Letter to My Younger Self: Advice for Graduate School

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

I’ve heard that experience is the best teacher, and grad school seems to be no exception. It became painfully obvious quite quickly that what I thought grad school would be like was far different than reality. Grad school has been so much more difficult than I anticipated, but I’ve also learned a great deal from it. For my last blog post, I’ve compiled a few pieces of advice that I’ve learned that I wish I had known before starting grad school.

Choose your mentor and lab wisely

This is most applicable to new graduate students. Most people spend anywhere from 4-7 years working on their Ph.D., so it’s important to make sure the lab you join is a good fit. You should be interested in the research, but you should also be able to work well within the lab environment. Lab rotations are a great way to get some exposure before officially joining a lab. In my program, each student is required to do at least three rotations in different labs before officially joining one. This afforded us a great opportunity to experience different research areas, mentors, and environments. During one rotation, the PI compared rotations to dating relationships. The goal is to experience the lab to help you decide if you want to commit to it. I highly recommend that you try out a lab before officially joining.

If your program doesn’t mandate rotations, try contacting a PI you’re interested in working with. Some PI’s will allow students to do short rotations or at least sit in the lab and get to know the members and the research. I ended up choosing my lab based on the personality of my mentor and the environment. Thankfully, I also found the research interesting. It doesn’t always work out so well. My advice is to take time to think about what you value. If the research area is most important, then you may be willing to work in a variety of environments. On the other hand, if the PI mentoring style or environment is most important, you may need to be flexible in your research area. Figure out what is most important to you and try to find the best mix.

Don’t take failure personally

At some point, you’re going to fail in the lab. Actually, at multiple points, you will fail in the lab. You may fail because you don’t fully understand an experiment, or because you made a silly mistake. Mistakes may mean you need to redesign an assay, use different controls, or the experiment is not an appropriate way to answer a question. Whatever the reason, the best advice I can give is don’t take the inevitable failures personally. They happen to everyone, and they’re not a reflection of your ability or potential. Failures are part of the learning process, and they have much to teach us. Wangui Mbuguiro recently wrote a great piece on this topic, which you can find here.

Be efficient, but not at the cost of making mistakes

Once you get in the groove of doing experiments, you’re going to want to be as efficient as possible. It’ll help you make the most out of your time and get the most work done. I’ve found that sometimes, as I try to get experiments done faster, I end up making some silly mistakes. I’ve put gel electrophoresis lids for Western blots on backward, completely missed adding necessary reagents to wells for multiple assays, and ruined sample preps by not moving a decimal point in the right direction. If I had slowed down and double checked some things, those incidents might not have happened.

You usually need need to repeat experiments to show reproducibility and consistency. Repeating experiments because of silly mistakes gets tiring, though. Try to strike a balance between being quick and being accurate. And if you must swing to one side or the other, err on the side of accuracy. My advice for being as efficient as possible is to plan ahead. At the end of the week, I’ll make a plan for the following week that includes what experiments I’m going to do each day. I’ll also plan in prep time for the experiments, so I have plenty of time to do dilution calculations and make sure I know how to run the experiment.

Remember your “why”

Grad school is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Sometimes, in the midst of struggles, it can be hard to remember why we’re doing something. Keeping your end goal in mind can help motivate you to stay the course. Whether it’s your dream job or a big research breakthrough, my advice is to remember what you want out of this experience. It’s also ok to have your “why” change. Grad school teaches you how to be a better scientist, but it also teaches you a lot about yourself and what you value. Your “why” may even become something that isn’t valued by traditional academia, and that’s ok too. The world needs people who are capable of thinking critically and making decisions based on available data, and this need extends outside of the traditional lab/academic setting.  

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