March 1, 2019

On diversity and graduate school at Stanford

As BioAIMS president, I had the honor and privilege to represent diversity, equity, and inclusion student groups at the 2019 Biosciences Interview Weekend and addressed the interviewees at the Diversity Lunch.

Student leaders from Las Hermanas in STEM, SBBO, and SACNAS came together to discuss how to address the following questions that are common asked during Interview Weekend:

  1. Why did you choose Stanford?
  2. How does Stanford make you happy?
  3. Why is this lunch important?
  4. What do you want people to take away after this weekend?
  5. What were some of the challenges you faced during interview weekend?
  6. What are questions you wish you would’ve asked when choosing a graduate institution?
  7. If I come here, what challenges will I face?
  8. Where does Stanford need to improve?
  9. What is the culture here?
  10. How will I be supported?

Although this speech was presented at the Diversity Lunch, I feel that many of the perspectives here are useful for prospective students who are evaluating which school to attend.

Good afternoon faculty, staff, current graduate students, and Biosciences interviewees. It is an honor and privilege to be here with you all and to share with you some thoughts that were put together by representatives of BioAIMS, Hermanas in STEM, SACNAS, and SBBO.

Here at Stanford, our commitment to diversity extends beyond race and gender. It encompasses sexual orientation, disability status, socioeconomic status, and more. There is a community of people at every level who are dedicated to making this campus a more inclusive, supportive space. If there is nothing else that you take away from this speech, know that should you choose to attend Stanford, you will not be alone on your PhD journey.

As students, we want to welcome and congratulate you for not only interviewing at  Stanford, but also approaching the end of the graduate school admissions process! I remember being completely exhausted during my Stanford interview, living coffee cup to coffee cup. My sleepless delirium was mixed with the uncertainty of: “Will I get in? Is this the right place for me?” — not to mention the impending decision I would soon have to make about which school to attend. It was overwhelming. Hopefully the experiences that I share with you today will help provide some insight, and I highly encourage you to ask the people sitting around you about their experiences and what questions they wish they asked during their interview weekend.

Many of us apply to Stanford knowing that this is a good place to do science. Those of us who ultimately chose to come were drawn to the the people, the culture of autonomy and work-life balance, and the location. (It is overcast, which I enjoy because I’m from Seattle. For those of you looking for sunshine, yes it is sunny 99% of the time.) Stanford was my last interview. I had spent the last five years in Boston, battling the snow, the cut-throat academic culture, and — most importantly — the lack of good Chinese and Mexican food. I was afraid to leave the biomedical research haven that is Boston, but ultimately was wooed away by the people here. It was promising to me that I was finally meeting people who looked like me and could serve as my mentors both inside and outside the lab. I was assured over and over again that people are congenial and collaborative, that they wanted me to succeed.

This glimpse of Stanford has borne out to be true. I have found that I CAN choose my work-life balance. My lab mates and classmates are just as excited to hear about my hobbies and time outside of lab as they are about engaging in discussions surrounding macrophages, stem cells, leukemia, CRISPR… and to help troubleshoot whatever technical hurdles I am facing in lab. This is because people here believe that you matter as a human being, not just as a PhD student.

This appreciation for work-life balance does not mean graduate school is a walk in the park and does not come without its struggles. The same freedom that you receive as a graduate student to pursue whatever you want can also feel isolating. Sometimes you may feel like you are not getting enough feedback or support. Oftentimes the data does not reward the amount of effort that you put into the science — especially when we are asking the type of high risk questions that will truly push the field forward. You don’t know what the next step is, and that can be both exciting and anxiety inducing.

These challenges are not unique to Stanford. However, we recognize that this immense stress and uncertainty is compounded with all the other things happening in your life. There are both people and programs here that will support you financially, mentally, and emotionally during your PhD.

The most important financial commitment to Stanford Biosciences students is our funding model, which Dean Will Talbot introduced at yesterday’s breakfast. Furthermore, there is ample support in the form of classes and workshops that help students apply for grants and fellowships. Finally, every student can apply for an annual Biosciences Travel Grant of $1000 that to fund travel to a conference, and emergency funding to help when life catches us off-guard. Silicon Valley is not a cheap place to live, and many of us have family obligations — but we do not want that to be the barrier to your success or wellbeing as a graduate student.

To help you thrive in graduate school, there is a wealth of resources here at Stanford. Like many of my peers, I have taken advantage of the counseling services at Vaden Health Center — the student-serving medical center — and those conveniently offered on the medical campus. I say that to emphasize that wherever you go, you should prioritize your wellness and mental health because they are essential as a graduate student and in your career. In addition, I have participated in programs sponsored by the Vice Provost of Graduate Education, solicited professional advice from the BioSci Careers center; and I have attended programs and one-on-one office hours organized by the Biosciences Office of Graduate Education, or OGE. OGE provides a myriad of student support, including wellness events and ADVANCE, an institute that prepares students for a successful graduate career and embeds students in a supportive community.

Some communities I have found are built in: your cohort, your program, your lab. Sometimes you have to seek them out. There are so many communities for you to tap into, and again I encourage you to ask current students about their own experiences.

Outside of my program, one of the most important communities I have been a part of is BioAIMS. A classmate invited me to go to the BioAIMS retreat my first year, and it opened a door to a community of compassionate students, staff, and faculty who try to make Stanford a better and more inclusive space. Their stories inspire me and validate my personal frustrations. I feel proud of the things they accomplish and the resources they have brought to the Biosciences community. Through BioAIMS, I was able to expand my social network beyond my immediate peers, to other members of the Stanford Medicine community, and to postdocs and staff at other schools — who have all served as valuable colleagues as well as mentors.

Every graduate student of course has a de jour mentor in their thesis advisor. Yet, we can’t expect our PI to serve a one stop shop for mentorship. Thus, it has been important for me to seek out additional mentors: some of them are peers like previous BioAIMS presidents or older immunology students; some are postdocs who are one step ahead of me in their career tracts; and some are faculty — women of color who I rotated with, who have taught my classes, or who I have chosen to be on my thesis committee. Honestly, one of the reasons why I was attracted to Stanford’s Immunology program is because there are comparatively so many more women and women of color in the program’s leadership. Because finding mentors and role models that can empathize with your journey is so important, a few students established the SoLID program to connect students with faculty who can provide additional guidance and perspectives.

We hope that you now have a better understanding of the unique aspects of Stanford’s culture, about the challenges that we face during graduate school, and the support that you would receive here as a student. We want you to walk away from this weekend with the understanding that you do not have to be alone in this journey. Regardless of where you choose to go, we urge you to make sure that it is a place you can feel happy inside and outside the lab. In closing, let me leave you with some key things to never forget throughout your process and beyond: Just because you are at this diversity lunch does not mean you are a token diversity candidate. Do not let others undermine the legitimacy of your competence and capabilities by telling you: “You only got in because you are a _________.” And don’t ever forget that you EARNED the right to be here, and you will do great things.

Thank you and good luck!

You may have noticed that we don’t really address the question: “How can Stanford improve?” This was in part because of time constraints and in part because we felt uncomfortable voices our complaints so blatantly in what is effectively a recruitment lunch.

When we came together to answer these questions, we came up with three main areas in which Stanford needs to improve:

First, Stanford is highly decentralized and siloed. Each school, department, and program has its own culture, philosophies, and practices. This can lead to wildly different graduate school experiences and can make graduate school very isolating and difficult to navigate.

Second, Stanford should do more to address the graduate affordability crisis and long-range financial planning for students, who cannot contribute to a 401k or effectively plan for retirement.

Finally, Stanford needs to be more transparent about their processes and have more institutional accountability for many of the problems that academia faces: mental health in higher ed, sexual harassment, etc.

As we tried to communicate in the speech, the most important thing about this process is to determine where you feel like you can be financially, mentally, emotionally, intellectually, and professionally supported. Every person will be walking a different path and need/want different things in their PhD. It’ll take some introspection to figure out what that is for you, and sometimes — yes — it will just have to be because of a “gut feeling.”

Good luck to all of you, and feel free to reach out to me to talk.

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