Graduate School: The guide to getting things done

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When I started my Masters almost 7 years ago and then continued to my PhD, I thought graduate school would be mountains of field work and TA-ing some classes, with some statistics on the side. I did end up doing field work and was a TA for a few classes as well. But, my work was not only made up of perfectly planned field work and teaching. To get all this work off the ground and answer questions that mattered to me across the world, I ended up doing some things I never thought I’d do. Overall, I was forced (and able) to be the coordinator, the manager (read, problem solver), teacher and the doer. Below are a few things I never pictured myself doing as a scientist, researcher, and graduate student. Some are useful skills, and some are just weird. These unexpected skills and activities made me grow much more than I thought I would throughout my time in graduate school, and ultimately become a better, more adaptable scientist.

  • Expertly drawing tiny plants in excel: breaking down plant biogeography in presentations.
  • Setting up DHL accounts: shipping samples from Ecuador and to Canada.
  • Doing molecular work in general: learning how to pipette to teach it to introductory biology students.
  • Building a culturing lab: apparently ordering a 1000-pound safety cabinet doesn’t come with installment.
  • Writing permits: in Spanish.
  • Meticulously crafting emails: knowing when to just send, and when to put an hour of effort in.
  • Overcoming my fear of automatic cars: re-taught by my undergraduate assistant.
  • Using a metal tube as a coring device, plus a curtain rod to get the sample out: the corers didn’t make the cut in my luggage.
  • Command line-ing: supercomputers?
  • Working in prairies: they still don’t match the awe I get from the tropics.
  • Drying plants in the kitchen cabinets: have to dry those precious hand-collected seeds for my experiment.
  • Learning how to properly travel with DNA extraction kits internationally: interesting when the solutions in the kit are proprietary.
  • Taking samples from people’s weed patches on the side of the road: what happens when you study invasive weeds.
  • Ordering actual corn meal instead of agar and make agar with cheese cloth: oops.
  • Becoming a pro apostillator: proving diplomas and passports are real for permits and visas
  • Asking a coffee shop for their freezer to store samples: after missing a technicality in the location of sampling and waiting for the ministry of environment to approve my export.
  • Buying a milk frother to mix fungal cultures: it’s just a tiny emersion blender.
  • Leading a city taxi driver through mud roads to get to a point on a hand-drawn map: I was told there were cecropias there!
  • Basting out invertebrates from bromeliads: yes, with a turkey baster.
  • Building a mouse proofing cage for plants: my entire MS thesis depended on it.

Figure 1. Basting a bromeliad, homemade soil corer, and mouse-proofing experimental corn plants

Camille Suzanne Delavaux

PhD Student, University of Kansas