What we didn't learn in the sciences

Hello everyone! Here is a little post of what we didn't learn (but what we wished we learned) as undergrads in the sciences. We are both Master’s of Science students at SFSU, so we’ve completed our undergrad degree, and are about to drop you all some bit of knowledge!

These will be mostly tips to ace your undergrad career! We hope you're able to take one little tip from this post (:

  1. I didn’t learn how to manage my time-- Coohleen[1]

I wish I learned this one earlier in my academic career. When I say earlier, I really mean the first semester I started community college back in 2012. Time management was always an idea that was thrown around by professors and other very organized students, but I never really thought too much about it nor was it taught in any science class I had. People would simply tell me how they manage their own time, but what they recommended didn’t work for me. Those tips included: having a physical planner and being extremely regimented about when I should study or when I should take breaks. Being the unorganized, hectic individual I am, what they suggested didn’t work because what they suggested didn’t work with my lifestyle or workstyle.

What actually worked for me was having a electronic planner because my phone/laptop is always with me and setting timers to start and stop certain activities (but not be incredibly regimented about time. I know many scientists and colleagues who have physical planners and write every detail of their day down. I, on the other hand, am the scientist who always forgot their planner, but never their laptop! So I started to use the calendar app on Google (Google calendar), so that I can use it as an electronic planner, and it has many amazing functions! On Google calendar, you can set reminders (5, 10, 15 minutes) before an event starts and you can also write notes on the event to remind you of what is happening. Side note, I tried for a long time to use a physical planner and it just wasn’t for me.

Secondly, setting timers for myself to keep myself accountable has been awesome, but I know I can be flexible by adjusting the time I need for a certain activity. I know that some activities can take longer than other activities, so I set the appropriate amount of time for specific activities, but it doesn’t have to be incredibly regimented. Bonus tip: give yourself a treat (like a piece of chocolate for me!) as a reward for remaining accountable-- win-win!

I definitely think I learned the “hard way” of managing my time, which was a lot of trial and error.

Note: I think the concept of managing time is not universal, so what worked for me might not work for others!

  1. I wish I learned how to ask professors questions-- Coohleen

When I first started my scientific career, I thought I wasn’t capable of asking scientific questions, so many of my questions were left unanswered. I really wish I learned how to “ask questions in class,” which to some that’s a basic skill. However, as a budding-scientist and very unsure of myself, I was unable to speak up and ask questions in class. I brought this up to a friend of mine and what they suggested was pure genius (this was learned outside of the classroom!). That tip was: email the professor. That to me was the simple fix. At that time, I was very shy about asking questions in class and I didn’t want to seem like I didn’t know anything. However, I learned that most professors really like answering your questions. I’ve even gotten, “That’s what I get paid for!” So, asking questions via email allowed me to clearly state any question I had and I was able to ask questions without feeling like someone will judge me in class. It also helps the professor learn your name and put a face to name!

  1. I didn’t learn how to be a scientist-- Nicole

During my undergraduate career, I lost out on valuable laboratory experience because labs were removed from the curriculum due to lack of funding. As a hands-on learner, this dramatically changed my experience and I felt shorthanded. I realized quickly that I needed to act and seek out a way to gain lab experience, especially since I hoped to continue onto graduate school after graduation. Eventually, I discovered the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program after reaching out to educators for help and advice.

I was fortunate enough to gain acceptance into a fully funded, summer REU program at the University of Connecticut. I was nervous to make such a huge move alone from California, but I knew the experience would be worth it. The confidence I gained as an aspiring scientist flourished quickly and I became sure of both myself and my future during the program. This chapter of my life taught me how important it is to seek out opportunities, because often times they will not present themselves on their own. Become resourceful and aware of what needs to be accomplished to get to your ultimate goal and do not be afraid to take risks, regardless of how intimidating they might seem.

  1. I didn’t learn how to identify myself as a scientist-- Nicole

My REU experience that summer was not by any means an easy one. I was faced with obstacles and situations that made me feel embarrassed. I entered the program extremely inexperienced and unable to do even the simplest lab task. I learned how to use an automatic pipette for the first time during my first day in lab, and by the end of the program I had successfully assembled two different plasmid constructs and learned molecular cloning techniques I had never even heard of. During the program, I constantly suffered from the “imposter syndrome”; I psychologically felt as though I did not belong and I had somehow been accepted into the program by accident.

Looking back, I realized that I focused too much on comparing my scientific journey to others around me. In a way, this hindered my experience because there were times I was too afraid to ask questions for fear of sounding incompetent. Identifying myself as a scientist has truly been a personal journey that has evolved during different experiences. How we perceive ourselves as individuals plays a critical role in identifying ourselves in other roles that we play in life, especially those of us that are still students. How to identify myself as a scientist was never taught to me, but taking ownership of and pride in my experiences and trials has helped me during this process. This feeling did not subside until my poster presentation at the end of the program.

In summary, we’ve learned that it is a bit harder than we initially thought to go through our academic career. However, as Master’s students we now know that it does take a village to raise a budding scientist, but it also takes internal courage and persistence!

Best of luck,

Coohleen and Nicole