Field of Science

What I wish I knew when I started grad school

For the zomg grad skool carnival!!!1 Samia wants to know:
What do you wish you'd known going in? What are you struggling with now? It'd be really awesome if people could address more than just the academic portion of graduate student life. How has the academic culture affected your navigation through multiple identities? Was there a culture shock involved? What kinds of psychological tolls has graduate school taken? What kinds of support systems have worked for you?

Here I'm going to attempt to answer her first question (and perhaps a few of the other ones, too) with a handy numbered list. I might address the other questions in a future post, but for now, here's my advice to new grad students.

1.) Go to every departmental social event. Every single one. This is important because you need to establish a support group with fellow graduate students both inside and outside your own lab. You also need to get to know the professors in your department apart from your own advisor, because you may be teaching for them some day, or you may need to decide who to include in your committee, or you may need to ask them to loan you a centrifuge. They may even GIVE you (well, your lab) that centrifuge when they retire. The more professors you're on a first name basis with, the better.

2.) Start writing as soon as possible. For example, my thesis project is complete, but I still haven't written my mandatory thesis proposal. Not only that, but I have a manuscript I've been sitting on for two years. Get it DONE. Everything you write your first couple of terms will be complete shit, but you can mine the shit later for the gems, which you can work into new drafts. Get as much of that done as soon as you can, because if you don't, you have no idea how much time you'll be spending on it later.

3.) Don't be afraid of your advisor. S/he is not out to get you. I used to be absolutely terrified of my advisor. Every time he wanted to talk to me, I would freak out. I thought I did something wrong, or he wasn't happy with my progress, or... I don't even know what. It was never the case. NEVER the case.

4.) When you start arguing with your advisor, it means you're maturing as a scientist.

5.) You will change your thesis topic three times. That's okay, it happens to everyone. It has happened to most of the people in my cohort and in my lab. It didn't happen to me, but that's because I'm special. :)

6.) Get to know the administrative staff in your department. Bring them cookies. They will make or break you when it comes to getting paperwork through for important things like ordering equipment or reagents, or approving travel funds. You want them on your good side.

7.) Figure out the neighborhoods where the undergrads live, and make sure you live far, far away from there. There are generally small, quiet neighborhoods a bit further away from campus where grad students live in peace, like real people, and not like barbarians.

8.) Even if you aren't required to, take a statistics class. I've taken at least one every term since I started, and I enjoyed it way more than I thought I ever would. You might be surprised.

9.) You will fuck up data. I repeat, you WILL fuck up data. You'll also break some expensive piece of equipment. That isn't the end of the world. And when you do, I don't recommend trying to work with that piece of broken equipment while hiding the fact that it's broken from everyone in your lab for several months... Not that I did that... (What, it was still FUNCTIONAL!)

10.) One of the most important factors to consider when choosing a lab is social fit. That seems stupid, but it really is. It goes back to the support group thing.

11.) Go to seminar. I know, I know, I just made a whole post the other day about how I never go to seminar, but really. Do as I say, not as I do. If your university is like mine, the grad students get to have lunch with the seminar speakers afterwards, and it is a great way to build connections in your field beyond your home department (assuming your department invites speakers who are actually in YOUR field more than a few times a year, unlike mine... *grumble*).

12.) Don't take it personally when your students don't care as much as you do. Don't take it personally when you get negative or conflicting student evals. Don't let teaching suck up a majority of your time, because it is a way to pay the bills, but it isn't what you're there for.

13.) Get a pet, especially if you're moving far away from everyone you know and love. Having something warm and cuddly waiting for you at home makes things better in so many intangible ways.

14.) Impostor syndrome is real, and horrible to deal with. I don't know how to help you with this one, but knowing that you're not the only one who feels that way can help a little bit.


  1. These are really really good advices. A big Like and thumb up if this were facebook ;)

  2. [...] July 29, 2010 tags: blog carnival, personal stuff, women in science by EcoPhysioMichelle I have blogged before on the transition into grad school and my progress in the past year, but this month’s [...]

  3. 6.) Get to know the administrative staff in your department. Bring them cookies. They will make or break you when it comes to getting paperwork through for important things like ordering equipment or reagents, or approving travel funds. You want them on your good side.

    A-fucking-men. Seriously. Love on your administrative staff. Be nice to them. Do your paperwork right or ask if you don't know how. They can make your life easy...or they can make your life hell.


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