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176. Stop Calling Yourself a ‘Grad Student’ w/ Dr. Alaina Talboy

Titles are a part of our identity. If you meet a school teacher, computer programmer, or rocket scientist, you will instantly form an impression of what kind of person they are without any additional information.

The bias we impose upon hearing a title can be good or bad, of course. But we all invariably take these mental shortcuts, and it influences how we treat the people we meet.

What’s interesting is that these titles reflect on us, as well. What I call myself impacts what I expect from my work, and how I expect others to treat me in my role.

This week on the show, we talk with a PhD who helps current graduate students as they explore careers outside of academia. And she has some advice on how you can reimagine your graduate title.

What I Wish I Knew

This week, we’re joined by Dr. Alaina Talboy. She’s an educator and cognitive neuroscientist who successfully transitioned to industry after graduate school, turning down the opportunity to take a faculty position.

“Both offers had their pros and cons”, she recalls. “But ultimately I had to make the choice, not just for me, but for my family.”

And though the choice to leave academia was intimidating, she found happiness and success ‘on the outside’.

Now, she devotes a few hours each Friday afternoon to the service of current graduate students. She opens her calendar to ‘coffee chats’ where grad students can connect and find a listening supporter.

Dr. Talboy describes it this way: “In these coffee chats, people from academia – whether they’re currently enrolled, thinking about enrolling, just finished their PhD, or any kind of conversation that comes from an academic background – they are free to come and talk to me, get any advice that I could possibly give and, in my way, help them make their next decision just by providing information.”

Over the years, she noticed some common themes and threads that tied the conversations together, and that inspired her to write her new book, What I Wish I Knew: A Field Guide for Thriving in Graduate Studies.

The Graduate Career

One of Dr. Talboy’s insights is that when we think of ourselves as ‘grad students’, all sorts of other issues will follow.

She says that new students often have the misconception that graduate school is ‘just more school’. They are often surprised and overwhelmed to learn that the skills they honed as an undergraduate will not be enough to get them through graduate training.

“You’re no longer just a student.” she says. “You are also an educator. You’re going to be teaching courses, probably. Or you might have a research stipend where you’re engaging in research activities. You’re working in a lab seven or eight hours a day.”

“So there are a whole bunch of hats that people take on as a ‘graduate student’ that really changes their experience.”

Aside from the culture shock of expecting to be a ‘student’ in the way they remember, graduate trainees also fall in the trap of believing that their new role is still not a ‘real job’.

That has many consequences. In a ‘real job’, you would never work 80 hours a week for 20 hours of pay. In a ‘real job’, you wouldn’t scroll instagram all morning, then start your actual experiments after dinner. Our belief that graduate training is ‘just more school’ justifies all sorts of bad habits – for us and our employers.

In our conversation with Dr. Talboy, she shares her advice on how to refer to yourself while training in graduate school. We also talk about mental health, time management, and some unexpected ways to boost your creativity.

To find her online or to schedule a coffee chat, visit You can also find her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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