How to survive and succeed in graduate school

Congratulations on being accepted into a doctoral degree program! That already is a huge accomplishment and will open many doors for exciting careers in science. While this is an exciting point in your scientific career, you will also be faced with numerous challenges as you begin your studies and independent research in grad school. For example, in many doctoral programs, you will be required to complete a few 9–10 week rotations through different labs in your department and then choose the lab in which you will complete your dissertation research. On top of that, you will be busy taking classes and studying for exams to complete the required coursework for your degree. Here are some tips for navigating the first year of your doctoral program.

1. Get to know your classmates. Many programs select only a handful of students, and you will be spending a considerable amount of time with each other in your first year of studies. Each of you will come in with different experiences and strengths, and you can learn a lot from one another. Organizing study sessions and learning from each other’s expertise will accelerate your understanding of the vast material you will be given in your first year. Moreover, bonding with people over common interests and shared experience will make the beginning of grad school much more enjoyable.

2. Talk to graduate students in the labs in which you are considering doing rotations or joining. One of the most important tasks you will be required to accomplish is finding a lab in which you will complete your graduate research. This is on average a four to five year commitment, and it is not only critical that you find a research topic you love, but also a lab that is an ideal fit for you. You and your mentor will come to a mutual agreement after your lab rotations in your first year, so it is important that you choose your rotations wisely. The best resources for finding out what it might be like to work in a particular lab are the current graduate students. Ask them about the PI’s mentoring style, if it’s a collaborative or competitive environment, or if the PI has funding to support your research. Also, ask them if they are happy! There is no perfect environment, but it is important to carefully consider both your research interests and work style when trying to determine the ideal lab environment for you.

3. Aim for diversity in your lab rotations. Lab rotations in your first year provide excellent opportunities for you to diversify your technical skillset. Being knowledgeable of a range of technologies and model systems will give you an advantage in your own experimental design and in your understanding of scientific literature. You might even consider rotating through a lab that seems outside your area of expertise. You may discover that while you previously were a behavioral neuroscientist, you really love cell biology! Getting a range of scientific experience early in your career will help you hone in on what you want to specialize in your dissertation research.

4. Find good mentors. Finding good mentors is not only vital to your success in graduate school, but will also provide the framework for a supportive network throughout your career. You will be collaborating extensively with your PI to design experiments, analyze data, and write papers during your time in the lab in grad school, and they will also serve as a reference for whatever you decide to do next. When you rotate through a lab in your first year, make sure you carefully assess whether the PI is a person with whom you work and communicate productively. Also, you will need additional mentors besides your PI as you progress in your career. Try to connect and establish professional relationships with other faculty members in your department or that work in your field. It is important to receive scientific and career advice from many advisers in order to achieve long-term success.

5. Ask questions. Asking questions is essentially your job as a scientist, so don’t be afraid to do so! In your first year, you will be thrown a ton of new information in your academic studies, lab work, and research field, so take the time to ask questions and learn as much as possible. By the time you graduate, you will be an expert in your chosen field, so ask questions to deepen your understanding of the technologies and current literature as early as possible.

6. Take meticulous notes. Writing down small details, such as the locations of equipment and their appropriate settings, helps you become independent and more efficient in a shorter timeframe. A good electronic notebook such as elucidaid takes care of remembering details while you focus on learning and being creative.

7. Set aside some time to have fun! Starting a graduate program can be daunting and stressful, so it is important that you tune in and take care of yourself. You might have moved to a new city to begin your studies, so this is a great time to explore and meet new people. Being successful in graduate school will require a lot of hard work and long hours in the lab, but you shouldn’t have to sacrifice personal time or relationships. Make sure you incorporate some time to do what makes you happy into your busy schedule. Besides, research has shown that happy people tend to be more productive at work!

Author: Dr Pamela Gallagher

About the author: Dr Pamela Gallagher is curious and enthusiastic about scientific research. She currently work at the National Cancer Institute as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Laboratory of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Her research is focused on understanding epigenetic control of gene expression using basic molecular techniques combined with genomic sequencing. She received her PhD in Pharmacology from the University of Washington and has over ten years of experience researching biological questions related to mental health, aging, and cancer. Dr Pamela Gallagher is the co-founder of elucidaid electronic lab notebook.

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