Lab Life: adapting to the Ph.D. experience

As a new graduate student, I never expected to encounter such difficult times when starting out my Ph.D. Sure, I knew that there would be an “adaption period” at the beginning where work would be slower; a period necessary to learn where everything in the lab is, know how people function and, most importantly, be aware of the specifics of my research project. However, 2 weeks, 3 weeks, even a month had passed and I was still not working as I feel I should be after my first month as a Ph.D. student. My main problem was that I did not yet have a definite research project. My supervisor was very busy at all times and it was quite difficult to get a hold of him to talk about and establish my project. I had a general idea of what I would be working on, but no details or specifics. This lack of information about my own project was my primary limitation in working in the lab. There was not much I could do for the first month except read articles and get familiar with the lab. I could not help but feel inadequate and at times almost incompetent due to my apparent lack of what we call bench work. Being used to working hard and not counting my hours during my master’s degree, this came as a blow. The most difficult moments during that first month for me were when someone would ask me what I was working on and what my project is and I did not know how to answer. At this point, I was starting to wonder whether I had made the right decision in moving back to Montreal from Sherbrooke to pursue my doctoral degree (considering how much I missed Montreal and McGill while I was gone, this was some serious questioning on my part!).

   Fortunately, things turned around for me after the first month. I realized what my main mistake was during my first month in a new work environment: I wasn’t taking my own place. What I mean is that I came to realize that I needed to demand and require my place in the lab. We are a lot of people, so my arrival almost came unnoticed to some. After I made my presence known, not obnoxiously of course, and started to comprehend that I am worth the time of my supervisor to discuss my project, everything went better. More smoothly, if I may. It has now been two months since I started as a Ph.D. student and mostly everything is going as expected. Furthermore, I passed the test of presenting my first lab meeting in a new lab. As expected I was a bit nervous and feared that I would forget everything I learned in the past months. Thankfully, it went well and led to many discussions and suggestions for my projects from fellow lab members. I now feel more secure in my Ph.D. projects, I feel more comfortable in the lab and have reignited the spark that is my passion for research. Hence, I take from this disconcerting experience that it is part of the normal process to succumb to doubt, anxiety and that unwelcome feeling of inadequacy when beginning a doctoral degree. Luckily, all those emotions fade away and are replaced by a sense of belonging and interest if the conditions are just right. It did for me, at least. So worry not, if you are a new graduate student and are having difficulty adjusting and feel it is not your place, just give it some time!

Courage means choosing the road that is paved with obstacles even though all forces are driving you towards the easiest one.              – Vincent Larochelle

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