Create the Structures You Need | Interview with Alexandra (Sasha) Wright

Creating her own structures was the critical key to success in grad school for ecologist Sasha Wright. Memories—some of difficult episodes —came rushing back when Wright was formulating her advice. “What helped me to handle those struggles?,” she pondered.

Her three pieces of advice for thriving in grad school are:

  1. Invest in your grad school community
  2. Develop close academic relationships with at least three advisors
  3. Set short term goals and achieve meaningful benchmarks

There is more about Dr. Wright’s story at the end, let’s get to the advice.

Invest in Your Grad School Community

Dr. Alexandra (Sasha) Wright

Dr. Alexandra (Sasha) Wright

Lots of things will happen during graduate school that you won’t necessarily know how to handle. Personal challenges. Misunderstandings with your advisor. Research setbacks. It is essential to have a community of other graduate students and postdocs to discuss them with. Without friends and fellow travelers, graduate school can be incredibly isolating and lonely.

Make New Friends

Other grad students totally get it.

Your old friends will love and support you, but they can’t help you. A PhD program serves up a new set of challenges. Your tasks seem straightforward. You have to finish a paper. You’ve done that many times before, your old friends think. Your new reality is that it takes 25 drafts, the quality target is very high, and what “finished” looks like is unknown. (This is one reason Grad School is Hard.)

Choose a department and a lab that seems happy. People who laugh at each others’ jokes and genuinely like each other. Who spend time together outside of the lab. These people can become some of your closest friends. Your new community will help you feel happier in your day-to-day work. (Dr. Kenneth Gibbs underscores this point in his second piece of advice.)

If you don’t find a strong community, then initiate the community-building yourself. Other graduate students will be incredibly grateful for the opportunity to connect. Isolation can lead to failure, so reach out to as many people as you can.

Ask for Help Often and Give Help Freely

Gentoo penguin community

Gentoo penguin community

Your new community is your sounding board for navigating difficult situations. And there are plenty of them.

  • Your advisor hasn’t responded to emails for several weeks and is about to miss the deadline to write you a letter of recommendation for your fellowship. What should you do?
  • Your collaborators have decided they no longer want to share the data for the project you are working on together. What should you do?
  • One of the students in the class you TA decided to do their Botany final project about marijuana. What should you do?

Ask for help when you have questions. Actively pass along advice when you have it.

Wright told the story of having an email correspondence with a senior academic colleague early in graduate school. She was distraught that she had somehow made the person angry and they were now icing her out. She finally shared her fears with an older graduate student in her lab. He not only gave her great advice on how to handle it, but showed her an old email correspondence that almost directly mirrored her own experience. In both cases, there was nothing to worry about; extremely busy people don’t always respond quickly. The advice helped set her at ease, and the situation worked itself out seamlessly. Several years later, Wright was able to relieve a younger student’s anxieties on the same point … and in the same way.

Develop Relationships with at Least Three Advisors

: Aaron Berdanier (Beloit College '06), Christine Brown (Beloit College '07), Prof. Yaffa Grossman, and Dr. Wright

Aaron Berdanier (Beloit College ’06), Christine Brown (Beloit College ’07), Prof. Yaffa Grossman, and Dr. Wright

Plan to have three advisors. All three can play different roles as needed, without stepping on each others’ toes. All of them can become trusted advisors. If possible, designate two official co-advisors. (Some faculty resist co-advising, fearing that it will be a time sink, if decisions involve more people.)

Multiple advisors have a number of advantages.

  • It reduces your dependence on only one person. There are times that your interests are not perfectly aligned. You are not yet peers. Even though you are the expert on your project, your advisor is the official expert; s/he is on the line for the grant. You don’t want to make this person angry, because s/he is your sole point of access to the field. When they only have one advisor, students back away from hard conversations.
  • You can rely on the others when your primary advisor is absent (for whatever reason).
  • If you create an interdisciplinary team of advisors, it will help you do truly novel work. When you are drawing on the expertise of three different scientists, you can combine their input in unique ways. This will help you become a unique and independent scientist of your own.

Put other people on your personal board of advisors, too. Wright continues to turn to her undergraduate advisor, Beloit College’s Yaffa Grossman, for guidance. (Wright wrote about Grossman’s mentoring.) She also turned to her sister, who completed a PhD 5 years earlier.

Set Short Term Goals

The hard part about grad school isn’t difficult problem sets, it’s the 5-10 years of dogged focus on a singular goal despite everything in your life happening around you. Coming from undergraduate work, it’s easy for “A” students to think that acing task-oriented work will make them successful in grad school. Not so. The hard part about grad school is the endurance.

Like one of Wright's plants, you will grow in grad school

Like one of Wright’s plants, you will grow in grad school

The metrics for success shift out from under you when you start grad school. Successful undergrads are good at tests and final projects. Positive feedback provides a rush of affirmation. But grad students don’t take that many classes and the grades don’t matter. You are used to hard work, but you don’t know what to concentrate on. Grad school success is measured differently. Do you have interesting ideas? Can you bring them to fruition, from conception to completion? And be collaborative?

Set your own short-term goals. They will not be set for you. In that long time period you need “wins” to fuel you along the way. “I wanted so badly to have some kind of feedback. So I created assignments for myself,” Wright explained. It is psychologically hard not to have milestones and feedback. Create structures that allow you to track your own progress.

  • Apply for a grant
  • Give a talk at the local school, non-profit, or community center
  • Do analyses and start a manuscript
  • Give a guest lecture in a class
  • Develop a syllabus
  • Write a blog post
  • Submit a presentation for a conference

There are instrumental reasons to do each of these things. Getting a grant will fund your research. Talks to lay audiences help you understand why your research matters. These kinds of work build your CV. More importantly, these activities are a way to benchmark your progress. Otherwise you risk feeling like one of Wright’s friends: “I have no wins,” she lamented.

Summarizing Wright’s advice: graduate school is just as much about the social relationships as it is about the professional development. You need both to succeed.


Rock Delliquanti, John English (Bard College) and Dr. Wright at ESA 2015

Rock Delliquanti, John English (Bard College) and Dr. Wright at ESA 2015

Scientist and feminist. Sasha Wright embraces both identities, especially in her writing. She is one of the contributors and editors of the PLOS Ecology blog and writes about feminism and teaching on Medium. Wright is a plant biologist and theoretical ecologist. Originally from Washington state, she pursued an undergraduate science major at Beloit College in southern Wisconsin. Her PhD is in biological sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and much of her research was conducted at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in Minnesota. She studies biodiversity and climate change. Specifically, investigating how higher biodiversity plant communities resist the new pressures brought from a rapidly changing climate: more droughts, more floods, and more fires. She is an assistant professor of ecology at the Fashion Institute of Technology, which has an undergrad minor in sustainability and an 85% female student body. She enjoys the interdisciplinary environment of operating within a liberal arts college that is housed in a design school. She says, “the types of scientists who are attracted to such an environment often self-identify as misfits within typical science departments.” That suits her just fine.

Posted May 25, 2016

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