Dear New Grad Student.

Dear New Grad Student,

I noticed my first gray hairs at 23 years old. Not coincidentally, the same year I started my Master’s degree.

Grad school is touted as a monumental time of self-discovery, pushing your limits, meeting new people, and enriching your mind (for the record, I’ve found all of this to be true). Something people are a little less enthusiastic about celebrating is how much it’s just…crying a lot.

I’m certainly much smarter now, but I feel old in ways I never imagined I would at 24: I realize more than ever that my parents were never lying when they said “you’ll always have to deal with difficult people,” and I finally had the acute experience of impostor syndrome for the first time last week. (Oh boy. That one’s a doozy; I hope you don’t get there.)

So, this is a bummer of a letter, isn’t it? Well, I think it’s clear from the opener here that grad school is the hardest challenge I’ve had in life, so there’s no need to keep beating that horse. It’s not supposed to be easy, and the factors that make it hard are too overwhelming in their quantity to discuss here without wanting to drive a fork into my temple. How the academic model needs to shift in order to make grad school less of a matter of survival is a discussion well worth having, but what what I want to talk to you about today is: what can we grad students do to help ourselves?

If we can put the power in our own hands to promote our own well-being, we’ll be infinitely better off for it. Should it be our responsibility entirely? No. But I think what we don’t realize is that we are not alone. One of the most common complaints I hear from other grad students (and I am guilty of this) is that it is isolating. You feel lost in your project, no one else is having the same experience as you, and there are no established benchmarks to set your progress by. On top of that, validation from authority figures is rare to come by and your supervisor has a “hands-off” (read: absent) approach.

It’s no wonder you feel like you’re an untethered balloon drifting off haphazardly into the atmosphere.

The secret here, though, is that everyone feels this way. Turn to the student next to you in your office, talk to the postdoc from the other lab, chat to professors at conferences. More often than not they know exactly what you mean, and if you’re lucky to find those key mentors, they want to help. Don’t fall into the false trap of isolation!

It feels like an inevitably self-set trap that the majority of us find ourselves in, though – who goes to grad school? Detail-oriented people who like to read and probably have some perfectionist tendencies, AKA, the types of folks who can easily drive themselves into a tizzy after spending 3 days reading articles at home alone. So a second piece of advice: you don’t need to be perfect. What you do need to do is to eat something tonight. More than anything, I have been kept sane by drawing lines between work and home and occasionally treating myself to a $10+ bottle of wine. Believe me: you have the time and you will not regret it.

Keep on fighting the good fight,
Sarah

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Small Aircraft: the Final Frontier for Civilian Transport Safety

Five years ago, my cousin Lauren Sewell died in a small airplane crash.

Some accidents like these are just that: purely accidental, purely tragedies, purely blameless. But the surviving family members who do the work to understand what went wrong will tell you that these true accidents number very few. And it is a sad truth that real people, not crash dummies, are too often treated like guinea pigs. Perhaps not consciously, but by not imposing critical safety regulations, by ignoring the common causes lurking behind multiple tragedies, through their own inaction, safety regulators are making a choice. And this is a choice that ends up sacrificing lives. Continue reading

Your hobbies are your greatest assets.

There’s this weird story we tell ourselves that somewhere around the age of 20, we need to “grow up” and “buckle down” and “get serious” and “put in that hustle” and “find that thing” that’s going to define our careers and our lives. Around this time in my life, although I was barely aware of what was happening, I divorced myself from a bunch of things that had come to define me: I stopped dancing, I stopped playing video games, I stopped making art, I stopped doing creative side projects with no real purpose to them (see: a strangely large collection of video scrapbooks, video games, comics, and parodies of short stories made with my friends). All of my time became absorbed by The One Thing that was going to define my life from now on, and that was biology. Continue reading

Sarah’s Must-Reads #2: The Science Stuff

This list of must-reads might seem to fall a bit on a “specialized audience” (other scientists), but I encourage you to take a peek anyways if you have an interest in science! Which is hopefully why you find yourself on this page to begin with. These are not scientific papers, but rather blog posts and articles that reflect on science as a discipline or bring scientific ideas to the public. I think this list suffers a bit of an identity crisis because it really embodies the love-hate relationship I (and most of my colleagues) have with science: some of these articles provide insights into the faintly enraging political issues of being a scientist, while others celebrate science in ways that I think we need to do more of. Enjoy!

1. Our Papers, Our Hearts – Wayne Maddison

Just a really nice short piece about how science is not all cold-hearted analytical mumbo jumbo locked in an ivory tower behind a journal access paywall. Academics fall too often into hiding behind these constructs, but here Wayne Maddison explains how behind every technically-worded scientific article, there is a human story. I love science! Continue reading

Sarah’s Must-Reads #1: The Funny Stuff

A listicle?!?! Don’t worry folks, it’s not just mediocre click bait littered with number-by-number advertisements. It’s my all-time favourite funny articles that I’ve read online, and I feel like my little preamble here isn’t going to even do them justice no matter how much I wax on poetically, so let’s just go straight to #1.


1. Why You Secretly Hate Cool Bars – Wait But Why

In which Wait But Why blogger Tim Urban talks about that thing we all know: the Average Bar is a horrible place (as in: they’re too loud to talk, full of predatory characters, and a breeding ground for social discomfort). This article could have been painfully cynical, but it builds humour gradually in such a delightful way that it honestly kills me every time I read it. Tim Urban’s poorly-drawn illustrations and perceptive knack for making every-day observations hilarious make him one of my favourite people to read online. I first found him through his Ted Talk (Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator) which is 100% worth your time. Continue reading

Do Wizards Wear Pants? #robegate, answered.

harry-potter-and-the-sorcerer-s-stone-harry-potter-movies-23939368-1280-544

da fuq is up with that?

I know you all (including 11yo Rupert Grint) have been wondering this question. Well, the time has come to finally answer it, and through long and silly reasoned debate, my companion Naomi Louchouarn and I have reached an undeniable conclusion: the answer is not a simple yes or no. First of all, allow me to backpedal and tell you that yes, of course we are talking about the Harry Potter universe (is there any other wizarding universe worth discussing in incredible detail?). Second, for context, Naomi and I have been concurrently re-reading the entire series and having regularly over-involved conversations about its nuances, which are many and delightful. I also listen to a Harry Potter podcast called Witch, Please (which would be an extremely good use of your time) where the hosts have repeatedly posed this question during their own re-reading: do wizards wear pants under their robes? Listeners of the podcast have taken to twitter to speculate on this phenomenon, yet the mystery of #robegate seemed to be unsolved… Continue reading

Language Cringe

Finally, you’re out of your teens, out of high school, and you’ve found a bit of purpose in the Real World. Just when you think you’ve gotten past cringeing about your life (social awkwardness is decreasing, confidence is on the rise, life is looking up!), what do you do? If you’re me, you steamroller straight into a new minefield of awkwardness: functioning in a new language. Welcome to a whole new world of cringe: Language Cringe. Continue reading

Anglophone Privilege, Unilingual Guilt

When people say “check your privilege,” what do we think about? We think about white privilege, male privilege, maybe we even think about class privilege. We consider the world immediately around us and the different ways an individual can experience existence in that world. How even the simple action of walking down the street late at night is experienced dramatically differently by different sexes, age classes, and ethnicities. Taking a moment to stop and consider the concept of privilege is usually pretty eye-opening, and it can feel like an aha moment to really process and understand what privilege means and how it manifests itself in our culture. But I am starting to think that we are often too quick to congratulate ourselves for this understanding, because I think we consistently forget to include something in this conversation: language privilege. Continue reading

All I Can Do Is Recommend Podcasts

Hey world! Remember me? I used to curate this blog? I used to seem to exist? I am but now an ethereal wisp of an internet presence?

In truth, I have been working on like, 5 different posts over the last two months, but none have yet reached publishing perfection. But be on yo toes, because things are coming! Things relevant to trending buzz words like…wizards. Feminine hygiene. Bilingualism. You know, everything you want to stay appraised of in this modern life of over-abundant information and content. Sometimes you just feel overwhelmed, and you’re like, can someone please give me the wizard update though. Don’t worry, I’m here, and I understand you. Continue reading

Lovely New Podcast

I started listening to the new CBC podcast Love Me and man does it ever get you in the feels. I love the breadth of the types of relationships that is taken on in this podcast: episodes range from a story of a romantic relationship fostered by Google translate, to an exploration of the concept of self-love, to a re-telling of a complicated relationship between a man and his deceptive father. As the podcast describes itself, it is about the
“messiness of human relationships,” and that idea is captured wonderfully. Give it a listen!