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10 Tips for Incoming Graduate Students

The undergraduate student I mentored for the last 1.5 years just graduated this past spring and is going on to begin graduate school this fall. He asked me what are some tips for things he should know before entering graduate school…probably not realizing exactly how loaded of a question that was. I got the same question from the undergraduate student I’ve been mentoring this summer, so I thought I’d list a few of the things that came to mind. A lot of it I think is based on the science-related graduate school experience, and it may be different in other fields of study.

  1. There’s a lot more to graduate school than just being good at research. Learning how to navigate the politics of working in groups, conversing with other professors, and getting what you need from collaborators is an indispensible skill. Those social skills that you developed while working other jobs during your life will come in handy. Use them!
  2. Fail fast and fail often. I’m borrowing this one from a friend of mine who just graduated. The more you fail, the more you learn, and the sooner you can learn how not to fail. It’s nearly impossible to get through graduate school without encountering failure, and learning how to improve and overcome failure is essential in order to succeed now and in the future.
  3. Keep a good lab notebook. I can’t emphasize this enough. Even if you were somehow gifted with an impeccable memory, you will be doing a favor to the people who follow up on your project and ensure that you get credit for the work you hand down even after you graduate. Remember that the rule of thumb is that any stranger who picks up your notebook should be able to figure out what materials you used and how you did your experiment.
  4. When you first start in your lab or workplace, work hard. Don’t work the same hours the older graduate students are doing—they already have many years of experience that you don’t. You should be putting in the extra time and effort it requires to catch up to where you need to be (i.e., learning the techniques you need to apply so that you can start doing your own research on your own time rather than depending on seniors to show you the ropes). I got this piece of advice while working a non-science related job and I think it’s good advice no matter what job you are doing.
  5. Nothing is more irritating to an older graduate student than trying to mentor a snarky new student who says “That’s not the way we did it in my old lab.” A new student should be open-minded. Yes, you may have already learned that technique before, but as you will discover there are many, many different ways to perform a single task. It’s good to learn the way the lab does a particular technique so that you can not only be consistent with your peers, but also so that you can expand your experience and choose which technique is most effective for you.
  6. Choosing a mentor…that’s a difficult one to tackle. My best advice would be to analyze the way that you learn as a student. Do you learn by example? Can you perform a task simply by reading instructions? Do you work best in groups? Do you value freedom to stretch your own creativity? Determine which factors are important to your success as a student and find a lab and mentor who can fulfill those needs. And most important, choose a mentor with whom you have good rapport.
  7. Choosing a lab… You may wonder why I separate this from #6. Your lab will be your workplace for the next 4+ years of your life. It needs to be a comfortable, uplifting, productive environment. You should also look for a place that caters to your values. For example, if you value teamwork you should search for a lab where that is part of the work philosophy. In larger labs with older professors, it’s not uncommon for the philosophy of the lab to not match the ideals of the professor. Pay attention to that.
  8. Be goal-driven while you are in graduate school. Set realistic goals and do expect your experiments not to work (acquiring negative data can and should be a realistic goal). Graduate school is different from previous levels of school in that you don’t have a concrete sense of what you are trying to accomplish. You don’t get a grade on your dissertation, nor is there a list of experiments you need to complete in order to graduate. It’s build-your-own-thesis, so set clear goals for each of the Lego blocks that will go into your dissertation.
  9. Let’s be honest here, graduate school is not for everyone, and leaving graduate school is a real option. Don’t feel like a failure if this is the right choice for you, and don’t let the opinions of others affect which road you decide to take. Do take the time to evaluate your experience and do have an exit plan; leaving to be unemployed isn’t exactly ideal. And on that note…
  10. Don’t let anyone convince you that you are not “fit” for doing research. There’s an incredibly disconcerting amount of spirit crushing going on in graduate school from older graduate students, professors, postdocs--you name it--and it’s a vicious cycle that repeats itself with every generation. Maintaining the same youthful optimism you came into graduate school with is a surprisingly difficult thing to do. Don’t be so quick to let go of it, and don’t let the cynics win. You came to graduate school for a reason…remember that.