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Pointers for New Graduate Students

If you ask any finished graduate student, most of us starting a Masters or PhD program were very excited at what awaited us and if you were anything like me, you were foolishly idealistic and thought you were going to pull on a lab coat, cure cancer and save the world.

Ok, maybe most people were not as naive as I was, but still, it is a exciting journey with a lot of expectations and pressures and dreams of a great future in research.

No matter how much advice you get, the list of “if only I knew then what I know now” is never-ending. So this is my advice to all the new young scientists getting ready to embark on a career as a professional graduate student and how to get through it with less group therapy sessions then I had.

1. Don’t go un-mentored. Getting a PhD is going to take anywhere from 4-6 years, maybe even 7.  If you speak with PhDs, they will often tell you that they received more help on their projects from someone other than their advisor. Depending on your PI, it is not uncommon that stretches of time will pass where you do not have access to an advisor. They might be traveling or they might be dealing with personal issues or they might be running the department and too busy to focus on you. Whatever the reason, it is critical that you do not go it alone. Find another PI or postdoc to help nurture your development and guide your project. The interaction between you and an older wiser scientist is critical to you finishing your degree.

2. Choose your committee carefully. The biggest mistake I made was choosing an all female committee. As a woman scientist you like to think that the women PIs in your department have your best interest in mind and desire to see you become a successful PI too, right?  But in my experience that is not the case and women tend not to be as supportive of each other’s progress in scientific careers as you might think. Ten years later, I hope this is changing.  But if I could give you any advice, it would be to choose a committee that is interested in your work and that encompasses the range of expertise you need to have a complete thesis. Whether it is men or women, you want successful PIs on your side that can teach you how to achieve success with professionalism and positivity.

3. Be an independent thinker. Unfortunately a big part of any graduate school will be departmental politics. There are going to be labs that get along and labs that don’t. Just because two PIs do not get along does not mean that you can’t get along with that lab or the PI. Think for yourself and decide for yourself the people you want to be friends with. Don’t fall into the trap of partaking in gossip about others and just do your work professionally and with an open mind towards all people.

4. Be kind to everyone- make friends. Network. This goes along with the above point, graduate school is a time to network and make lasting friendships that 20 years later still produce fruitful collaborations.  Don’t burn any bridges. Let the PIs fight out who owns what equipment and who brings in more money. Your focus is on getting a degree and publications. Working with others is critical for you to reach your goals. This leads me to my next point which is:

5. Collaborate. As the manager of your research project, it is up to you to come up with the ideas, the hypothesis, and the approach to answering the questions. You aren’t going to be a master in every technique you need. The more you can do yourself the better. However, collaborations with other labs that have expertise in a technique you need is a great way to learn while getting results fast. Plus, when they need your area of expertise, you can help them and get on their papers. It is a win-win situation.

6. Don’t get married. In my class of 12 people, two people married while in graduate school and divorced before they finished their PhD. Just wait. The stress of graduate school is hard enough but trying to satisfy a spouse (especially when they are not in science) can be overwhelming to a relationship. Of course, there are some people who were able to make their marriage survive the grad school years. If you can wait, I would recommend it.  If you think graduate school is stressful, divorce is even worse. One of my classmates, in the midst of divorce, was 6 months away from getting his PhD, went home one day and never came back again.

7. If you aren’t sure, ASK.  Sounds obvious, but some people have trouble admitting they need help. It is ok to say I don’t know. It is ok to not be sure of the instructions or protocol. If you aren’t sure, ask. Reagents are expensive and no one wants to work all weekend to make up for mistakes.  Sometimes for new students it might be embarrassing to ask questions you feel you should know. In my lab, we would always double check each other’s math before making new buffers or adding drugs to cells to make sure we didn’t move a decimal point the wrong way.  It happens, and you will feel worse having to explain to your boss how you made a mistake that could have been easily caught if you had just asked.

8. Make and use your own reagents. Don’t share. Of course some reagents are shared, such as 10X TAE for gels or buffers for Southern Blots (back in the day, we did a lot of those). But there are some reagents that you really should just keep separate. Why? Because it is a source for contamination and if you are the only one using your reagents, you can’t blame anyone else.  A bottle of contaminated water or buffer you thought was sterile can cause weeks of headaches fixing your experiment. So never go into someone else’s bottles without asking first and your reagents will be treated with the same respect.

9. Clean the incubators.  If you are doing cell culture, remember to disinfect your incubators. There is no consensus as to how often they should be cleaned. Some labs clean them every 4 months and others more or less. It depends on how many people are sharing an incubator. If medium spills, then it should be disinfected immediately to prevent a bacterial contamination of cells. The worst problem is mycoplasma, which are not easily detected in cells and can influence experimental results. Cleaning the incubators will help prevent these issues. If your cells become infected with mycoplasma, it can mean that whole experiments are nullified and need to be repeated.

10. Be friendly to the reps. I saved this for last. Some scientists underestimate the rewards that come from being friends with your sales people.  Did you ever wonder why “John” always wins the raffle at the product show? Ever wonder what lunch at The Lodge at Torrey Pines is like? Could you use a bigger discount? Give your sales representative some attention. Help them out. Spread the word when they organize product talks or table shows and give them good feedback (if they deserve it) and they will help you out too. Plus, you never know what company that sales rep might be running one day and when you want a job, they’ll remember what a pleasure you were to interact with. So take care of your reps and they’ll take care of you.

Bonus tip: 11. Scour Bitesize Bio. Now you might think this is just shameless self-promotion (and in a way it is), but seriously, we think that Bitesize Bio is building into a mine of vital information for all researchers in our field, but particularly for new researchers.

If you are having a problem, please search our archive to see if we have posted an article that can help you. But – and here is the real beauty of Bitesize Bio – if you can’t find anything that will help, then drop us a note to tell us your problem or topic you’d like advice on and if at all possible we will write an article that covers it.

As I said earlier, “if only I knew then what I know now” is a phrase oft uttered by grad school veterans. Our articles aim to tell you that stuff now and solve a lot of your problems before they arise.

A couple of great examples or articles for newbie grad students are Victoria’s recent wise advice on things to do before starting a new project. (If I had read this when I was getting started, I might have been able to keep my idealistic point of view a little longer.)

And some very sage advice on the Do’s and Don’ts for PhD students is found in an older article by Nick that all graduate students, not just the new ones, should keep in mind.

Well that’s my advice. I could go on but I want to hear from you.  What advice do you have from your graduate school years to share with this next year’s incoming class?

21 Comments

  1. Pablo on September 27, 2011 at 5:47 am

    Suzanne, i don’t think you reported the results of the survey accurately. You claim that the survey said 51% say they believe in God but that is not what the survey showed. Only 33% said they believe in God. another 18% said they do not believe in God but they do believe in a higher power. Since that 18% said they do NOT believe in God they can not be added to the 33% that do believe in God. Clearly 59% DO NOT believe in God.
    You could say 59% believe in God or a higher power, but that isn’t what you stated.
    pablo

  2. yevgeniy on June 16, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    Great post, Suzanne,

    I would also say that developing people skills is a good idea while in Grad school. I guess in falls under networking, but networking might not be an intuitive skill for some people, especially if they spend 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week in a lab. Participate in volunteering, get involved with Grad school activities, try to develop leadership and other relevant skills, such as management and being a team player. This will pay off when you are finishing Grad school and looking for a job. And finally, try to balance your life. Your graduate research is important but it should not be everything that your life is based on (what, there are other things besides science?). Yes, explore your hobbies, it’s healthy, especially when things don’t go well in the lab.

  3. Teacher on March 1, 2010 at 10:07 am

    Interesting, funny and recognizable. This site gives a survival guide :

    http://www.cs.unc.edu/~azuma/hitch4.html

  4. Nick on August 3, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    I met my (now) wife quite soon after starting my PhD and looking back it must have been quite a testing time for her, especially in my final year. There is no doubt that I was a better person to live with once I had submitted by thesis and all of that stress and preoccupation was removed.

    Unfortuately, a PhD is a rite of passage that you often just have to “get through” and the chronic stress of doing a PhD is far higher than anything you will have in the rest of your career.

    Personally, I would rather enjoy getting married and the early years of married life than just get through them so I would agree that it is best to get married afterwards.

  5. Suzanne on August 3, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    Not alone- just wait to get married. It’s not the career path that is stressful as much as the graduate school process. On top of working 12-16 hr days 7 days a week, you are broke too. Basically, the relationship becomes severly unbalanced and the non-science spouse ends up resenting the other. It takes a lot to keep it going. In an ideal world, the spouse would be a support network, but, unfortunately, 50% of marriages fail without the added stress of being broke and overworked so grad school is not the time to put your relationship to the test.

    In a job, your hours lessen and you are actually paid a living wage. So while a job is stressful, it doesn’t compare to the grad school years.
    When you have a job, you can have a life outside of work and that includes having the time for making another person happy.

    These tips come from personal experience. Other’s experiences are welcome. How did the marriages of your colleagues fair in grad school?

  6. Diana on August 1, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    I think #6. Don’t get married is ridiculous. So you are saying that grad students should be alone because their career path is stressful? What about if they continue in academia, they should also stay single as the job would still be stressful? A marriage should be a support network, your spouse should relieve your stress rather than magnify it and if that is not the case you shouldn’t get married. The bottom line in reality is that if your relationship can’t handle stress (chosen or unexpected) than you shouldn’t get married and that has nothing to do with whether you are in grad school or not.

  7. Rick on July 31, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    I like it! I appreciate the overall theme of communication in the piece. Working with people rather than against them makes life a lot easier! I certainly couldn’t do my thesis if I worked in a vacuum. I need chemists, geologists, geographers, and oceanographers to work with or I can’t form a good ecological story about my samples.

    My advice to students looking for a lab or trying to decide who to put on their committee is to get references from former students. An email sent to a couple of former students or postdocs asking about their experiences can be invaluable in the decision process. I know too many students whose lives have been miserable because of a bad adviser. A simple email could have prevented that.

  8. John Fitzparick on July 30, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Stephen Stearns of Yale has a similar set of recommendations. It’s priceless. My favorite? “Nobody cares about you.” It’s here: http://www.yale.edu/eeb/stearns/advice.htm

  9. John Mackay on July 29, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    Reagents were always a contentious issue. Things like Terrific broth getting contaminated. . .hmm. . .that was an “unopened bottle’. I re-named mine UFB broth. Their’s was terrific. .mine was ‘un-f’ing-believable’. The secret didn’t last that long and the rest of the lab soon called their’s UFB as well.

    I’d also add be willing to make up the communal stuff. Whether its dilute markers for everyone, make up the working TAE/TBE etc. Be a bit of the lab grease. . .

  10. Sean on July 29, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    This is a great article.

    Absolutely investigate your prospective PI to make sure s(he) is the one for you with respect to professional development and personal connection. I had the problem of having a great personal connection but dismal professional development. This is not a good combination. When the professional development was questionsed the personal connection was effectively destroyed.

    The thing that saved me was a great committee, my dedication to the department as a whole and a lot of hard work and patience.

  11. Suzanne on July 29, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    Thanks for all the great additions and comments.
    Chris- will keep your blog idea in mind.

    A couple friends sent me comments via email so I wanted to post the additional advice for our readers.

    “If I have to add one thing, it would be that you should make any collaboration your own. Never rely on your advisor as a go-between for any collaborative work you’re doing. People are much more willing to help other people that they are directly connected to.”

    and

    “Its great, not much to add really, you sum it up well!!, i suppose 2 things that stand out for me with students and when i was a student, chose a topic that you are really, really interested in, that will hold your attention for a long time, its easy to get sick of what your doing..and perhaps, read, read and read…i find a lot of studetns read the literature relevant to their work at the end when they are writing up, and not before they start, i hear a lot of “oh i wish i had known that earlier, or i i didnt know this technique etc..” etc.. but anyway, i think what you have is great, “

  12. Heather on July 29, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    Great blog! Everything is so right on. One thing I would add that made my graduate time easier was publishing my dissertation as I went along, so that when it came time to graduate there was less pressure to write the dissertation and turn the chapters into publications. Not all programs are supportive of this but my department was not only supportive they allowed me an option of putting my publications together as the chapters of my dissertation so there was limited writing. You also look good as you are looking for a post doc or industry job and you can move on from graduate school without the extra baggage of finishing manuscripts.

  13. Jess on July 29, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    This is quite interesting..as a senior grad student myself at Mayo Clinic. There are many great tips here also, I would include (1)asking senior students about the mentors you are deciding to do rotations with (they will be very honest to you!), (2) participate in school clubs, societies, etc. (this will help you meet other students), and finally (3) love what you do!! If you are interested in your research you will prosper and be motivated to go into the lab everyday.
    Adios,
    Jess (http://educationdiversityblog.mayo.edu/)

  14. Christopher Dieni on July 29, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Amazing article here Suzanne!
    I’d have to agree with what Roberto above me here said: get involved in what everyone else in the lab is doing. Throughout my Ph.D. I focused on only proteins, proteins, proteins, and not the whole nucleic acid side of the central dogma of biology. I wish I had gotten a bit more involved- heck, even getting a bit more experience with plain and simple PCR would make me feel more secure on that side of the spectrum.
    I’d like to add that for point #7, I’ve had mixed results. Sometimes, asking someone else can be a saving grace. At other times, not so much. A good addendum to #7, or maybe a #7a, if you will, would be to determine if your lab has a standardized protocol, or system of technical bulletins, that are proven to give surefire results every time… and THEN ask if you’re still having trouble with that proven protocol in turn. If your lab doesn’t have standardized protocols, it might be worth looking into setting up such a system over the course of your graduate studies.
    Simply from a point of interest, in regards to your #6, it seems like everyone back home in Canada would agree with you… but on this side of the border, the exact opposite would seem to hold true. I found it to be a really intruiging phenomenon when I first got here.
    I think a phenomenal follow-up to this article would be “Pointers for New Postdocs.” At times postdoctoral work can be a heavily gray area, and pointers from some that have (successfully) been through it, would be an awesome source of advice.

  15. Roberto on July 29, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Great work Suzanne!

    I would add – be interested and try to participate in everything your lab does, even if it’s not your “job”, and especially if it’s a “rare” technique your lab is very good at.
    I did my PhD in a cytogenetics lab; I’ve done a couple of months of FISH and karyotyping before starting with my molecular biology project, but I was required to be focused on mol.bio, and I obliged – now I really wish I had spent much more time doing FISH, because it’s a “rarer” technique on which my lab has very good experts – while knock on any door, and you can find someone who can do a ligation, so to say.

  16. Danielle on July 29, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    Do lab rotations and choose your lab carefully!
    The lab you choose and your PI will influence everything you do in grad school. If your not sure what you are looking for make a list of “must-have”, “wants”, and “never-want”. Think about how the PI motivates and communicates with the students. Do they motivate by negative reinforcement? If so is that a deal breaker? (Even if you love the other lab members and research?) How do you see yourself fitting in with the other lab members and how important is that to you? Are there older grad students or post-docs to assist you or will you have to look elsewhere for support? In my experience, choosing your lab will is the #1 most important decision you’ll make in scientific career. So make sure to think about these questions before you blindly jump in!

    PS Love Bitesize Bio! Tons of great info.

  17. Suzanne on July 29, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Thanks Dinesh!
    Let us know what else you would like us to write about.

  18. Dinesh Cyanam on July 29, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Ah. Right on time. I will be going to grad school next Fall and this will surely help me. Very informative article, Suzanne.

    And yes I have very recently discovered Bitesize Bio and its really a wonderful site and very informative.

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