The 2020 graduating class of PhDs reflect on lab-life balance, look ahead, and leave advice for those who follow behind
May 2020 is massively different from May 2019 in many ways. But not all.
The Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology's graduating Ph.D.s will enter the world with about as much fanfare as years past. They'll miss attending the University-wide ceremony in regalia (and in person), the department's traditional celebratory barbecue on the Naito lawn, and May graduates—several of whom were the first to defend their dissertations on Zoom—won't get to gather with their labs and advisor to cut cake, clink glasses, and honor their achievement with colleagues, friends and family.
And yet, every year about two-thirds of graduates complete their studies in November or March. Of those who earn their degree in May, many immediately jet off to new jobs. Only a handful end up capped and gowned in the Harvard yard; most celebrate in more intimate, lab-sized ceremonies with speeches from proud advisors and lab mates (a bit more Zoom-friendly than a Harvard Yard-sized crowd).
This year, the graduates didn't scatter to start new jobs (though some have started remotely) but to quarantines all over the world. While they may not share a location, they do share two brand new assets: A title (Dr.) and a status (alumni).
From afar, the newly crowned alumni share advice for those they leave behind:
How do you plan on celebrating commencement from the remote?
- A zoom call with family as well as fellow graduates! I will miss being able to take graduation photos, and celebratory toasts/drinks/meals with family and friends.
- I don't think I'll celebrate in quarantine; I'll just wait for the in-person ceremony, whenever that is. Anyway, my defense was the celebration that was the most important to me, because all my friends were there, my family were there, and it was a whole day (or at least a few hours) about my work and the people who helped make it happen.
- Watching the Commencement celebration with my family
- Post pictures on social media. Having my parents attend my graduation ceremony.
What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift? Or, what books greatly influenced your life?
- Brian Greene's "The Fabric of the Cosmos."
- "Wolf Totem" by Jiang Rong. This novel reveals what we have lost, and should learn from the wolves—freedom, independence, resilience, dignity, and respect for nature.
What pivotal moment changed how you think or operate?
- During the first two weeks in college, I realized that I should actively learn things to prepare for my future career instead of just taking classes. I became very hard-working since then.
- Doing a 4-month internship in pharma during the final year of my Ph.D. solidified my decision to go into industry.
What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
- Ninja blender. I use that thing basically every day.
- Pine scented candles—so relaxing.
- A bread machine.
What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
- Dragon boat! It's the best.
- Tuvan throat singing.
- Buying the same item of clothing in different colors.
In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
- Food is fuel. The idea that for women being thin is beautiful now seems pretty ridiculous to me. Rather, being strong is beautiful (and WAY healthier for you). You have to eat food to exercise and get stronger.
- The Harvard Dragon Boat Team—paddling with friends on the Charles River was the ultimate way to maintain sanity throughout my Ph.D.
- Getting up before 6 a.m.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?
- The best way to succeed is to do what you enjoy doing.
- My advice: "Don’t wait until the last-minute, always finish ahead of deadlines." Advice to ignore: "Just be positive." While it is good to be optimistic, I couldn't force myself to be positive during hard times, and blamed myself for the negative thoughts.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
- A lot of people told me to do a postdoc/stay in academia, despite being sure that I wanted to go into industry. It's not that it was bad advice—it's more that it showed me how important it is to know yourself and what you want.
In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)?
- I now ask myself, "How can I do half of this?" to fight my perfectionist tendencies. It helps loads. And "half" doesn't have to be half-a**ed. It can be creative. For example, one class I took, I did just half the problems on the PSets (granted, I was taking the class pass/fail, for a Certificate; it wasn't a chemistry class). This allowed me to be my perfectionist self on each problem I solved, but limit the amount of time I spent on this class.
- Staying up late. I realized the office in the morning is very quiet and I can better focus on my work.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?
- Sleep. If I can't decide what to do, and I'm feeling overwhelmed, it's because I don't have the mental or emotional resources to deal with things right now. If I sleep, I regain these resources in large part.
- Take a break: watch tv or get outside.
- Write down the plan step by step, and start from simple tasks.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?
- My PhD project involved many failures—all of which challenged me to learn a technique, build a new collaboration, or otherwise extend my abilities.
- When I was writing my first paper in college, I revised it 13 times until my advisor was finally satisfied. My writing greatly improved from this experience.
- The whole first year of my Ph.D. was spent testing a poorly thought-out hypothesis of my advisor's that didn't work. I learned the hard way that I have to think for myself. Once I thought through the hypothesis more carefully and in context of literature I dug up, I was able to develop a better understanding of why the procedure was failing and develop better hypotheses.