I tell this story because it seems to be the most encouraging thing I tell aspiring or freshly minted graduate students.
The summer before my senior year of undergrad, I was accepted to the MIT Summer Research Program. I had an amazing experience, met incredible people, and gained a lot of confidence in my abilities. But in the midst of the program, I had a crisis akin to what many grad students will experience in their careers.
Without wasting blog space by getting too specific about my project, I will tell you that I was running numerical simulations and analyzing trajectories of a particle. I was 6 weeks into this 10-week program when a meeting with my graduate student mentor and one of the professors overseeing the project changed the course of my work. We realized that the model we were using was incorrect. In other words, everything I had done was useless. I would have to change the model and recreate 6 weeks’ worth of work in 2-3 weeks in order to finish with enough time to prepare the results for the final poster presentation.
After leaving the meeting, I promptly broke the first rule in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy: I panicked. The important thing is that this panic only lasted an evening. When you find out you’ve made a mistake or have a major setback, it is okay in my book to take an afternoon to grieve the loss of the work you did. But here’s the key: you have to keep going.
I rolled up my figurative sleeves (it was summer, it’d be crazy to wear long sleeves) and got to work. The next day, I automated the simulations to run them as quickly as possible and spent hours analyzing the new data. From the 6 weeks of work I had done, I had taught myself how to do all of this much more efficiently than when I first began. I took this as an opportunity to create a better system to organize data and track different quantities along the way.
By the time the poster presentation rolled around, I had everything ready to go. The poster looked great (with lots of edits and suggestions from my mentor) and I was standing tall in front of work in which I was confident.
Fast forward to my first year of graduate school at MIT. I had attended a state school in California for my undergraduate degree that was wonderful but not on the same level as the Ivy Leagues that my peers came from. I wondered why my application was even considered, seeing that I wasn’t coming from a top ranking school and felt behind in a lot of ways. Pile on the imposter syndrome, and you’ve got yourself an I’m-not-good-enough cocktail. That’s when the professor who was in that infamous meeting a year before took me aside. He asked me, “Do you know why you’re here? Do you know why we accepted you?” “No,” I answered. “Because when you were here as an undergrad, you had to start over, and you did it. That’s why I knew you could make it here.”
Of course, there were many other factors that went into my eventual acceptance into the program. But having someone there who could vouch for my abilities was definitely a big help.
And it really was as simple as that. I had met an obstacle and kept going, which really is a lot of what graduate school is about. What seemed at the time like a horrible, stress-inducing situation, became one of the reasons I was accepted into the Ph.D. program. Sometimes, what we see as a setback is only a setback if we let it be one. You can turn mistakes into opportunities to show your determination and tenacity or create new techniques to make the process easier once you start again. If you’re in a situation where your work seems to be going south or you’re experiencing a setback that is causing you stress, remember that it can be the reason someone notices your true abilities to persist. And that someone could very well be yourself. You can most definitely mourn the work you did and stress about what will come next, but ultimately, you have to keep going. You never know who is taking notice or what opportunities will spring from something you thought was a lost cause.
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