I survived grad. school and, ultimately, thrived, for a variety of reasons that rarely had to do with the lab and more often had to do with the communities where I felt I belonged. The things I learned in those communities were the things that make me successful now, and we need to build more of them into graduate school opportunities if we want students to thrive.
Two things in grad. school saved me. The first was theater. In my program, we had to minor in something, and I picked playwriting on a whim. I fell in love not only with the writing but with the community. I became a producer and stage manager for productions and learned how to manage people, run a budget, and get things done on time. All of that has been essential to being a PI.
I also lived with undergrads and a graduate resident fellow. First, getting to know the undergrads, bake cookies, and watch X files was incredible. But I also received training in how to identify issues, and I had a great deal of practice with students who were struggling with school, family, and depression. I learned how to listen, and I learned when to trust my gut and make a call. I’m still very much working on learning to listen, but any success I have with it came from my time with my undergrads. I have to say that when it came time to get my hood, there was no one I wanted to celebrate more than them. I still have the white board, all these years later, where they wrote notes of congratulations after my successful defense.
Right now, approximately 50% of PhDs in STEM fields do not complete their PhDs. That number is horrifying. Not only are graduate students often putting the chance to earn an income and build their life up to the side to pursue their degrees, but there is a huge financial investment from universities and grants that support these students. When students leave, science is often left undone and there is a significant cost to the scientific enterprise beyond the impact on students who are the creative and passionate people who move the discipline forward. You want to know what the next great thing in science is– ask the grad. students. They know, and they know when we’re not treating them well and not giving them the experiences and tools to be successful leaders and innovators.