During undergrad, let’s be honest, although it’s important to pass your assignments and attend afternoon lectures, we want to have the FULL university experience. “Hey, are you going for Dr X’s lecture?” “Yeah, neither am I, we’ll get the notes from…”. And that’s how it begins. It’s all too easy to fall into a routine of not attending practicals and lectures, and leaning on hard-working students to provide you with the material (which is of course unfair), BUT who do you blame when you’ve failed the semester? Your friend who lead you astray, or yourself?
Throughout my years at university, I’ve had my share of fun, but when it came to crunch time, I sat down and did the time, irrespective of whether or not my friends were doing the same. And thankfully, I managed to scrape through my first and second years. At the end of the day, I believe that success during your undergrad degree simply depends on you, and your ability to weigh up your priorities. Making memories with friends during these times is what university is for, BUT it’s also a test of decision-making and responsibility.
Post-graduate studies, on the other hand, are a different story. Entering a new lab with a new team is not the same as completing an undergraduate degree with a circle of friends who you sat next to in class, went out partying with, or shared your notes with. It’s actually quite the opposite. Unlike undergrad, it’s not just about “passing” instead, these are our “growing” years, the years when reality catches up to you and you start thinking of life beyond your student number. Your “company” during these years really does affect your success during your postgraduate degrees, and that’s because your “company” includes your lecturers, your supervisors, your seniors, your peers, and your support system, whether you know it or not, the people around you, always have an influence in your life, be it positive or negative.
I’ve had the privileged of being part of 2 different labs at my university, each specialising in a different field (within the same department). Believe me when I say that the type of people in your lab is vital in determining how smooth sailing your academic journey will be. Fortunately for me, this far, I’ve had wonderful experiences in both labs.
It gets tough. When you are stuck doing an experiment that never seems to work, your supervisor is continuously breathing down your neck, or the most important machine in your lab is backing up, you need those friends around you. And yes, you can come home and rant to your family about your day/life, like I’ve done countless times, but the fact is, that they just won’t understand why you’re frustrated about your bad RNA integrity, or that your cells that are choosing to not grow well, or perhaps even the frustration you’re having time and time again with the key that you’ve got to struggle with to open your lab door. But there are people who can understand your pain: your lab peers, the ones who help you kick the door open.
Of course, I hear horror stories from my friends who don’t share the same sentiments as me. Their stories always end with, “I can’t wait to get out of here, so I don’t have to see him/her/them.” These stories have helped me to realise the power that your academic company has on your degree. Excluding the role that a supervisor adds to this, your academic peer group should be your source of comfort, laughter, and support, especially after a rough day.
Don’t get me wrong, my academic circle isn’t all birds and butterflies, but it’s definitely a circle that I appreciate and look forward to seeing every day. However, it did require some effort on my part as well. Being new in a lab comes with its challenges, which I have discussed in a previous blog, but it’s always up to YOU to decide how you approach the challenge. You can be the quiet, reserved kid forever (totally fine), or you could put yourself out there, your original, authentic, beautiful self. Ask the “silly” questions, annoy the senior PhD students, and build those connections, because it can completely change your experience in academia.
To all my friends that are struggling with peers in academia, take a breath and always remember, ONLY YOU can change your path. Put yourself out there, be friendly, be unapologetically you, and you might just build amazing friendships that will remain with you and make your academic journey fun and memorable. And if you’re on the other side, be kind. Be kind to the new kids, to the new supervisor, the kid who broke the machine, or the one who ruined your experiment. It only takes a few moments of kindness to build a connection.
Life as an academic can be brutal, but with peers by your side, we can all cry together 😊
P.S. Shoutout to GH519, truly smart, kind (for the most part!) and patient people.