Questionable Words of Wisdom: How I Survived My First Year of PhD

By: Joanna Zhang
07/30/2020

Now that I've wrapped up my first year and passed quals (which is why I've finally found the time to set-up this blog), I figured what's a better post to kick off my blogging career than some intense reflection of my first year?

I still remember how lost I felt a year and a half ago, trying to figure out how I was going to move all of my belongings and uproot my life from my dorm at Columbia all the way to San Diego. As someone who's used to living in this country by myself, the idea of leaving behind my friends to make a solo move across the country was still terrifying. But now, as I sit at my desk trying to wax some poetics about the past year, I realized that with the help of many people, I can finally call San Diego home (don't get me wrong though, Manhattan still has a special place in my heart).

So, my first advice? Make friends. Grad school can be a long and lonely experience, but suffering together with friends makes it infinitely easier. For me, it all started during interview weekend where I met some great people, fully expecting to never see them again. But surprisingly, a couple of us managed to re-connect when we arrived at SD. One friend brought along another, and soon enough, I had a group of people to joke around, eat fondue, get ramen, play poker, and throw super lit Christmas parties with. As someone who's pretty introverted (I really can't handle big groups of people), I consider myself extremely lucky to have found a great group of friends within my cohort. I don't think my San Diego adventures truly started until I met them. 

But even with friends, the Bioengineering program is still quite challenging, and having faculty who is willing to accommodate you, guide you, and help you grow is so important. Which moves onto my next advice: Find a good lab and a great PI. Of course, "good" is a relative term. For me, I wanted a lab that was friendly and social, because I hate working alone and in silence. I also needed a PI who doesn't micromanage me as I like to have some degree of independence, but who I know is always around when I run into problems. Thankfully, I landed in a great lab during my first rotation (shameless plug for the Hasty Lab!), but I know many people who didn't find the right lab until the second or third rotation, which is still totally okay. The lab you join determines how the rest of your PhD will pan out, so do everything you can to find the lab that best fits you!

And finally, live a little! Back in undergrad, academics was everything, and it honestly was kind of suffocating. So when I started grad school, I decided to treat my PhD as a job, and that meant allowing myself the time to step away from school and research. Whether it was exploring San Diego (I love the zoo!!!), doing dumb things with friends, hunting for ramen restaurants, or picking up some hobbies, it kept me sane during stressful times. And honestly, this newfound "work-life balance" surprisingly makes me feel more responsible... is this what adulting is like?? Of course, I often feel guilty about putting down work (who doesn't?), but it has always been worth it in the end. 

There's still four (or five) more loooong years to go, but for now, I think I've been doing okay. And if I can do it, you can too :)

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