Advice for the new grad student (archived from LabSpaces)

Dec 05 2010 Published by under academia

Originally posted 18 Aug 2010

Samia over at 49 percent had an awesome idea: the zomg grad school!!!1 carnival. I think that anyone getting ready to start grad school (or is considering applying) should read it.

I totally meant to write something. I was relieved when the deadline was pushed back. Still, I did not get my shit together. *sigh*

In my defense, it is hard work starting up a new lab.

Anyhoo, I have cracked open a beer and now I will put together my contribution. Background: I would love to take at least 1 and maybe 2 students this year. But only if they are good. 🙂

1. Act like you are a graduate student. You are not an undergrad anymore. The point of graduate school is NOT to learn answers (or earn "good" grades), but to learn how to ask questions. Realize that you DO NOT already know all the answers, and that you can learn a lot from the people around you. But also, sometimes there are no (known) answers. Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES must you argue over points/grades in your classes.

2. ASK QUESTIONS!!! There are no stupid questions. OK, maybe there are. But trust me, the only way you get better is by practicing. So get over it and ask some stupid questions. If you start paying attention, you will realize that a lot of questions can be categorized as "stupid". But people remember the good questions more than the others. Read papers and talk about them with your PI/labmates/fellow grads. Go to journal clubs and seminars, especially those "outside" your field. Listen to (and evalute) other people's questions. Ask your own. As a bonus, if you are engaged it will help keep you awake during seminar.

3. Learn to be critical. In a constructive way. Don't be the jackass (there is always at least one) that rips people/papers apart just to make themselves look smart. This never actually makes you look smart. Learn how to be constructive in your criticism. Find mentors that are constructive AND critical. It is nice to be told that you gave a great talk, but you learn more if someone tells you how it sucked.

4. Do all your rotations, participate enthusiastically and TRY NEW THINGS. Push your limits to find out what you are capable of. Everyone entering our program is required to do at least 3 rotations. Our program is really diverse, so if you do them all in the same field, that makes me think that you don't have much breadth of curiosity. I know that some people know think they know what they want to do when they show up. But try something new. You could be surprised. You could be more convinced that you were right all along. In both situations you will learn something about yourself AND how "science" works.

5. Don't work for a jackass. This is covered by many of the posts in Samia's carnival. I will just reiterate: realize that you are NOT special. If everyone in the lab is miserable, you will be, too. However, realize that after 3-4 years you SHOULD feel like you know as much or more about your project than your PI. This is different than being miserable.

6. Know what you want to get out of graduate school. I'm not saying you have to sign a contract or be inflexible, but many of the decisions that you make now, in your first year, will have an impact on future prospects. The lab and research project that you choose should be different if you want to go into teaching vs. industry vs. academia. Make sure that any prospective PI will be supportive no matter what your aspirations are.

7. You do not really understand what your PI's job is. This may be a little premature for new grad students. But someday you will feel like you PI was just some person in the office but YOU actually ran the project. You will tell people that you were "basically the PI". This may happen when you are a grad student or a postdoc. You will be wrong.

8. HAVE FUN! If you like what you do it will come through. Realize that there will be times that doing science will suck. It may be hard, and nothing will work. Don't get too high when things work, but don't get too down when they don't. Don't take shit personally.

9. Make friends with people in your grad program. They have seen, firsthand, what you are going though. Sometimes you need to sit at a bar and drink some beers and vent. These are the people that know what you are going through. and most importantly:

10. Don't be afraid to be wrong. Good luck!

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