What you can learn from a graduate student blogger

Last semester, Dr Michelle Oyen came to visit Michigan Tech to host a seminar and have some collabo-time with our laboratory. I follow her on Twitter (@MichelleOyen), and although I follow a LOT of people on Twitter, I often find her tweet-feed to catch up on what she has to say.

You see, Michelle is pretty dang smart. She knows her stuff, and she’s the expert when it comes to what she does (nanoindentation). She’s also a young scientist, ex-Pat, and currently living (the dream?) teaching and doing research at Cambridge. Along with her comparative insight on British education versus American education, and her active contributions to iMechanica, she often shares some information (academia-related) with which I strongly relate.

Last month, she shared a blog post written by Drew Conway at Zero Intelligence Agents, entitled Ten Reasons Why Grad Students Should Blog. This post really hit home with me, and even though the majority of my blog entries have marginally anything to do with my actual graduate school work, it puts the blogosphere of a graduate student into a brighter light.

This post really got me thinking: what are we (you. me.) doing out here in blogger-land? I struggle with the concept of a blog’s role in self-promotion, but at the same time I feel a strong need to share what I am going through (as an athlete and a graduate student) in order to help others that might be experiencing similar things. Suffice to say, there are few people out there that run marathons and get their PhD in engineering (or are there?), but there are small stories of learning, struggling, and triumphs along the way. But who really cares? Who am I to tell you what I think is important, or what is cool, or what is totally necessary in order to be a successful person in life?

Well, sorry to burst your bubble, readers, but I am not that person. I am not going to tell you exactly what you need to know about life, its struggles and its heartbreaks, and give you play-by-play ways of getting through it. But I’ve learned from other bloggers, readers, friends, and family what I can share that might be helpful if only the tiniest bit.

Maybe you readers out there aren’t grad students. That’s ok. Maybe you could give a hoot about what I did at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers conference or where I published my last peer-reviewed paper. That’s ok, too. And, really- maybe you don’t want to hear about how my experiment with human recombinant collagen type I immunofluorescence went. I get it!

But maybe, just maybe, one of the readers out there stumbles onto this blog, a reader that is a graduate student, and is going through the same demoralizing, throne-throwing, bucked-off-the-high-horse-every-day tribulations that I am. Perhaps you could provide insight to help me get through my frustrations with circular referencing in Excel, or motivate to set the alarm clock for 1am just one-last-time.

Or maybe you are an undergraduate considering going to graduate school, and you want the MTV True Life story of “I Want to be a Graduate Student.” Hopefully by reading my blog, you’ll come to realize that grad-school life isn’t always work, work, work. That the life of a graduate student ebbs and flows; there are busy times and there are calm times. There are times when you want to scream F.M.L. from the top of the MEEM, and there are times when you are so bored because you have nothing to do that you (mistakingly) ask your advisor if he/she needs any help with anything. [Learn from my mistakes, kids; don’t pull that last one.]

Could it be that you used to be a graduate student? That you remember what its like to go to graduate school but you want to live vicariously throw me one more time? You wonder if things have changed much since you’ve been living the dream. You are curious if professors still require students to call them Doctor So-and-So and if coffee is still the beverage of choice. Are grad students still working ridiculously large hours with ridiculous small pay? [The answer is yes, at least for most of these questions most of the time].

Chances are good that some of you never were graduate students. And you’ve never wanted to be graduate students. You went to college (or maybe you didn’t), but you got a job instead of spending more time, money, and heartbreak on the turbulent sea of advanced education. Maybe you read my blog because I am a runner, not because I am a student. Maybe you wish I would just s.t.f.u. about grad school sometimes, because really, how hard can it be? Someone pays you (usually) to go to school? Seriously? Um, you’ve gotta be kidding. Why don’t you just get a real job and start contributing to society?

OK, hopefully you don’t think that. But if you do, who am I to change your mind? Well, here’s where the self-promotion and self-worth part of being a blogger come in (and collide, if indeed you are a graduate student like me). I want everyone to believe that I make all the right decisions all the time: that I am training perfectly for my upcoming FullRev in Cedar Point, that I am writing flawless manuscripts with excellent data and impeccable statistics, and that I am mentoring the incoming graduate students with the utmost patience and virtue that any advisor would be proud of. Truth is, I am not awesome all the time. I know this. You should know this. One of the biggest and most worthwhile attributes of a graduate student is their own self-loathing.

Hmm… maybe not that extreme. Maybe its more like: One of the most valuable assets of a good graduate student is their ability to admit they are wrong. To tackle the task at hand independently. To not be afraid to make a mistake. As any good graduate student (or any rational person?) will tell you, mistakes are where you learn what you need to know. If you try to do everything perfect every time, you end up failing in a big way. At least that is what I tell myself when I get a paper rejected or an experiment fails.

So what can you learn from this graduate student blogger?

I hope you can take away that I use my blog to reflect, to learn from what I’ve done, and to embrace what goes well. There are a lot of bloggers than only blog about things that go well. That’s awesome. I wish I wasn’t a Negative Nancy as much as I am. But I am what I like to call a “pessimistic optimist”. I sometimes think that things are going to go poorly but in the back of my head (of course) hope that they go well; that way, if it fails, then I don’t look like an idiot, but if it goes well, then I am extra excited. Most of the time, though, I like to shoot for goals that are tangible, rational, doable. But on the edge of what is possible. I like to set the bar higher than I can reach at that time, but make steps in the right direction in order to reach it.

Just like training for a marathon, graduate school requires a lot of diligence, perseverance, and self-realization. You aren’t going to get anywhere with the wrong attitude. Most likely, you’re going to have some pretty awesome highs and some really frustrating lows. But you got to just keep picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and strolling onward.

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6 thoughts on “What you can learn from a graduate student blogger

  1. Well said!

    It’s a slippery slope from “sharing my experiences for the benefit of others” to “I’m gonna whine about my bad results for a while” (which you traverse much better than I do, I think) and in the end it’s probably better just to own up to it rather than trying to hide it away. Sometimes you just have to vent!

    The good news – most people who found your blog will keep reading, no matter what your subject matter is, because they stop identifying you as “the runner” or “the researcher” and instead see you as “a source of information and entertainment”.

    Hopefully, at least. Keep it up, anyway… as I’ve decided, “stupid optimism” is the name of the game now. 🙂

  2. I appreciate your honesty for sure. I think one main reason why people keep coming to my site is that I tell it like it is. I don’t always have good days or bad days. I don’t like reading blogs where everything is peachy. You just know that it isn’t true!

    I like your venting! It feels good doesn’t it?

  3. Its funny, because when I read or hear stories from people in grad programs (particularly in the sciences, and I’ll use that broadly), I am reminded of what a scam law school was since the work is just…undergrad with more hazing. I’ve thought about blogging about why nobody should ever go to law school, but really…there are enough blogs about that already out there. This is beside the point!

    I think it is interesting to have an idea of what people do all day and how that can play into training. And anything else. Which makes this post all…too perfect.

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