you leaving? You definitely could have continued…”
This came from the professor on my committee who had the reputation for being “the tough one.” He expected detailed work, asked tough questions, and gave his students tough projects. He normally intimidated me a little, but I had nothing to lose by being honest here :
“Well, uh, I just thought I should focus on my family right now. I didn’t think I could properly take care of my family, be a full-time grad student, and do well on both at the same time.” I replied sheepishly.
“I understand! We all do! We’re all parents here.” He claimed enthusiastically.
It was such a small moment, but that one comment made such a big difference in how I viewed those last three years of my life. In that moment I realized that, while not everyone will see your value or the value of your work, someone always will. If you work hard and believe you’re valuable, then you are.
The lesson as a mom:
I always encourage Little Grasshopper to do his best, even if something doesn’t quite work out as he wanted or if it’s not his favorite task. Our kids need to understand that working hard and doing our best is ALWAYS valuable, even if it doesn’t seem like it right now. Even if no one explicitly recognizes it, the harder we work the more we learn. Not to mention the abstract value of not thinking “I could have done better” if something doesn’t work out the way we hoped.
4-) Don’t surround yourself with people who hold you back
Ahh, the good ol’ saying “choose your friends wisely.” So cliché, yet so true.
Remember in point 2 how I said I felt like the ugly duckling when word got out about me pregnant? You know how word got out? My lab mate who I confided in said something. When I approached him about it he replied, “Well people were asking, what was I supposed to say?”
While he shouldn’t have spread the word, it was my fault for confiding in him. I immediately knew I made a mistake when I first told him and he shot back:
“Didn’t you guys use a condom?! If you leave with a master’s you will be letting down our advisor!”
Lesson learned. Don’t confuse people you’re friendly with at work as your friends. Big, no…GIANT mistake on my part. While I did make a few good friends there, I didn’t distinguish the two at the time.
The lesson as a mom:
At only two years old, Little Grasshopper hasn’t properly concerned himself with choosing friends. But when he does I will coach him with one question to ask himself:
What would your potential friend do if your house burned down?
If he replies with something like “he would ask me what I’m going to do next,” then move on. But if he replies “you can stay with us for now” or “I don’t have a lot of space, but let me offer you a warm shower and a home cooked meal” then hang on to that person for dear life!
5-) Keep exploring your options
As a grad student, I worked as an academic, advised by an academic, and was groomed as an academic.
It’s just what people do.
When I decided that I didn’t want to be an academic after school, I looked for alternatives. I didn’t want to be a part of big pharma, nor a lab slave at a biotech start up, nor….
Turned out I didn’t want to do any of the jobs I was “qualified” for. Bummer.
But it confirmed my decision not to move forward with the PhD. Although having “PhD” behind my name would have been nice, it just didn’t make any sense any more. My ego was the only reason to finish off the PhD. So I let go of my ego in favor of taking the time to find something I enjoy, and that wouldn’t crush my soul.
But so many of us, especially adults, fail to keep exploring their options. We get stuck in a rut in our job or career, and ultimately end up feeling numb inside (or worse, resentful). It may be partly because our jobs just suck, but another component is at play too:
We grow as people.
Life happens, our opinions change, we shape and mold based on our experiences. But problems happen when we grow but our careers don’t grow with us. It’s no one’s fault, but we have to be aware of it.
The lesson as a mom:
Lead by example! My family always encouraged me to get my education and assumed the rest would just follow. I followed what they said, but it didn’t quite work out as expected.
So now I realize that it’s my job to show my children that a lot more goes into building a fulfilling career (and life!) then just getting a college degree. I will encourage them to regularly evaluate where they are now and what their goals are for the future. I will teach them not to panic at the idea of their goals changing, but to embrace it. And I will (and am) follow these same principles.
6-) Ignore those who expect life handed to them on a silver plate
I went to a fairly well-known and super expensive private university for graduate school (for what it’s worth, full time science grad students don’t pay tuition). Because of the price tag, many of the undergraduates came from wealthier backgrounds…which I expected.
What I didn’t expect was that many of these students felt entitled to an “A” in every class.
I don’t care where you came from or whether you’re in a community college or Harvard. You earn your grade, you don’t deserve your grade.
I shouldn’t have had to explain this every time I handed back a quiz or test to the students. But I did.
The lesson as a mom:
I’m just going to say this straight: if I find out my child failed a math test, it is ABSOLUTELY NOT the teacher’s fault. Too many teachers are getting crap from parents who think their child is the second coming of Christ. It’s either my fault (or Ted’s…he’s the math expert in the family 😉 ) or my child’s. It’s our responsibility as parents to figure out what went wrong, fix it, and explain that we need to work hard to get good grades. Teaching our children the value of hard work starts at a young age, and we as parents are responsible to make sure we don’t spoil them.
Did you ever have a tough experience that ultimately made you a better parent? What lessons did you learn? Comment below!
Want more parenting words of wisdom? Take a look at why you should be friends with the mom who leashes her kid and 6 ways to make bath time cleaner and healthier .
I’m so sorry you had such a bad experience in grad school but happy that you were able to take lessons from it! I truly believe that your entire grad school experience all depends on your research advisor. If you have a good mentor that fosters a great learning environment you will go further. I have had friends who had horrible mentors and either they quit the program or barely finished.
Thank you! Yes the advisor has a major impact on the whole grad school experience. I’ve also seen very talented scientists leave good programs because of their advisors.