We reached out to Ira Kraemer through Editorial Board Member Arianne Garcia (thanks, Arianne!). Ira Kraemer is currently a neuroscience PhD candidate and late-diagnosed autistic person. They blog about their experiences as Autistic Science Person at autisticscienceperson.com. Ira kindly agreed to write a post for us on their grad school experience, and they gave us so much great info that we ended up with three (thanks, Ira!). This first post considers the transition process, particularly interviewing for grad school and assessing strengths and challenges in relation to a new environment.
There are a lot of little things that can make transitions especially hard. Things you wouldn’t think about, like am I going to take the same cereal bowls to the new apartment? In all honesty, it’s been a long time since I moved and started graduate school, so I don’t have the immediate, overwhelming feeling of being lost that I used to. Hopefully, if you are going to undergraduate or graduate school, thinking about these things will help you feel more prepared and less overwhelmed than I was when I started…
The Beginning – Getting in to Graduate School
I was really worried about the graduate school interviews that I got. My brain was overclocked 200% to try to mask as much as possible (not that I knew what masking was then, or that I was autistic). I rehearsed with my parents on introducing myself, shaking hands, looking up at their face, answering small talk questions, and constantly thought about these things several days before the interview. I was so anxious. Before that, I spent literally 5 hours in a mall with my parents trying to find a suit to wear for the interview.
Socializing, The Interview
I was vehemently surprised that graduate school interviews, for the most part, were heavily interest-based. At one point I thought, “wait, they are actually interested in what I have to say about my scientific interests and previous research?” Honestly, I was waiting for them to cut me off or change the subject or seem disinterested, like most of my college friends did at the time. Instead, they asked more questions. It was even easier to talk to the other fellow graduate student candidates because they were also interested in other people’s research areas! It felt like my interests finally held value, instead of being some “weird fact,” or something people deem too complicated to talk about.
Adjusting to Graduate School – Learning New Skills and Finding Hidden Ones
When I did move close to the graduate school, it was hard, even when I had immense support from my (now) husband and his family. They provided furniture and scoped out apartments while I was still in the Midwest. I was also lucky in that I had previously visited the area two or three times before.
Things I had to do for the first time:
- Learn new routines and the apartment layout
- Live with a significant other
- Grocery shop for myself (with my husband)
- Drive in a very high-traffic area
- Do research and study at a highly-populated, and relatively giant, school
- Learn what was expected of me by my advisor by watching other graduate students
- Make lunches for myself
- Talk to people I didn’t know (you’d be surprised how much one can avoid this when you don’t talk much and you never go somewhere alone)
- Pretend to adult – at least outside of the apartment
It’s important to note that some people may do these things in undergraduate school as well. I had understood that I was rather dependent on other people coming into graduate school, but I didn’t realize just how many non-academic skills are involved in being a successful graduate student.
Things I was good at before coming to graduate school:
- Remembering important things
- Following through on tasks, planning, scheduling
- Predicting problems that may occur with specific events/tasks/experiments
- Being pedantic – i.e., detail-oriented, double checking things, seeing when other people may have misunderstood something due to phrasing
- Knowing what I didn’t know and what I did know
- Weighing pros and cons (I’ve been doing that one my whole life, especially when it comes to social gatherings)
- Being a prepared realist with low expectations for outcomes (most other people would call me a pessimist)
- Being generally curious and interested in learning how things worked, and willing to do the research to find something out
It seems as though many neurotypical people have less experience utilizing these skills, as everyday tasks may not be difficult for them – maybe they didn’t have to consider how loud it was going to be at the restaurant or didn’t need to break tasks down into smaller, more manageable ones to perform them. When trying to design experiments or solve more complicated problems, however, you need to use those skills. I’m also relatively good at time management and understanding or predicting how something is practically going to work – even if it should work a different way in theory. I also did not realize that most neurotypical people in life, in general, do not read articles to answer a random question they had.
Transitioning to any sort of new school is like taking notes in class – messy. It also feels like everyone else is walking around with a navigation system while you’re just fumbling about. Sometimes though, other people let you know that they don’t have a GPS either! Then we both laugh about how we think everyone else is walking around with a GPS. That’s pretty much most of graduate school.
Let us know your response in the comments!
You might also like Patrick Dwyer’s post, Problem-Focused Coping: Autism and Preparing for Graduate School in Research Fields and Laura Gilmour’s audio interviews with her STEM mentor, STEM, Autism, and Building Professional Relationships: Interview with a Mentor, Part One.