Happy holidays readers! Sorry for the hiatus! Next year I will have to plan to write posts before all of the winter festivities. I hope finals went well, and that your break was full of rest and relaxation! Did you make a New Year's resolution? Normally I don't get into all of that, but this year, I actually had something in mind. This first semester of graduate school went by so fast that I didn't even realize I hadn't read anything non-scientific since the summer! :( So that's my goal: read 12 non-sciencey books in 2014! Guess what's on the list already... can't wait to read this! Okay..that's still kinda sciencey, but you get the idea.
As many people do around this time of year, I too looked back at all that happened in 2013. The first half of the year was spent deciding on which graduate program to attend. The second half, my first semester as a PhD student.
Here's 10 things I've learned about grad school so far:
1. Grades don't mean the same thing they did in undergrad.
You know that cushy A-F scale we've had...well...our entire lives? Throw it out the window. In order to stay in most graduate programs, you are required to maintain a B average. Two other things: the work is harder, and there's often very little homework. This means that the bulk of your points usually comes from exams. And there will probably only be 2-3 of them. It's not all bad though! Here's the important takeaway: the profs don't actually WANT to fail graduate students. I know, shocking. They need us too. :) I actually had a prof tell our class that the top half of the class were getting A's and the bottom half were getting B's (as long as everyone did the work). So don't stress out too much if you get your first exam back and it's a 70/100. More than likely, the rest of the class got the same thing.
2. But, classes are still a priority.
Just because professors are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt in grad school, it's only because you're now expected to go above and beyond. Classes are for your benefit! Also, many will tell you that your PhD is all about the research. This is true for the most part, BUT, there's a reason you are required to take classes to earn this degree, and there's a reason they want you to finish these classes in the first two years. Odds are, in the first semester, you won't have a graduate research adviser or even a research project yet. So, this is the perfect time to focus on building your background knowledge and start paving a path for what you want your original research to be.
3. You are never (okay, rarely) too busy to socialize.
It's too easy to get caught up in the conversation of how busy graduate school is. Sure, you work longer hours than a typical 9 to 5, but to be honest, the graduate student schedule is actually pretty flexible. Especially during your first semester. Except for having to be in the classes you're taking and/or teaching (as a TA), you plan the rest of your schedule. You plan when you need to catch up on homework, grading, or reading, and you plan when you need to be in lab working on your research. So, as long as you manage your time right, there is plenty of time to socialize. Plus, socializing in grad school usually means "networking" anyway. Whether it's meeting with faculty in your department after weekly seminar for coffee and cookies, or out with other grad students for a beer on the weekends, you almost always end up making a connection that will expand your professional network. So don't feel bad about taking a little time away from that mountain of journal articles on your desk! :)
4. Graduate school is not a competition.
As much as some tenure-track faculty and fellow grad students will try and make you believe, graduate school is not a race, or a contest to see who gets the most publications. Like I said before, it's all about (or, should be all about) you. Find a field of research that most interests you. Find an adviser that will best guide you. By the end of your PhD, you will be more of an expert on your research topic than anyone else, including your adviser. It's sometimes distracting to see your peers pumping out data and maybe even publications, but everyone's research path is different. Only you (with the help of your adviser) know if you're making true progress. And if you don't have an adviser after your first semester, don't worry! Just keep working at it. A mentor once told me, "At the end of each month, ask yourself, 'What have I done to advance my own PhD work?' to help you stay on track and focused." I have found this to be exceedingly helpful.
5. Advisers aren't as scary as you think. So, ask [LOTS of] questions!
As an undergrad, I remember hearing horror stories from my graduate student friends about how they just got reamed in a committee meeting, or how they were dreading the next meeting with their adviser because they didn't feel like they had accomplished anything new since the last one. I really started to believe that it was part of the adviser's job to yell at their students. Thankfully, this isn't entirely true. ;) Sure, advisers will want to make sure you're making progress with your research project, but most of all, they're training you to be an independent researcher. They will ask you the hard questions, put you on the spot in front of your peers, and will expect exceptional work throughout your entire graduate tenure. Sometimes, your adviser will come off as harsh or even mean, but if you keep reminding yourself "it's for my benefit," you'll come to appreciate their passion for wanting you to succeed. Bottom line, don't be afraid to ask them whole lots of questions, especially during your first year or two.
6. A graduate degree in the sciences = reading, writing, and speaking.
Let's face it, when we think about science, images of lab coats and goggles, computers and data logging, mathematical equations, and experiments come to mind, right? If you didn't learn it in undergrad, one thing grad school will teach you is that science actually revolves around reading, writing, and communicating your research. Hopefully you didn't sleep through English and Grammar in high school! The end product of a scientific experiment or project is to present your results at conferences and then publish those results in a peer-reviewed journal article. This means preparing a poster, or PowerPoint slides, and practicing presenting your data to multiple audiences with varying backgrounds. Then, you write, and rewrite, countless drafts of a manuscript until it is reviewed and deemed "publishable" in a scientific journal. If you want to get started early, I recommend starting here and here. Two of the best references I've come across thus far.
7. Coffee/tea and regular exercise are essential.
This one's simple. Unless you're one of those people that doesn't need much sleep, your routine will come to include caffeine or good ol' fashioned adrenaline pretty regularly. I've met people who run a quick lap around their building at 2 pm, do a round of a jumping jacks in their office, or even organize 20 minute, rooftop/balcony yoga sessions just to help them make it through a long day. It's not that graduate research is boring, or even tiring; it's the opposite really. To keep your brain focused and critically thinking for hours, days, weeks, or even months at a time, your body just needs a little help every now and then. No matter how hard you try though, there will always be that one seminar that you nod off in... :)
8. You don't know anything.
One of the best parts of pursuing a graduate degree in the sciences is the realization that everything is rarely "black or white" as the saying goes. The further you dig into a research question, the more complex it becomes, until each question is followed up by another and then another. Of course, this is frustrating and overwhelming at times, but it's one of the greatest lessons I've learned so far; it's okay to say "I don't know." Just make sure to follow that up with, "But, here's how I plan to find out." And, never stop asking "Why?"
9. Ask, and you shall receive.
If you never ask, how do you know what the answer will be? Take risks. Seek out challenges. And ask for what you want, not just what you need. Just because your adviser has a project she/he wants finished, doesn't mean you have to be the one to finish it. Ask to work on something else that interests you more. Your research group is going to one conference but you'd rather go to a different one (or both)? Ask for the necessary funding to go to both. Your family is taking a week long vacation and you would like to go? Ask if you can work weekends to make up the time you'll miss. If you have legitimate reasons for asking, rarely will your superior have legitimate reasons for saying "no."
10. There's more reading than you can ever prepare for.
In the first year of graduate school, your goal is to find a research topic and an adviser that can guide you along your path of independent research. Sure, meeting with people in your field of interest can give you some idea of where to go. And sure, your adviser will have some suggestions as to where you should start. But the only way you are going to independently find your own niche for scientific research is to read the literature and critically analyze the current state of knowledge. I think this is best explained with an infographic by a fellow blogger. Start with your broad review articles and then look at the citations to slowly work your way into more detailed articles that point to knowledge gaps in the field. The key here will be to find a knowledge gap that is doable within your 3-5 year time as a graduate student. This is hard. So ask the more senior grad students and post-docs in your lab, and your adviser, what they think about the scope of your project. I also recommend asking these same people how "risky" they think this project is. Where "negative data" is extremely important, it can be very frustrating to complete an entire PhD on what doesn't work.
Fellow first years, what have you learned so far??
1/20/2014 10:24:29 pm
While I'm still a ways away from being a grad student, this is super helpful! I love being able to get your perspective (and not a smoothed over one at that!)
1/21/2014 02:31:45 am
Hey Darian! I'm so glad it's helpful! I would love to hear from you on what you would like to know more about.
1/21/2014 01:59:35 pm
Neat! Makes me want to think about grad school.
1/22/2014 02:35:36 pm
Tennessee has some great graduate programs for talented individuals such as yourself... ;)
1/21/2014 04:19:20 pm
Keep the posts coming Mal!
1/22/2014 02:36:14 pm
Thanks for checkin' it out Omar! Let me know what you want to hear about next! :)
11/15/2015 08:06:34 am
We can't do anything without any interest. We should work on something else that interests you more. So believe in what you decided to do.
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Welcome to Think Like a Postdoc. If you're a fan of science as much as I am, and/or are curious about getting a degree in a STEM field, or pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate degree (all from the perspective of a graduate student), then you're in the right place. Think Like a Postdoc also includes posts about my current lab and field research, including analytical chemistry, Arctic biogeochemistry, and energy & environmental policy. Comments and questions are always welcomed. And please tell me what you want to hear about next!
Questions to Ask Before Choosing Grad Program
First Semester of Grad School
Field Work in Alaska
Science Conference Dos and Don'ts
Women in STEM Series
Things I've Learned in Grad School Series
Blogs I Follow
Mass Spectrometry Blog
The Grad Student Way
Anthony's Science Blog
The Thesis Whisperer
Fossils and Shit
Science Communication Breakdown
Science Communication Media
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