Wednesday, 31 January 2018 10:04

The Would Haves and Should Haves of Graduate School

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Published in Careers

We all do this: we ask ourselves if we could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be? Research suggests that one of the best ways to find out how you’d experience something is to see how others experienced it. That’s why Yelp restaurant reviews are so helpful, that’s why you check IMDB before watching a 2-hour movie. But this doesn’t only apply to the Chinese takeout around the corner or the new Star Wars movie; we could do the same with graduate school. In this article, I asked 7 postdocs and senior graduate students from across the world the following question:

“If you could go back in time to early graduate school and do one thing differently, what would it be?”

Below are the answers:

  1. “I would have talked to more people before rotating in/joining the lab.”
    Three people gave this advice, which tells you how important and common it is. Ask lab members and people in the department about the prospective mentor before considering a rotation. Pay attention, and do not be afraid of leaving the lab if you see red flags. Observe how the mentor treats the permanent lab members before you make the change from rotation student to a permanent member of the lab. Read more about picking rotations.
  2. “I would have had a serious conversation with my PI about graduation requirements.”
    One first-author paper? Two? You don’t want to be in graduate school forever. Your PI may set the goal depending on your career plans, but it is imperative to have the conversation early in your graduate school journey.
  3. “I would have done more networking.”
    Everybody tells you how important networking is, but the opportunity seldom presents itself. Seek out opportunities to dress professionally and speak with others. Attend talks and don’t run away from the cocktail social hour. You never know where the next conversation could lead you.
  4. “I would have started thinking about career development earlier.”
    This may be difficult for you because you may wonder where your true passion is. The truth is that your passion changes throughout graduate school, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take any steps towards a career. Most career development pathways have overlapping features. So you don’t need to know for sure, just start early and take a few steps towards one or two careers you think you want to pursue. Watch videos, network with professionals in that field, conduct informational interviews, etc. Some schools now allow Ph.D. students to do short internships, the sooner the better!
  5. “I would have taken better care of myself—when people say graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint, they’re right.”
    Take care of your mind and body, particularly early on in graduate school. It’s easy to lose your self-confidence and feel lonely in the first few months, but don’t beat yourself up. If you need help, seek it. Most graduate schools have professionals to help you with your mental health. Most importantly, get adequate sleep.
  6. “I would have prioritized better and focused on the most important things.”
    Early on, it’s hard to know what you’re doing. You still haven’t figured out what your thesis project is and you also have to prioritize classes and your personal life. Ask your mentor and peers on how to prioritize your time.
  7. “I would have put my eggs in more than one basket.”
    Graduate school has the tendency to make you one dimensional. Early on, it is important to get your feet wet in several different projects to see which one is your passion. This also helps with another aspect of science: failure. Projects tend to fail and that’s OK, but having two or more projects means that you do not have to go back to step one. Keep in mind that this will be harder to do as you progress through your graduate school career, as you need to finish your thesis project.

Learning from your peers will help you focus on things you may not have considered before. Above all, try to enjoy and make the most of your time in graduate school.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 31 January 2018 10:20
Alireza Edraki

Alireza Edraki is a PhD candidate at the RNA Therapeutics Institute at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He received his B.S in Biological Sciences from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. His research interests are evolution, RNA biology and CRISPR gene editing. Ali is passionate about writing and teaching science. He started teaching when he was 16, and has been teaching ever since. His goal is to become a science educator, to teach the public about the wonders of science.