Dr. O’s advice to new grad students

originally posted on LabSpaces

Samia at 49 percent is hosting a zomg grad skool carnival!!!1 this month to celebrate all the incoming graduate students starting their studies, and she’s asked us “old-timers” to contribute submissions about our experience in graduate school. I must admit, my entry into graduate school some 10 years ago was under odd circumstances. I was working part time as an administrative assistant for an engineering firm (and hated my job) while I was finishing up my BS in microbiology, and I had no idea what to do with the degree I was about to be given. So I started applying to graduate schools on a whim. I never did research as an undergrad, just a couple of internships at the health department, and, as the rejections started pouring in, I began to think I was going to be stuck teaching high school (which may not have been all that bad, but I really wanted to know if there was something else out there…) And then it happened – one interview, which went well enough to get me in to one pretty good PhD program. This isn’t how most people get into graduate school these days – this year’s fresh crop of PhD students has plenty of research experience and at least some idea for what they’re signing up. I, on the other hand, had no clue what I was getting into, and I think this may have been a huge benefit. As a clueless but excited first-year grad student, everything was new and interesting, and I had no expectations – good or bad – of what should happen at the bench. I knew I was at the bottom of everyone’s invite list for interviews, so I didn’t expect to be the smartest one there, and I worked hard to try and overcome this curve. I also entered the PhD program with an open mind, knowing if it didn’t work out I could pursue a masters and teach at a high school science magnet…and I figured that was likely how things would go. I put no pressure on myself to actually be the best, just to try my best…and it worked out pretty well. For those who don’t know, I’m now a postdoc with a fantastic project that I’ll get to take with me, now searching for tenure-track faculty positions – who knew? So how is this of value to any of the n00bs about to dive into this new phase of their education? I’ve seen it over and over again – some of the most experienced, brightest and promising incoming graduate students get hammered their first year in an intense PhD program, either by setting their own bars too damn high, or by thinking that grad school will be a breeze. Graduate school is hard enough without bringing unrealistic expectations in with you. You think you know a lot because of all your experience in a lab as an undergrad? You don’t, and you’ll find out just how much you don’t know after just a few weeks in your core courses. You’ll meet people that are more brilliant than you’d ever imagine an individual being. You’ll also find out how cruel a mistress science can be, when it teases you with seemingly great data, only to crush your soul over the next two years as you try to explain a phenotype. Science happens slowly, and graduate school is a marathon, not a race. You’re in it for the long haul, so try and enjoy it. It develops chops you didn’t know you had (or needed), and those chops will get you through the rest of your career, whatever you decide to do with your doctorate. It’s the best learning experience you’ll ever have, and you’ll look back one day and be thankful for it. So sit back, take a deep breath, and don’t hold on too tight. Make friends with your fellow n00bs – they’ll be your most important asset in the coming years. Don’t just concentrate on the project when you do your rotations, but also the people you’ll be working with and the prof who will be your boss for the next 5 (or 6) years. Take your core courses seriously – it may look like the same old stuff when you get started, but it’s a whole new ballgame. And, most importantly, don’t forget to have fun. Graduate school is hard, possibly the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but you’ll eventually learn how to deal with the new norm that takes over your life. The 5 years I spent as a grad student were some of the worst and best times I ever had, and they gave me the opportunity to pursue a career I never thought possible. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

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