Hello everyone. I’m Karla Bernardo, and I’m a workaholic.
With graduate school admissions becoming increasingly more difficult, students jockey to become the model student with a 4.0 GPA, all the while conducting research in a STEM lab, publishing scientific journal papers, working multiple jobs to pay off student loans, having dynamic extracurricular activities, participating in leadership, and if applicable, struggling through a personal experience that has all the while made you a stronger person. If you happen to cure cancer along the way, congratulations. The admissions office may just consider you as a competitive applicant.
As a result of this perpetual fear that there is so much uncertainty shrouding my chances of fulfilling my endeavor to be a PhD student in neuropharmacology, I too have fallen into the trap that this aforementioned image is what I must attain. But trying to balance 21 technical course units, 2 research labs, an honors thesis, a job, and a personal life has proven to be tremendously stressful. It is difficult — but not impossible — to excel in every task you decide to take on. There will be times when you may want to break down and cry. But prioritization and perseverance will be your two best friends. Based on my personal experiences, I have developed the following list of advice for current and future students who find themselves working ceaselessly in hopes that they may have a fighting chance to fulfill their academic and professional dreams.
- Network with professors as soon as possible. If you are an incoming freshman, do not hesitate to send personal emails reaching out to professors whose research interests you. Your youth is more of a benefit than a detriment. More often than not, research groups prefer to have younger undergraduate interns who are willing to stay their entire college duration with them; training someone early, only for he or she to continue yielding positive work for a longer period of time, is worth investing in. As busy as professors often are, sometimes you have to be a little stubborn and bug them until they notice you. They may not have an opening in their lab for you to be a research intern the moment you ask them, but if you continue to foster that relationship, you may find that they have other connections that will help you take advantage of currently existing opportunities.
- Befriend your mentors. Graduate students are super cool, and if graduate school is your primary goal, who better to learn about the application process than from actual students who made it in? They’ll tell you the things they did right, the things they wish they could have changed as an undergraduate, and the research grants that undergraduate students don’t even think of applying for.
- Do as much research as you can on a particular lab, and when you find one you love and have successfully integrated yourself into that research group, stick with it. As a freshman, I stuck with the first lab I became a part of because of the exposure it gave me; however, as marine biology is not my main field of interest, it is much wiser for me to finish up my work with that research group as soon as possible, and instead, focus on my projects in my current neuro-specific group. There are multiple amazing research groups within the UC Santa Barbara campus alone, but if you find yourself hopping from lab to lab due to sheer curiosity to expand your horizons, you are less able to produce thorough (and perhaps ground-breaking) results in a single field. To reiterate, focus as much time as you can to a single lab rather than dividing your time such that the labs you work in only benefit from a fraction of the amount of your total work.
- Take GEs that satisfy three requirements at one time. If you aren’t trying to graduate a year early like I plan to, you have a little more leeway to take GEs that actually interest you. If you are pressed for time, however, there are certain Chicano Studies and Comparative Literature courses that are an absolute lifesaver.
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you don’t think you can give your 100% to biology, biology lab, physics, physics lab, organic chemistry, and organic chemistry lab all in the same quarter, don’t do it. Definitely consider summer school for your more difficult courses. It pays itself off to be successful in organic chemistry lab during the summer than to be slightly above mediocre during the school year. If taking summer courses posits a threat to that awesome summer internship you just acquired, speak with an advisor to reconsider some options for you regarding whether or not you should graduate after x number of years.
- Keep applying to scholarships. Although this process is not as stressed as it was during high school, there are plenty of scholarships open to undergraduates. Trust me, receiving a scholarship for being a good student — which you essentially have to be anyway — is a much preferred method of financial support than having to work additional hours on top of your already busy schedule.
- Keep a calendar. Take advantage of every second of every minute of every hour of every day you have. Prioritize what you feel is necessary to accomplish in a given day, but do not overload your daily goal to the point that you cannot achieve any of those goals. Start small if you must. “Monday I will power through my chemistry homework. Tuesday I will work in lab for five hours. Wednesday I will go to the gym, have lunch with friends, and study for math.” Keep your tasks doable.
- Please, please, please take care of your personal relationships. Your family and friends may think you’ve fallen off the face of the earth or gone off the grid if your only focus is your work. Drowning in work is difficult enough. Trying to overcome the heap of work without a support system will drive you mad. Whether or not your friends, family members, or significant other can help you with your goals, knowing that they will be there for you to cheer you on is enough motivation to keep going.
- Take care of yourself. Exercise to release the endorphins and mitigate the tension in your shoulders. You’ve got this. Take a breather. We are all rooting for you.