Ariana Joy DeCastro
Grad School Coach
Hello! My name is Ariana DeCastro. I am Filipino American and Pacific Islander, a first generation student, and woman of color in the field of Bioengineering. I am currently completing a PhD in Bioengineering with a focus on breast cancer metastasis and mechanobiology. When I am not working in the lab, I am side hustling as a grad school coach for first generation students and women of color in PhD programs. My goal is to increase the number of women in leadership positions and positions of power and one step towards that is ensuring that more diverse women are being retained in STEM PhD programs. That’s why I created Master Your Mindset which is 5 week 1:1 coaching program specifically for that audience. If you are interested you can email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Take as much time off as possible
So I start with this because I started my PhD program right away after graduating from undergrad. I was eager to get a jumpstart on what would be a ~5 yr commitment, which was ridiculous. I believed I knew everything I needed to know about being a PhD student and thought my transition would be easy because I was just in school earlier. However, this was not the case. I was burnt out, sleep deprived, overwhelmed, and extremely stressed. Looking back, I wish I had taken a longer period of time to relax, reflect on my undergrad experience, and mentally prepare for this major life transition. So learn from my experience and take a few months off to a year before starting your graduate program (if possible!) to clear your mind, establish healthy habits, and prepare for this journey.
2. Grad school is NOT the same as undergrad
I participated in an undergraduate research program so I believed that my PhD program would be JUST like that. But boy was I wrong. In undergrad research, there is so much more hand holding and guidance from your grad mentors and PI. To be honest, the standards you are held to as a grad student are MUCH higher than when you are an undergrad. There’s a certain amount of leadership and ownership that you need to step into as a grad student. This requires so much growth, personal development, and unlearning of everything you thought you knew. So don’t expect this experience to be just like your undergrad one. You’ve upleveled and this requires you to overcome new obstacles. It will be difficult but I know you can do it!
3. You don’t have to have it all figured out
When I reflect on my first year of grad school I think about how I was stumbling around 99% of the time. From learning protocols, to finding buildings on campus, not failing my classes, and managing my money. But guess what that was part of the learning process and necessary to GROW. Your first year is arguably your hardest year and there will be plenty of times you want to quit because you think you’re not made for it but every successful person you look up to has had to start somewhere. And honestly there may not ever come a time during your grad school experience where you do have it all figured out. But that’s okay! Honestly, who ever really does life all figured out? There will be plenty of ups and downs and zig zags and pivots you’ll make during grad school. Check the need to be perfect and please others at the door. Enjoy the journey as it is and embrace the lessons that are sure to come.
4. You don’t have to take so much responsibility, focus on what matters
If you’re a motivated self-starting person (the kind that usually goes to grad school) you’re going to want to fill up your calendar with extracurricular activities, volunteering, mentoring, etc. But here’s the thing all of that takes time which between classes, research, and just plain old surviving you don’t have much. I 1000% understand wanting to become involved in so much more than your research in grad school. However, you have to remember what is required of you and assess how much time and energy that will take. Classes, research, and your qualifying exam are essentially all that matter in your first 2-3 years of grad school. Adding to your plate at this point in grad school can really stretch yourself thin at a time that requires your maximum effort and attention. If you really can’t fight the urge to take up an extracurricular, pick 1 important thing that will give you fulfillment and dedicate your extra time to that. Pass your requirements, adjust to your new program, and the time to take on more responsibility will come.
5. Prioritize your health - it’s the best thing you can do for yourself
As grad students we so easily put our health on the back burner. We put our self-worth in what we produce because that is what we are taught. However, to produce QUALITY work that you can be proud of, you need to be in the right mental and physical state to do so. Trust me when I say this pays off in the long run. When you start your grad program it’s extremely easy to get caught up in the hustle culture around you. You’ll feel the need to keep pushing past the boundaries necessary for a healthy lifestyle.
While I understand at some points this is necessary because of deadlines and responsibilities. However, it is when you constantly overlook your health because you don’t think it is important in the grand scheme of things. You don’t have to drastically change your lifestyle but finding small actionable items that make you feel healthy and prioritize your joy is essential in grad school. So, find a peaceful morning routine, incorporate physical activity, and use your campus counseling services (that you most likely already pay for!) to take care of yourself when you go to grad school.
If you want a mentor on how to not only survive but thrive in grad school and enjoy your PhD experience you can email me at email@example.com or message me on instagram (@the_sassyscientist) to book a call for my 1:1 coaching program – Master Your Mindset. This program is specifically designed for women in PhD programs who are first generation and/or women of color. I teach you my 5 step process on how to live a fulfilling life in grad school so you can focus on your next PhD milestone.
I hope you learnt a lot from this article and saw some pointers to help your decisions before grad school. If this article helped you or think will help your loved ones, please do share it with them and leave a comment below with your thoughts. Do subscribe to get access to my free library or resources.
Have a lovely day