3 Things To Keep In Mind For Grad School (Science)
My first semester of graduate school has come to an end, fortunately. Aside from learning what felt like 4 years of undergrad in one semester, I managed to gain some valuable perspective that should be useful for all students approaching graduate school. Lets give you some background to get you acquainted with my experience. This summer I started my first year of graduate school studying Cancer Biology and Genetics, and along with classes, I did 2 research rotations to find a dissertation lab. I have one more to go, and I feel I have this process mostly figured out. The learning curve has been exponential within the first 6 months, like y=x^10, the second quadrant exponential. This piece isn’t about science though, it’s about tips for a successful start into graduate school. It’s important to note, having some foresight into what is to come at the graduate level will benefit you significantly, so I thought it would be great to share with you. So here are 3 things to keep in mind:
1) Things Are Going To Fail At Times, But Learning From Failure Is Key
Up until this point, failure carried a similar sting akin to a high school crush denying your prom invite, sorry if i stirred up any repressed feelings with my readers. As the heading implies, we all are going to make mistakes, you enrolled into graduate school to amplify your skills and gain mastery of a subject. None of which are going to come to you without breaking a few eggs. You learn early that experiments don’t work for a multitude of reasons, mostly our own ignorance on the matter. Failure is discouraging, but its important to know that research is mostly failure, and success is sporadic and hard earned. If doing science was easy, and everything you attempted resulted in a home run, imagine how easy graduate school would be (Its NOT!). The reality is, science is really hard and failure is inevitable, but how we deal with it is super important in our growth as scientist.
The trick is to treat each failure as a lesson and try to understand why failure occurred. This is how you grow, and as you learn more about whatever subject you are studying, failures will decrease. Eventually, what will transcend you from rookie to pro is your ability to rectify mistakes in real-time and become an expert troubleshooter. We do not know as much as we think and that is OK! Its a humbling notion to have, but more importantly its key for your self-esteem and confidence. Do not let failures impede your growth, hurdle over them and keep it moving. Knowing that there will be speed bumps along the way, is a good way to prepare your mind for what is to come. Graduate school is about becoming a master of a subject while traversing a plethora of obstacles before the finish line, and failure is a companion we all will know well.
2) Time Management Can Make or Break You in Grad School
Lets go ahead and state the obvious, if you’re in grad school, you’re not an idiot. So why is it that close to 50% do not finish their doctorate degrees? By in large, it’s not because you can’t handle the material intellectually. Graduate school is competitive because the university selects limited spots to be filled by the candidates they think are best for their institution. So if you’re in, the university feels pretty good about your ability to handle the coursework and your ability to do research. Here is the caveat, between studying, doing research, networking for your career, having a personal life, and accomplishing the bare necessities for living a healthy life, such as eating, sleeping and the occasional run. There is very little time not to be productive, hence, management of your time is critical! If you need a strong personal-life aspect to keep you sane while graduate school is stressing you out, then you need to become REALLY effective at rationing time for studying, lab work and events on campus that are going to enhance your skills.
The trick is to plan ahead and get really good at planning ahead. Become methodical in your planning, and rank things in order of importance so that they get taken care of regardless of their effort level. Many students fall victim to feeling overwhelmed by the demands of graduate school, this isn’t an uncommon feeling, but instead of cracking under pressure, be proactive in trying in creating solutions to alleviate stress and get things done. Time management, like other skills takes time to develop, so if you want to get things done in a timely fashion, get started on becoming organized now rather than later.
3) Your Research Advisor Will Critically Impact Your Graduate Experience
Whichever university you decide to go, aspects of that university will shape your experience during your time there. The student body, the city, the resources of the university all will impact your overall feel of the graduate experience. More importantly, and above all other factors that will impact your graduate experience, is the research advisor/mentor that you choose to do research with during graduate school. Graduate programs for science usually come in 2 flavors.
Flavor 1, you have agreed to become a graduate student for a Scientist that will serve as your research advisor as soon as you start the graduate program. Flavor 2, You start classes at said university and during your first year, you complete 3 or 4 research rotations to select a research advisor. PhD programs are starting to orient towards flavor 2, especially if they are linked to medical colleges or predominate medical research universities with multiple PhD programs in Biomedical Science, Thomas Jefferson University, University of Miami and NYU are just some examples of these types of programs. Regardless of the flavor of your program, Blue Cheese versus Ranch, there are two critical things you should be considering about a research advisor.
You should greatly consider your potential advisor’s current funding and funding history. Running into funding issues midway through your graduate program is a nightmare that many students can attest to. What I mean by “consider” is, bluntly ask what the funding situation is and how it has been upto this point. You can also use this NIH tool to look up a potential research advisor’s NIH funding if you’re shy, which you should try to overcome if you are, for a bunch of reasons including the ability to network.
When choosing a research advisor you must like the brand of science taking place in the lab, but more importantly you need to figure out if the mentoring style fits you as a student and as a scientist in training. Remember, graduate school is a marathon with sprints sprinkled into it along the way. Do not get caught up on the coolness of a project if you don’t feel you can have a transparent, and open dialogue with the person who will be advising/mentoring you for the next half decade.
After reading this piece, you are that much more ahead of the game! If you have additional insight or questions about this article please drop them down below so we can further and expand the conversation for detailed questions. There are more things to consider when approaching graduate school, but the above are integral notions to keep in mind in my opinion.