Updated: Oct 10, 2021
So you’ve decided to go to graduate school and get a mentor onboard to help on your applications. That’s great! You’re on the right track. If there was something I could have told my former self, it would definitely be more intentional with finding help and seeking feedback from mentors and peers as I was applying to graduate schools overseas. Applying for graduate schools is more like a marathon than a sprint so here are my tips for you to, not only survive but, to thrive during this mentorship experience and set yourself up to a great start to your graduate student life.
1. Be bold and brave.
“Nothing happens unless first a dream” - Carl Sandburg.
My first three tips are to prepare your mind for the challenges ahead. Applying to graduate schools can be intimidating and overwhelming. Oftentimes, the struggle is internal. When I was applying to graduate schools, I would think, “Am I good enough for this?”, “Will anyone actually read this personal statement?”. When those thoughts cross your mind, remember that those are just data points and not actual truths. In reality, everybody has to start from somewhere and that real failure only happens when you stop trying and learning from our experiences. Don’t be afraid to dream big and be bold! If it’s exciting and kind of scary, that’s a good sign that you should totally go for it.
2. Be open to feedback.
Your mentor’s primary job is to give you feedback and it’s so important that you prepare your mind to receive it. Your mentor has your best interests in mind and is doing their best to help you out. Have your ears and heart open to what they have to say. It would even be better if you write them down, which has been shown to help you remember and reflect on those points that were raised.
3. Be honest.
Mentorship is actually a two-way street. Drawing from my own experience, being a mentor is also a learning opportunity that is greatly enhanced if I receive feedback as well. Feel free to give your mentor your honest opinion and feedback. It’s also a great opportunity to get to know each other and better understand their perspectives. Is there anything that is unclear to you? Perhaps there is something you disagree with? Disagreements and critique do not need to be sources of conflict. It is in fact a source for growth if it comes from a place of love and kindness. Giving feedback and asking questions is an important life skill. Because if you can give feedback to other people, then you can also provide feedback to yourself and find areas for growth, sustenance, and letting go.
4. Have a vision for yourself.
"Begin with the end in mind.” -Stephen Covey
You’ve already decided that graduate school is your next step in your chosen career but remember that graduate school has a definite end. I always ask my mentees the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. You can even try an exercise by answering this question: “What would my perfect day look like?”. As you go through your mentorship journey, reflect on what you would like to get out of it and remember that it can totally change with time. Having ill-defined goals is like a ship on a foggy night, it’s really hard to tell if you are heading in the right direction.
5. Take baby steps towards your larger goal.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day” - a French adage
Now that you’ve already asked yourself big picture items, it’s time to get busy. Using your career path that you’ve developed with your mentor, it’s time to lay out the game plan and the specifics on how to get there. A useful tool is to create smaller goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant (also Realistic), and Time-bound. Breaking down large goals into smaller manageable chunks, avoids procrastination because it’s less intimidating to tackle. Before long, you’ll be amazed at how sustained efforts can really add up.
6. Pause and zoom out regularly.
In the book “Think Again”, one of my favorite authors Adam Grant talks about the need to reexamine anything and everything. Here, he also talked about how students who did not have a fixed career path early on had better satisfaction in their chosen field down the road. Give yourself the time and space to be able reflect on your work life. What were the things that went well? What did not? How can you learn from those things that did not go so well? Do this exercise often and regularly and always have it in your calendar.
7. Rinse and repeat.
Like I’ve mentioned in the beginning, applying to and then attending graduate school is like a sprint rather than a marathon. Ask any marathoner and they would tell you that in training, consistency is key. Just as a couch potato does not become a marathoner in a week, being great at what you do in your chosen career does not happen overnight. Don’t be afraid of doing experiments in your work life and see where it takes you. Like all good experiments, they become reproducible with practice, patience, and a good attitude.
8. Celebrate wins, big and small.
“Spark joy” -Mari Kondo
Applying to graduate school is tough enough as it is so it’s so vital to keep our spirits up and celebrate even the smallest of wins. Pure grit can only get you so far and we need to recharge our batteries. Perhaps a professor responded to a cold email or you finally found a program that truly excites you. Whatever it is that brought you joy, celebrate it! Share it with your loved ones. Finding joy in your work life (and anywhere else for that matter) should always be on your daily agenda.
Before you head out, some parting words:
Wherever you are in your graduate school journey, there’s no better time to start being more intentional than today. Work with your mentor consistently and conscientiously. Remember diligence is the mother of good luck 🍀. Most of all, remember to have fun!
Christina Leyson is a postdoctoral researcher at the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service (USA-ARS). She specializes in avian viral diseases that affect poultry. Prior to working as a postdoc, she obtained a PhD in Infectious Diseases and Virology from the University of Georgia. She will soon serve as a Balik Scientist in the Virology and Vaccine Institute of the Philippines that will be established by the DOST.