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How To Fail In Grad School

Posted in: PhD Survival

Graduate school is a challenging experience for everyone. The hours are long, the pay is low, and the prize often seems unattainable. So how do you ensure that you get the most out of your years in grad school, and emerge on the other side ready to tackle an exciting new career? Here are a few things to avoid doing if you want to be a successful graduate student:

 1.      Don’t use the resources you have available. Your PI, your thesis committee, and senior members of your lab should be your go-to source of information and guidance.  My number one piece of advice to new graduate students is: ask for what you need!

 2.      Rely on others for your motivation. While you’re in classes, your schedule and priorities are dictated by the syllabus.  Your teachers will provide your motivation by ways of exams and class participation.  At the bench, however, it’s up to you to keep motivated towards the goals you’ve set for yourself, and retain your enthusiasm for what you’re doing without someone to prod you along.


 3.      Don’t set goals or make timelines. Another pitfall of being out of the class system is that there is no longer any objective means of self-evaluation.  Nobody is going to give you an “A” on a successful experiment, or give you make-up work if your experiments fail.  As you become more independent at the bench, you need to start setting goals for yourself and figuring out whether they’re reasonable and achievable.


 4.      Neglect your intellectual growth. Once you’ve gotten mired down in the endless repetitive experiments, it’s all too easy to stop educating yourself.  Finishing your project is the most important thing to do to graduate; but keeping up with current research and learning new techniques and technologies is what will make you a good scientist.  Try to balance your everyday work with regular infusions of new ideas to stretch your mind and abilities.


 5.      Forget the “bigger world” of science. Tunnel vision is a hazard that we can all fall prey to, especially in graduate school, when your eyes are on the prize of the degree.  But focusing too exclusively on your small niche in biology can isolate you rapidly from your colleagues, your department, and the rest of the scientific world.  When it comes to developing a career out of your work, you need to be able to understand your own research in the context of the entire field.  It’s also important to be able to communicate the significance and excitement of your work to scientists outside of your field.

What are your tips on how to make the most out of graduate school?

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1 Comment

  1. Jenn on October 31, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    I love the title of your post. Although I eventually received my PhD, I often feel that I “failed” grad school. I would suggest not forgetting that at some point, you need to get out. I’ve seen many people stay in graduate school for 7-8 years, mostly due to inertia. They started grad school with a particular project or goal and never deviated from that original goal even when the data suggested that they were barking up the wrong tree. (I include myself in this group.) It can be hard to know when you’re on the brink of solving a tough problem and when you just need to let it go or to look at a new angle or aspect of your project that you hadn’t considered.

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