Sunday, December 2, 2012

My Laser Boyfriend's Grad School Survival Guide: How to make the most of the worst* four to seven years of your life

* not actually the worst although sometimes it can feel that way.

“Knowing What I Know Now” 

Surviving grad school was the hardest yet most rewarding thing I've ever done. I pushed myself harder than I ever imagined and experienced some of my lowest lows, but I also had some amazing opportunities, learned a lot, and grew more confident as a scientist and researcher. I also drank. A lot.

Although I had to endure what felt like utter misery at times to get where I am now, going to grad school was still the best decision I ever made.

This fall, my research group took on several new grad students. Seeing them with that "I have no idea what's going on" look on their faces makes me remember how hard it was to come to grad school, not knowing what to expect, and feeling very overwhelmed and out of place.

Since I noticed other science bloggers writing advice for those at younger stages in their career, and I'm at a point in my career that I have some to give, I thought I'd compile some tips of my own for those embarking on an advanced degree in STEM.

Prepare to feel stupid (again). 
Remember the end of high school when you thought you were so smart for getting into college, but then you actually GOT to college and realized EVERYONE was smart, and you had to work your ass off just to stay slightly ahead of the curve? Yeah. Grad school is going to be a lot more of that. But worse.

For me, that first year of graduate coursework was brutal. 

It's good to keep in mind everyone in your graduate program comes from different backgrounds and has different abilities, so don't feel down on yourself if you're not as strong in some areas. (See section on "Impostor syndrome..." below).  This can be especially difficult of you switched majors between undergrad to grad school.

If the graduate coursework is slowing you down, consider take a few undergrad-level classes to refresh on prerequisites. Also form study groups (see section on "Making friends.." below). Also realize that once you're into the Ph.D. program, your actual GPA may not matter as much as it did in undergrad, although this may depend on your department. Often, the publishing and research aspect of your graduate degree is much more important.

When you join a research group it's easy to feel overwhelmed if you don't have hands-on experience. This can be totally OK as long as you're up-front about your abilities and get properly trained. See section on finding a lab mentor below.

Know what you're getting into.
This is basically impossible, but try. Talk to as many people and do as much background research on the department and research group as you can. Do NOT depend on their website for information on current projects or even current group members-- they are often horribly out of date.

Visit the campus, meet with your potential PI one-on-one to discuss possible research projects and funding opportunities, but also ask to get a lab tour from a postdoc or current grad student, then pick their brain for more details. Ask questions like: what's the reputation of this PI compared to others in the department; how involved is the PI in the goings-on in lab; how is the group hierarchy organized; who provides training to new students; what are the expectations of group members in terms of balancing classwork, lab-work, and publishing papers; are there weekly meetings; will you get to travel to conferences, etc.

Know what will or will not work for you. 
...especially in terms of your potential research group and how it operates.

Be aware of how much direction you need and how much you should expect to get. My PI was very hands-off.  I've seen independent, self-motivated students work hard and be very successful with little input, while many other students flounder without consistent feedback and encouragement and end up wasting a lot of time being unhappy and unproductive. On the other hand, I've known other PIs who are overly demanding and constantly meddle, so students who prefer to work independently and at their own pace do not do well under those conditions either.

The grad school lifestyle varies depending on school, department, and especially the PI in charge. If you're older, married, have a family and can't work weekends for example, make that known up-front.

Make friends with other new grad students right away. 
Form study groups with classmates to get through impossible homework sets together. You will naturally bond over the shared experiences of painful grad classes and the awkwardness of being the new kid in your research group. There's a good chance most of you moved from far away and won't have a social group yet, so it can be fun to organize group outings to see more of the town, even if (especially if) this mostly entails beer.

Over the course of your grad career you may eventually lose touch with your friends from your first year, especially if they work in a different lab as you, but they may come in handy down the road when you need to borrow some lab equipment or need advice on something they're expert on. Networking works!

Find a lab mentor ASAP. 
When you first join a research lab, you won't know how to do anything. That's okay. That's expected. Your job in the beginning is to learn and ask questions. You may need to turn to an older grad student, postdoc, or project scientist for advice and specific training. Some groups are better at coordinating this than others, so ask around.

Don't be discouraged if senior grad students don't have much time to give you, especially if they're close to graduating. If you can't find one person, try to reach out to several at once.

Believe me, you will need to earn the trust of the senior researchers in your group. Definitely get on their good side. Make appointments with them, show up on time, ask a lot of questions and write everything down, especially when they train you on equipment. The quicker you learn, and the more effective you are at completing tasks they give you, the sooner you'll get a good project. Your PI trusts these guys, and believe me that they can determine your fate. I've seen it happen.

Be nice to the lab techs and engineers.
They may not have a Ph.D. behind their name, but they have been there longer than you, and know more than you will ever know about the equipment and how things operate. The lab would not run if it weren't for them, so always do what they say.

If you break something, which you will, or have a problem in the lab, which you will, report it right away. Then thank them for fixing it. The more respectful you are to the technicians, the more helpful they may be in the future when you encounter another problem. They can also be a great source of gossip and hilarious stories of other grad students doing dumb things in the lab.

And you know what? Being friendly with technicians is a really important skill to have if you ever get a job in the real world. Because these are the guys you'll be working with every day in industry.

Don't let the grunt work drag you down. 
Thomas Edison said: "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration." A good research project will not necessarily fall in your lap and you may need to earn your stripes doing some bitch work for a while. Be patient. This is how things work in grad school.

Patience is definitely an important virtue. Even when you have your own project, parts of it will be slow and painful and you'll start wondering if this what you really want out of life. Relax. This is science. Sometimes it is boring and soul-sucking, but it will not be like that forever. (See section "Keep Your Eye On The Prize," below) 

Impostor syndrome is a real thing.
There may be times when you feel overwhelmed and that you don't belong. Most people go through this at some point or another. What separates the women from the girls is finding a way to be self-motivated even when every fiber of your being wants to give up.

I often think of Woody Allen quote: "80 percent of success is showing up." When it gets hard, call mom, have a good cry if you need it, but then suck it up and keep going. Sometimes you might feel like you have to work a little harder to keep up with everyone else, and if that's the case, do it. Do it like you have something to prove.

It's important to remember that you were smart enough to get into grad school, you deserve to be here. Besides, no one said it would be easy. If grad school was easy, they wouldn't call us a doctor afterwards. Right?

Learn to budget your time. 
Find a way to manage your schedule. I use Google calendar and have separate calendars for different purposes, even a shared group calendar for meetings and seminars I share with members of my lab. I was so busy by the end of my grad program that I'd forget to make time for lunch if I didn't specifically schedule it in. I rely on my calendar for my daily to-do list because I found I'm more likely to remember to do something if it's in my calendar, even small stuff like "email back collaborator" or "submit purchase order."

Be organized and consistent. 
Come up with a system for naming and storing samples, lab notebooks, and data files, and stick with it. Consistency is key here. If you have a good organization system, it will be no problem find a sample or data quickly. For me it became really useful when I was writing a paper or my dissertation and had to dig up old data to replot or old samples to remeasure.  It was also useful when a younger student or collaborator had a use for some samples I previously thought were worthless.

I learned some lessons the hard way. Every time I got lazy and made a short nickname for a sample instead of using the full sample name, I'd end up regretting it later when I needed to look up the data or find the sample again. Every time I was too busy to file samples away properly and let them pile up on my desk, I'd be totally overwhelmed with the task later. If I didn't type up what I had done in the lab, such as some data I took, I'd forget it even happened.

Write down everything. Take detailed notes in your lab notebook and then transcribe them into a spreadsheet on your computer afterward. This sounds ridiculous but you won't believe how much data piles up over the course of a few years.

Put some effort in the beginning to makes things easier for yourself.

Keep an outline of your dissertation on a file somewhere.
In the beginning you may only have a vague idea of what the title will be. Fill that in first. Check back every few months. Add background information. When your research project becomes better defined, you will be able to add chapter titles, and then subsections. It is a good way to track your progress and can eventually serve as a to-do list. This is also useful when your research project is at a stand-still and you need busy work.

Keep an updated CV/resume on a file somewhere.
This is satisfying to update every time you publish or co-author papers, or present at a conference. It's also fun to work on whenever you're feeling completely disillusioned by grad school and day-dream about getting a real job.  :)

Back up your computer. 
Use online storage like Google Drive or Dropbox in addition to an external harddrive that does automated backups. Seriously. You can not afford to lose that shit. Also, get a good anti-virus software and make sure it's up to date. Our lab computers are always infected with some weird virus transmitted through flash thumb drives, so I'm super careful about running automated scans on my stuff. You can never be too careful.

I speak from some experience here, as I lost my entire harddrive due to a nasty virus during my second year of research. It put me back a whole month. 

If you see something that needs fixing, fix it. 
Sometimes it's up to a grad student to step up and volunteer to update the contact information on the group website, or form a journal club, or decide to clean the lab. Be proactive. Don't be one of those guys who sits around and complains about the state of things but never does anything about it. Nobody likes that guy. If something bothers you, change it. If you can't do it yourself, find someone who will. Sometimes being a productive researcher is knowing the right people to talk to in order to get things done.

Grad school has its ups and downs, make the most of it.
Research is especially up and down. If you're in a lull period or otherwise being completely unproductive in the lab, use the opportunity to catch up on journal reading or cleaning your desk. Or, fuck it, just go home and use your time to do something useful there like grocery shopping or laundry. Catch up on life stuff. When you're in a major crunch period and pulling long hours, which will happen, you won't have time for life stuff. Go to the store and stock up on soup and trail mix for those times you get sucked into studying, writing, or lab-work and don't have time to go shopping.

Know your limits, mentally and physically.
It's easy to lose touch with the most basic needs when you're busy and under a lot of pressure. It's important to stay productive when you need to be, so do everything possible to foster an environment that helps you towards this goal. Know yourself. If you get easily cold, keep a sweater in the lab. If you're irritable when you're hungry, keep snacks in your desk drawer. If you're sleepy and unmotivated, go grab a coffee. If you're stressed and antsy, take a break and go for a walk, or take up a soothing hobby like knitting. If you need 9 hours of sleep every night and exercise every day, make time for that.

If you're overwhelmed, anxious or depressed and it's affecting your work, consider counseling. Many schools have mental health services filled with people whose job is to offer helpful advice when you're going through a stressful period. I've been to counseling off and on during grad school and it helped a lot (a bad break-up; preparing for, failing, then preparing again for my Ph.D. entrance exams...). It's not an admission of failure to seek help, it's being proactive. 

Side-note: I've found not all therapy techniques are useful. I've gained a lot from cognitive behavioral approach, which suggests that negative feelings of anxiety and depression are related and stem from negative self-talk and distorted thinking. I learned a lot from examples and exercises in the Feeling Good Handbook by Dr. David Burns. (Sorry to sound like an advert, this just worked for me!)

Don't compare yourself to others.
Don't compare yourself to the golden-boy grad student who manages to crank out way more papers than everyone else, and especially not those friends of yours who got a great job after undergrad, are earning tons more money, getting married and having babies. Whenever you compare yourself to others, especially those buying BMWs and posting pictures of it on Facebook, you will feel depressed and it will seem like you're wasting your life inside a research lab.

Don't lose your sense of self in the bubble of grad school. Trust me, there's nothing like graduate school to make smart, motivated people feel stupid and lazy. From the outside, you're doing great things. Make some non-grad student friends or consider getting involved in outreach opportunities in the community to help you gain perspective.

Keep your eye on the prize. 
Don't forget the whole point of grad school is to graduate. If you feel you're not making progress towards this goal, take a step back and assess the situation. If you feel helpless, realize it's okay to ask for help. You shouldn't be expected to be a perfect scientist, you are here to learn to become one.

Are you stuck? Is your stuff simply not working? Are you waiting on something completely outside of your control that's preventing you from making progress and it's taking so long that you're going out of your mind with boredom? Maybe you need to back up and approach it in a new way. Talk to your advisor about starting a side project or collaborating with someone new.

Did you get wrapped up in a side project that's been distracting you for too long and you aren't making any progress on your main project? Figure out a way to put it on the back burner or delegate it to someone else so you can focus your energy on more important things.

Be nice to the first year grad students. 
Mentor them. Advise them. Train them. Take advantage of their naiveté and give them some of your busy work. Remember your first year as a grad student , and how happy you were to finally do something on your own in lab? Don't think that spending time training others is a huge inconvenience, they may end up being really helpful. Don't pity them, either. It's the circle of life. Grad school life. (Whatever that means!)


  1. This is a really great comprehensive post! I was super glad I did research in undergrad so I could learn some of these the hard way *before* getting to grad school - if only I had known about the internet then! ;-)

  2. Great article! I am >15 years out of graduate school and an associate professor now. I completely agree with you.

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  4. Cannot over state the importance of been nice to the support staff (techs and engineers) they have the power to make your life much easier.

    I've been a tech and a grad student. As a tech when one of the nice, friendly grad students came running into our office as I was putting my coat on to go home begging for a favour because he had forgotten to do something important for an experiment but had to be in a seminar in ten minutes. I took my coat off and did it for him as a favour.
    A rude researcher came in quarter of an hour after the deadline for afternoon work and nope, sorry couldn't help him but we could put it on the books for the next day or next week.

    As a grad student I was very nice to our techs and was eventually given free run of their store room.

    Summary, it really does pay to say hello and how are you and generally be nice to the techs


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