How did I get here?!
Stories & advice from a 3rd year PhD student

Since I can remember, science has been my passion. I can vividly recall setting up a “lab” in my childhood bedroom to conduct experiments using rocks or insects that I found outside. Little did I know that two decades later I would find myself in a real lab, working on my PhD, living out my childhood aspirations. Although I probably didn’t even know what a PhD was back then, and my perceptions of what a scientist does were way different than my current life. None the less, here I am! But how did I get here? Let me explain…

As the first person in my family to pursue a science career (and post-secondary education), there were many unknowns when it came to mapping out my future. After high school I was only sure about two things: I wanted to go to university, and I was interested in science. I enrolled in the BSc program at StFX and took classes in basically every field of science during my first two years. No joke – my transcript shows multiple courses in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Psychology, and Earth Science. I felt the need to test out all options. When the time came to choose a major, earth science was my top pick, which is funny since I originally considered it a ‘random elective’. However, by fourth year I was hooked!

It was only in the last few months of my undergrad that I looked into the MSc research programs at StFX. I was intrigued but thought I wouldn’t be able to afford another two years of school. Then I learned that you actually get paid while completing your degree. With this revelation, I inquired further about the program through my future supervisor, applied, got accepted, graduated with my BSc, and started my MSc in the span of a few weeks. It was a bit of whirlwind, to say the least!

Fast forward five years, and I am still a graduate student, but with two degrees under my belt and working towards my third. When I made that initial decision to pursue graduate studies, I had no idea what I was getting into or how much I would enjoy it. In no particular order, here are some bits of advice I think would be helpful to anyone considering taking the grad school plunge:

  1. Explore research opportunities as early as you can. I had barely any research experience prior to starting a Master’s (oops), and thankfully it ended up being something I love to do. It would have opened my eyes (and potentially more doors) if I had gotten involved earlier. At many universities there are part-time research positions for undergrads which can help you decide early on whether this is a path you want to go down.
  2. Determine what really resonates with you, not just what you’re good at. Be genuinely interested and excited about your research, otherwise it may be unfulfilling and difficult to see it through. As an undergraduate, talk to people; professors in your department, grad students, lab technicians, etc. Get to know your potential supervisor(s), and what their research entails. Graduate studies shouldn’t be something you do just because it is a convenient next step.
  3. Earning a MSc/PhD opens career doors; it does not limit you to a career in academia. Over 80% of PhD holders work outside of academia. Skills and knowledge learned during graduate studies is transferrable to many non-academic jobs. I feel like this is not stressed enough – just because you chose to pursue graduate studies, doesn’t mean you have committed your entire life to academia.
  4. Research-based graduate studies are, in my opinion, an entirely different experience than undergraduate programs because they are more independently driven. You have a supervisor and lab cheerleading for you. There is often less structure in terms of classes, assignments, and less focus on numerical grades (which is a major plus if you struggle with formal tests, like me). A 2-year MSc program flies by, so if the commitment of more school feels overwhelming, do not worry!

These musings are based on my experiences as a white female belonging to one fantastic team, FluxLab, during the entirety of my grad studies. Graduate studies are one of the most challenging, yet most rewarding experiences, and I think many who have engaged in graduate work would agree. If you are considering graduate studies, but on the fence, I would be happy to talk with you and share more of my experiences.