On Not Suffering (Much) in Graduate School: Part 2

By Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz

Published on October 28, 2020

I wrote a piece in 2018 about the strategies and habits that helped me go through my terrible first year of graduate school (2017). I started that piece with a verse by Sol Fantin: The problem of time is not that is short, but swift. Time has passed, and what I wrote is still valid. It is important to know why we want a PhD or Masters before throwing ourselves in, to be informed about the place before arriving, and to develop a meaningful relationship with your advisor. Moreover, one should create healthy habits, and build a community of friends and people that support one another. Here I expand on that list with new strategies, and I reinforce some that I mentioned in 2018.

Graduate school is a quasi-limbo where one works to acquire an academic degree through research, writing, learning… It is a job. No, it is not a journey, a mission, an adventure, or any other euphemism. Understanding graduate school as a job has been useful to structure myself. I have had the privilege to structure my days with a flexible working structure, based on weekly goals (which I often do not reach, to be honest). I separate time blocks according to weekly tasks, meetings, and other things. For example, I had enrolled five credits and was assigned 20 research assistance hours in the summer I wrote my dissertation proposal. My advisor allowed me to dedicate all my hours to the proposal. Each day I allocated 5 hours with breaks for things related to it, like reading papers, writing, and so on. I then dedicated the remaining time to other activities. At one point I did consulting for the Caribbean Agroecology Institute, and I worked with the Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network.

Doing side projects and participating in initiatives that share my values have been pivotal to not get myself bored with my dissertation research. Those works have allowed me to strengthen my science outreach and communication skills, and have given me the opportunity to create new meaningful connections and friendships. The C’s that I’ve gotten in classes, as well as the F’s in exams, and the emails where I got scolded, do not lead me to regret participating in those activities beyond the University of Vermont and my dissertation. And no, my dissertation does not define me. It is a graduation requisite. I see it as the mechanism through which I have put into practice the theory I have learned, where I have challenged such theories, and further developed myself as a researcher. My dissertation is also not the main determinant of what I will end up doing after finishing. I am cognizant that not all students have the opportunities or luxury to pursue non-academic goals or collaborate in different projects outside their main research. Having an advisor that knows and understand my non-academic interests, and why I am pursuing a PhD has been key for me to endeavor in the aforementioned.

The student-advisor relationship is very important to succeed in graduate school. That person can be a cornerstone or a stumbling block. If an authentic relationship is lacking, it will be likely that the path to completing your degree will be burdensome. Of course, my advisor and I have had disagreements and not-so-great moments, but honesty, respect, appreciation, and authenticity have allowed us to reach consensus, understanding, and forgiveness. Many of my accolades were possible thanks to a “Yes” from her.

Participating in fellowships and out-of-Vermont activities has been pivotal in further developing my creative and non-academic interests and skills. Furthermore, it has been crucial to strengthen my self-confidence as a scientist. Developing such self-confidence takes time in graduate school. One slowly learns to be a self-advocate, and to raise and defend one’s voice. I remember when I stayed shut because the subject passed while I was translating something in my head, or I just did not dare to speak. Now I talk even if it is in Spanglish. It is important to learn to raise one’s voice, especially against racism, misogyny, all types of discrimination, and workism, which are innate in academia. We live in a society in which staying silent is a privilege that perpetuates wrongful dynamics that hurt, and foster inequity and inequality. I am part of a listserv that poured a series of horrible comments some time ago. I remember writing a response with shaky hands, sharing my thoughts and calling out the leadership group to take action.

My past (first-year-PhD-student) self would have not written that email. It has taken me energy, and different experiences, such as participating in the Yale Ciencia Academy and the COMPASS Scientist Sentinels program, to build that self-confidence. Some experiences were not that great. I remember dealing with uncomfortable dynamics with some faculty that wanted to expand their work outside Vermont, and made me feel used. One has to learn (and dare) to say NO. Saying no to others is like saying YES to yourself. I learned the hard way. I overcame that situation, as well as others, thanks to therapy. Another crucial relationship in grad school is the one I have with my psychologist. The opportunity to develop a space to question and understand elements that hinder our ability to feel fulfilled is of high value. That, and building a steady exercise routine, has fortified my skills to respond appropriately to negative thoughts and situations. Also, I cannot overlook the great support of the community of friends and colleagues that has grown through the years―a community that I miss very much.

Now I am in Puerto Rico, where I plan to finish my dissertation. This journey, mission, adventure, or any other euphemism to describe this job has been of many beautiful and gloomy experiences. There are many things I have yet to overcome and improve. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic, like all disasters, has made visible the inequity and injustices in our society, and has disrupted our day-to-day. And though I am immersed in privilege, the uncertainty of it all has me juggling emotions. Nevertheless, cultivating and developing what I have delineated here has allowed me to keep moving forward. Graduate school is a quasi-limbo that allow us to develop professionally, at the same time it allow us to authenticate our identities, values, and purpose.

Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz