My name is Matt Grobis. I graduated in May 2012 from the Integrative Biology Honors major and am currently pursuing a Fulbright grant at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. With commencement coming up this weekend (congrats to all IB graduates!), I thought I’d share the three biggest lessons I’ve learned since leaving the college bubble.
1. You’ll make mistakes… and that’s ok!
When I began my Fulbright, I was anxious to make the most of it. I had been on the waitlist for ten weeks, so I felt incredibly lucky to have this opportunity at all. I became involved in three separate research projects: formulating and carrying out an independent project on social foraging in wild great tits, helping a graduate student in a project on sleep and predation risk in wild great tits, and recording and analyzing mate-pair vocalizations in captive ravens. I became essentially buried in work, and the grad school applications, bio GRE, NSF-GRFP funding application, and furniture shopping for a new apartment added layer after layer of stress to my life. I made two crucial mistakes: underestimating how much time fieldwork takes to prepare for and carry out, and overestimating how much I can get done in one day. November was pretty miserable, and it was made so much harder because I wasn’t used to things not going well.
What the experience taught me, though, is that it’s totally fine to make mistakes. They’re the best way you learn. In undergrad, academic success has a pretty straightforward formula: pay attention in class, study before the exam, profit. It’s a lot different outside of college, where the path from Point A to Point B isn’t so obvious. You will make mistakes as you try to figure this out, but that’s how you grow. While working at the Institute has been a bit of a “tough love” learning experience, I feel I’ve grown so much as a researcher because there was no one to pull me out when I dug myself into that hole. As much as my research group liked me and wanted to help with my work, ultimately the responsibility was on me to fulfill the promises I made to my adviser and group members. As tough as it was, it’s one of the best things that could have happened to me during my year here.
2. Grades matter(ed), but experiences matter more
While your undergrad grades are important, they rarely come up in conversations in grad school, and probably even less so in the real world. Much more important to your future self (and future employers) are your experiences with what interests you. Interested in science journalism? Start a weekly science blog and see how you like it. Interested in field research? E-mail a university professor and ask to volunteer with the field season. I was amazed to learn that my adviser at the Institute is almost always looking for volunteers to help grad students with their fieldwork. Sometimes the professor can pay for your accommodation, too. In exchange for your help, you learn how to do good research by observing trial and error, master a ton of field techniques, and see whether this is something you want to continue with or not.
3. Got a question? Send an e-mail
Success is never completely independent. Everyone you look up to has had help along the way, and you’d be surprised at how willing people are to pay it back (especially if you’re thankful and nice to them). Go on LinkedIn and find U of I alumni doing what you want to do and invite them to coffee. E-mail grad students doing the research that sounds cool and hear their story. It’s ok not to get responses; don’t hassle them. But if you’re humble and genuinely interested, people will always be willing to help.