The Gift of Time

Graduate school is certainly full of ups and downs. However, just like you should keep in mind the big picture of your research question, you should also remember why you chose to attend graduate school. Read this inspiring post by one of our graduate students about the opportunity you’ve been given as a young scientist. 
-Laura Winalski

It was a rainy Friday afternoon in early September 2017 when the newest class of Vanderbilt University’s biomedical PhD students received our formal white lab coats during the BRET office’s Simple Beginnings Ceremony. I felt excited, honored, and, most especially, proud to have my parents on the medical campus for the first time to see me be presented a personalized lab coat. As my classmates and I sat waiting in the auditorium for the ceremony to begin, I couldn’t help but think anxiously ahead to the 5 years to come when I would hopefully be back in the same auditorium, defending my doctoral thesis. At long last, I thought, I will have achieved my lifelong goal of earning a PhD! The world will be my oyster! I can pursue an infinite number of careers in any sector of my choice! I will be a wiser, more knowledgeable mind! An important scientific expert! They’ll call me Doctor!

“Do not wish away your time in graduate school” – the words of Dr. Kathy Gould, Associate Dean of Biomedical Sciences, timely broke through my glorious daydream.

Oops.

“- always remember you have been given the gift of time.”

As I turned my attention back to the ceremony, those ten seemingly simple words struck me. I played them over in my head several times as Dr. Gould continued to speak, imparting wisdom and guidance to the bright-eyed students in the room. Nearly a year and a half later, those ten modest words still echo in my mind each day when I walk into the lab.

It’s astonishing how easily one can lose sight of key perspectives when graduate school gets tough. The enthusiasm and anticipation that saturate the months of waiting before orientation quickly give way to fatigue and apathy. A stampede of disheartened graduate students, stressed, tired, and overworked can be found at every institution of higher education. Piling into lecture halls before class, my peers and I lament our heavy workloads: the experiments to be conducted, the deadlines to be met, the exams to be studied for, the manuscripts to be written…

As an undergrad, enticed by discovery and sustained by lingering questions, I couldn’t wait to finally get to graduate school. I labored through tough classes and developed strong relationships with faculty mentors for the purpose of improving my chances of being accepted into graduate school. I vividly recall the unparalleled blend of excitement, nervousness, and desperation I felt while completing applications my senior year. I longed to be accepted into the best schools with the top programs and prestigious professors staffing the highest caliber labs.

And yet, here I am in the precise situation I earnestly yearned for not long ago, immersed in a widespread “Graduate Student Culture” that rarely expresses even a glimmer of enjoyment. Instead, misery and hopelessness are seemingly celebrated as success.

But why? Isn’t this exactly what we always wanted? Isn’t this what my peers, both at Vanderbilt and neighboring universities, and I have worked tirelessly for since high school to achieve? Is this not the chance we have patiently waited for to make our mark on science?

It is; it absolutely is! So why don’t we respond more positively to the daily hardships we experience?

Graduate school is not easy. It is stressful, demanding – both mentally and physically – and often disappointing. But it is simultaneously an immense gift! As biomedical PhD students, it is our (paid!) job to do nothing more than learn as much as we can about as much as we can in the hope of a greater understanding of health and disease. We are not asked to permanently remain in the world of science. We are not told how, when, or where to use our degrees. We are merely given the chance to earn the highest degree a university can bestow in order to better ourselves and, in some unique way, change the world.

When the work seems overwhelming, I turn back to the wise words of Dr. Gould and strive to remember that I have been given the gift of time: the freedom to spend 5 to 6 years solely working to improve myself…the opportunity to attend a world class university and learn from expert biomedical scientists who respect me as a colleague…the chance to conduct cutting edge medical research without the promise or guarantee of discovering a breakthrough…the privilege of having the support, space, and expectation (yes, expectation) to fail, make mistakes, and try again. What an incredible gift!

Whether I’m attending another lecture for yet another class, studying for a looming qualifying exam, preparing what feels like the hundredth presentation, or conducting the same experiment for the fourth time in a week to troubleshoot a failed result, I choose to replay Dr. Gould’s ten simple words. “Always remember you have been given the gift of time.” Instantaneously, my mind shifts from calculating the time till I earn my degree to feeling grateful for the chance to learn and grow at a prestigious university. My passion for science and insatiable curiosity stir within me as I humbly remember that the same situations I call stressful, an aspiring student dreams of one day experiencing. Earning a PhD should not simply be a stepping stone to my next destination. Rather, it is an essential journey to challenge, stretch, and develop myself into a critical thinker inside and outside of the lab.

Graduate school is a remarkable gift of time I am grateful to have received.

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