The PhD voice

10 lessons for my freshman self

Hi! It’s mid-September, which means…academic year begins! For many students here in Portugal, it’s their first year in college, with all the excitement of a new environment, which often requires moving away from parents’ home (not my case), meeting new people and entering a new world that might be fun but most of all, challenging and scary. And for me, let’s see, I entered college in September 2006! Oh gosh I feel old! So it’s not hard to know it’s been 10 years since I first passed through the main building of Instituto Superior Técnico, one of the most well known Engineering schools in Portugal, to become a Biomedical Engineering student. I was quite happy I entered my first choice of course and school and that I liked the studies generally, but I still had to hit my head hard and had some bumps in the road to graduate, which happened in November 2011, almost 5 years from now!

I haven’t been away from academia in these 5 years. As you know, I’m studying again since early 2015 for my PhD in Bioengineering and in the 3 years between finishing my MSc and enrolling into the PhD, I worked in universities and research institutes. So it’s common for me to see this young blood of students with all the technology I didn’t have 10 years ago and with the odds to be great leaders and innovators, coupled with a very uncertain job market. I look at them and sometimes I think of myself when I was 17, fresh out of high school and super curious about this new world and eager to make new friends. I feel I am now a much wiser person and I think that if I knew first-hand these things I could tell myself my life could have been easier. However, discovering things by your own mistakes and achievements is more fun, right? Right now, sitting in a cafeteria really close to my college, I’m going to get real. Here it goes!

1. Stop comparing yourself to others

This is a life long lesson for sure, but when you enter college it’s one of the most relevant times to become stronger about yourself. As they say, “comparison is the thief of joy”! During my first year, I saw myself surrounded by all these intellecually brilliant people coming from all over the country. I knew I was intelligent enough to enter this course, but when I got through my first classes and projects I was appalled by how far behind I was lagging in some subjects. Often I felt during that first year that I couldn’t deal with it. Of course it’s a humbling experience, but comparing yourself to your colleagues, either positively or negatively, is no good. It even hurts your process by thinking you’re not good enough. Trust your abilities, learn at your own pace, be not afraid to ask for help and you will get to your goals! Anyway, after going out of college, grades do matter, but other skills are way more relevant in the workplace.

2. It’s OK to fail. You’ll bounce back

First semester of the first year, exams period. I failed a test for the first time in my life! And I don’t know how I did it, I had a good grade in my first test and only I screwed it up and had to go to the exam to pass. I was in shock and felt I had let some people down, not only me. But the matter of fact is that we all need some failure in our work lives to get stronger. I don’t advocate that failing just out of no effort all the time is good. It hurts a lot when you studied and still you can’t grasp that concept that came on the exam. But you will know when to dedicate extra time and effort to pass in the next chance and you will feel so good to pass after that you will give more value to your effort and, in the end, become more confident in your abilities.

3. Review your study methods

My study methods before college, and throughout most of it, were brute force. I could not grasp everything in class so I had to make an extra effort at home, make lots of exercises and ask a lot of questions. That’s all good, but copying all the notes I took in class again to make them more understandable and not having a very organized calendar per subject made me waste more time. Focus on being productive in your study sessions! I’m not saying I didn’t like my methods, they helped me being a good student for sure, but I feel I could have saved some precious time of sleep and fun by being more organized.

4. Be open to help and be helped

I remember an English teacher I had in 11th grade telling us that competition in college was atrocious and that we wouldn’t make any real friends. I didn’t fully believe this, but I was aware some people were not fair and that I didn’t want to get screwed over. When I got to college, fortunately the environment was quite good and it was ok to ask each other for help. Sometimes I felt shy to ask for help, but if you do it in a fair way and will work hard after the person helped, the person will understand and be glad to help. Also it’s by helping and cooperating that you can get to know people better and even form good friendships, which was the case for me! I wasn’t speaking much before with a person that became close to me and we got along when we were both asking a professor for help before a test and helping each other. We both got an excellent grade and a good friendship for the next years!

5. Spend time out!

In college there are plenty of opportunities for partying of course, and it’s good to at least go to one college dinner to get to know people and have fun with them. It’s those moments out that you will remember the most! I wasn’t living in Lisbon and with no driving license so going out at night was not very frequent, but during the daytime there’s plenty of memorable opportunities to connect and I bet on those. So lay off your hard work for a bit and enjoy the moments with your new tribe! Of course know when to work and when to have fun, most of all college is to complete a degree 😉

6. Learn to say no more often without guilt

During my first year, I was trying to make ends meet with a lot of things in my life and sometimes I felt so tired, not rested and not fully present in the moment. I wanted to be everywhere all the time. Of course this is also a life long lesson, but making priorities and saying no sometimes doesn’t hurt. The people that really like you will understand, just don’t forget about them with all your study. You are the most important person of your life and reaching your goals in college is something that will make you feel great! However, learn as well to say no, like in the previous point, to study when you have to be there for a loved one and be there fully.

7. Exercise!

I was often quite anxious in college due to the intense amount of work and finding out how I would make everything well while still having time for a social life. I was never a fan of sports before college, I dreaded Phys Ed, but only in 2013 I found the perfect remedy for work anxiety: working out! There’s so many different activities and working out is more popular than ever! Find an activity that suits you (I like pilates videos and running) and you might even end up joining your college gym or sports team, which is also a great way to meet new people.

8. Don’t put pressure on yourself to get along with everyone

I was always a diplomatic person and tried to get along well with everybody. Well, sometimes it’s just not meant to be and for good reason! You won’t have a lot in common with a lot of people, but when you do it’s great. Choose your friends wisely and be yourself so that you can naturally find your tribe. And also it’s normal that, throughout college, sometimes the friends group changes a bit. You grow and others too, that’s part of life.

9. Find a club in your college that you would like to join

At a point I didn’t see any interest in student associations, I thought it was a waste of time and I already had a lot on my plate. However, it’s a great opportunity to meet people with your interests and to develop soft skills, like conflict management, empathy, event organization, among others. I ended up joining the music group only in fourth year when I had my life more settled and less activities outside college. I sure learned a lot there while doing something I liked. I had never played guitar before and learned there! You might not stay there forever, but why not try an acting class, a gaming group, the volleyball team, or a student association? It’s also a great way to meet people from other degrees that might become good friends.

10. Listen to your loved ones

With a lot of changes, and especially when you moved out of home (not my case), the family dynamics change and also you have less time for your old friends. It can lead to some conflict since now you are becoming an adult. But trust me, you will need lots of support from every place you can gather. College is a life testing experience and, while other people may not be exactly going through what you are, they will motivate you and also call you when you’re going on the wrong path. So listen to your loved ones, and organize your study well so that you spend precious time with them without worrying about your next test.

Wow, this was long! When I started writing I thought I wouldn’t have 10 lessons but turns out I had some more! I’m now looking forward to the next 10 years of my life, which I’m sure will also be filled with lots of challenges, changes and happiness like these 10 years!

What are the most valuable lessons you would like to teach your freshman year self now? Every experience is different, I want to know yours =)

Cátia

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