Wednesday, 29 March 2017 09:53

Surviving Your First Year of Graduate School

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Published in Careers

Graduate school is no walk in the park, and the first year can be especially hard because of the challenges that come with being in a new environment, learning what is expected of you, and the rigors of balancing lab work and classes. Many students end up feeling helpless, overwhelmed, and lost. We asked current graduate students about their first-year experiences and what advice they have for surviving the first year of graduate school.


DWeed Darin Weed
5th-year PhD Student in the Immunology and Infectious Diseases Program
Washington State University

What was your first year of graduate school like?
Overwhelming. The classes were similar to undergraduate work, but everything else was different. I had little lab experience prior to coming to graduate school and remember thinking that everyone knew so much more than I did! By reading relevant articles from our lab and asking questions, I was able to understand the field and the other projects in our research group.

What tips do you have for first-year graduate students?
Find a mentor and use them as a resource! Luckily for me, my mentor was my adviser. He was very helpful during my transition to graduate school. We had regular meetings to discuss my progress in classes and lab. He made it clear that I could come to him with any issues I encountered. He also encouraged me to get involved in outreach, which has helped me grow as a scientist and establish connections in the community. My interactions with him were definitely crucial to surviving that first year.

Manisha Shrestha
5th-year PhD Student in the Microbiology Graduate Program
Virginia Tech 

What was your first year of graduate school like?
As an international student, I had to adjust to many things including coursework, a new education system, and a different cultural environment. There was so much to absorb. I felt I lacked focus, and that made it hard to determine what concepts would be important to study in support of my project.

What tips do you have for first-year graduate students?
My interactions with senior graduate students were critical in adjusting to graduate school. I gained a new perspective from hearing their experiences and sought advice on problems that I encountered. The relationships I built with them helped me feel supported and not alone. I would advise first-year students to reach out to more senior students---we are here to help!

TArapovTimofey Arapov
3rd-year PhD Student in the Microbiology Graduate Program
Virginia Tech 

What was your first year of graduate school like?
I entered through a rotation program, so the first hurdle I faced was identifying faculty whose research interested me and whom I thought I could get along with on a personal level. However, the biggest change came in the form of workload and stress. I didn’t have much free time, so I had to choose how I spent it more wisely. I also found that my personal support network became strained and had only a few people that I could turn to that understood the challenges of graduate school.

What tips do you have for first-year graduate students?
Make time to take care of yourself and for a personal life. My advisor encouraged me to do this by guiding me in building an all-encompassing schedule, which helped tremendously. She also encouraged me to form friendships with lab members so that I could reach out to them when I needed help in and outside of the lab. Doing these two things helped make the first year less daunting and more manageable.

Unfortunately, there is no handbook for surviving the first year of graduate school. However, by building peer networks, forming good connections with mentors, and making time for life outside of the lab, first-year graduate students can set a good foundation for the rest of their graduate and professional careers.

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Floricel Gonzalez is a Ph.D. student in Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech, where she studies phage-bacteria interactions. She is passionate about science communication and works with professors and colleagues to increase exposure of K-12 students to science.

Last modified on Wednesday, 29 March 2017 11:48
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