10 tips every graduate student needs to hear…

April 28, 2008

1. Good grades. You are in graduate school. You are not only here to learn the material, but to master and apply it. A’s are expected, B’s are really C’s and C’s are basically F’s. If you focus on learning as much as you possibly can, the grades will take care of themselves. I would hope that if you are in graduate school you will be naturally inquisitive to the point where great grades come naturally.

2. Graduation. Know your degree plan and the rules of your department and school for graduation. Make a plan with your adviser early on, get it approved by your coursework committee, and be sure that someone in your department and school looks it over. The greatest headaches I have seen in graduate school have come for misinformation among graduate students and adviser’s on what is needed to meet graduation requirements. This is your degree, so be pro-active and ensure that you graduate.

3. High expectations. Find out what expectations your adviser or PI has for you and then exceed them. If you are supposed to be in the lab from 8-4 on most days, get in early and leave late. If your supposed to have an abstract or paper in your advisers hands by a certain date, get it in early. This sets a good standard and sends a clear message about your dedication. Now the caveat is that if you suck-ass as a student, people quickly begin asking “If he/she is here all the time, why can’t he/she get any work done?”. So it behooves you to be as productive as possible during this time. Facebooking 6 hours a day is not going to help your career, nor the impression you set.

4. Collaboration. Get involved early on in research projects in your lab. Talk to other graduate students and see if there is anyway to lend a hand. If your permitted, collaborate with those in your department, or even outside of your department to gain additional research experiences. I think you will find that such experiences can be among the most valuable you have during your graduate education. Besides learning new skills/methods, you develop new mentors and professional contacts essential for networking.

5. Authorship. Take every opportunity you can to author abstracts, posters, papers and grants. Scientific writing is a primary form of communication in academia and very few people are good at it. The more you practice scientific writing, the better you will become. Keep this in mind. Good scientific writing is about telling an organized and logical story. Also, don’t wait for your adviser to throw something in your lap to write. Be proactive. Ask if you can write a portion of a grant — like a portion of the methods section. Its good practice, even if they don’t use anything you write in the grant.

6. Speaking. Try your best to take advantage of any opportunity to speak in public. Fight, kick and scream your way into teaching lecture classes. Volunteer to give research talks at luncheons and present research at conferences. The more you practice this skill, the better at it you will become. Being comfortable talking in front of large groups of people is a skill few people have mastered. You going to have to do this eventually for oral exams, proposal meetings and defense. Get over your fears early and improve your ability to hold a rooms attention. Speaking engagements are also a great way to network with those in your field of study.

7. Exercise. There is no greater thing you can do for your physical and mental well being. Do not try and find time! MAKE TIME. Thirty minutes of physical activity on most days of the week is the best thing you can to extending and improving your quality of life. Plus it is a great stress reducer. Remember exercise is medicine. No use spending your first 30 years of life in graduate school to drop dead of a heart attack at 50.

8. 24 hours. Give yourself 24 hours once a week to devote entirely to yourself. Whatever it is that you like to do outside of school/work, be sure and do that. Spend time with your spouse, family, kids, friends. What you do is not actually important during this time. What is most important is what you do not do. DO NOT DO ANYTHING RELATED TO SCHOOL OR WORK DURING THIS TIME. I personally enjoy drinking a beer or two, eating something I shouldn’t and watching movies in my sweatpants. You will find that this time is sacred and well deserved. If you start giving away this time your enthusiasm and enjoyment for graduate school quickly turns into frustration and bitterness. This is your time to recharge and refocus!

9. Perseverance. There is an old Chinese proverb that holds true: “Fall down 7 times, stand up 8”. The longer I am in graduate school, the more I realize the importance of perseverance. Graduate school will be filled with two constants: failure and rejection. Experiments will fail, assays will fail, western blots will fail, PCR reactions will fail, scholarship applications and grants will be rejected. It’s part of the experience. What is important is that you have the ability to stand steadfast in the face of these downfalls and keep trying to make progress. You must take failure and rejection in stride and listen carefully to your critics. Critics always get a bad rap, but they are your most honest friends.

10. Independence. Be able to work alone. Graduate school is not a place for baby sitting or hand holding. It’s your degree. Plan and schedule your coursework in a manner that you feel best suits you. Take initiative and come up with your own research questions (related to the goals of your PI of course). Plan your own experiments. Problem solve those repeated failures on your own. Being able to work alone and problem solve are attributes highly needed in graduate students. There are going to be times when you need to seek the counsel of those older and wiser, but make them the last resort.

Well those are things I have found essential. Any other suggestions? Please feel free to add in your suggestions, I feel lonely out here.

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