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  • Writer's pictureRyan Riggs

Embrace the error message

With graduation less than two months away and my PhD journey slowly coming to an end, I’ve been taking time to reflect on my experiences in graduate school. I wanted to provide incoming graduate students with the advice I would go back and give myself. 

1. Give yourself the space, time, and grace to learn.

When I began graduate school, I had big plans for myself. I was going to teach myself to code, learn the state of my research field (global hydrology), and begin performing cutting-edge research, all within the first semester. One minor detail: I had zero experience in coding and remote sensing, the two biggest tools needed to perform my research. 

During my first two semesters I took some remote sensing courses, but I was still struggling to code. I was working hard reading articles on coding, watching videos on coding, even reading other people’s codes. Essentially doing everything but coding. It wasn’t until I forced myself to continuously fail at coding that I began to pick up skills and learn how to code. Then by the end of my second semester, I wrote my first successful for-loop. I remember this moment vividly as it felt like I was finally able to get to work on my research as my work is dependent upon automation. Without giving myself the space to fail, I would still be reliant on other people’s coding skills.

2. Your first draft will not be your last draft.

Writing publishable quality papers is hard. When I started my PhD, I had a misconception as to the quality and precision needed for high-quality scientific articles. During my undergraduate studies, I had written numerous end of term reports but publishing a paper is significantly more work as each sentence and word needs to help tell your overall story. It is important to give yourself room to write “bad” paragraphs so that you can go back and edit these paragraphs. And oftentimes, when you go back to read these “bad” paragraphs, they tend to be much better than you realized. You can’t edit a blank page, and editing is an integral part of the publication process. 

3. Allow yourself to fail.

My advice to incoming graduate students is to be kind to yourself and allow yourself to fail. Without giving myself permission to try and fail at coding (hundreds if not thousands of times), I would have never learned how to write code. Don’t be afraid of a big red error message, it’s giving you more information than not running the code. Treating failure as a learning opportunity is also important in other aspects of graduate school, such as writing papers, giving presentations, and learning new research topics. 

4. Be flexible and learn what works best for you.

I believe that flexibility is a key component to being a successful graduate student. Like everyone else in the world, COVID-19 impacted my life in a variety of ways. I left campus for Spring Break my first year, and did not return for nearly two years. My experience during COVID was likely similar to many people’s, I largely stayed at home, worked remotely, and made sourdough bread. When I started graduate school, I thought you had to be in the office from 8 to 5 every day to be successful, but the COVID-19 lockdown really opened my eyes to alternatives like working from home. I quickly realized that I was a much more efficient and effective student working at home. This was largely due to the ability to begin work early in the morning at 6 am – I’m naturally an early bird and do my best work in the morning time. While working from home is not for everyone, I do believe that finding the ideal location and time for someone’s work can have significant benefits to their efficiency and productivity. Flexibility is also important to your research as projects will likely change over time and new projects will organically develop. I think it’s extremely important to be able to shift the focus of a project if a new compelling idea emerges.   

These are just my thoughts and suggestions to myself if I had a time machine. Not everyone learns or works the same way that I do. But I do believe strongly that it’s important for people to determine and apply their learning style so that they can get the most out of graduate school. If you stay focused on your work and are willing to learn from failure, the next few years can be a really rewarding experience.

Ryan Riggs is a PhD Candidate in the Global Rivers Group. The photo above shows Ryan with his doctoral committee after he passed his dissertation defense in Feb. 7 2024. From left to right: Inci Güneralp, Ryan Riggs, Julie Loisel, George Allen, and Huilin Gao. After graduating, Ryan will begin his postdoc at the US Geological Survey as a Mendenhall Research Fellow.

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