Advice to first year graduate students

 In for grad students, PhD/Postdoc Blog

New graduate students have just arrived on campus, and they’re starting the search for their perfect lab. Now that I am about to graduate, I thought I’d use my last BEST blog post to pass on all of the wisdom I have absorbed over these past five years. Here are a few tips that I gathered from my classmates on how to choose the right lab and survive your first year of graduate school.

The mentor is more important than the research.

Many incoming graduate students have very specific ideas about the type of research they want to do in graduate school. What some people don’t tell you though, is that finding the right mentor can be much more important than choosing any one specific type of research. Your PhD is the time to learn how to design and implement a good experiment, how to think critically about data, and how to communicate your findings. These skills can be honed while performing almost any type of research, but you will be much more successful if you have a good mentor to teach you those critical skills. Every student and mentor pair have their own style, so rotations are a good time to test the waters to find that perfect amount of interaction with your mentor. No matter how often you meet with your advisor, open and honest communication is key to a successful relationship.

Take full advantage of your rotations

Even if you think you’ve already found your perfect mentor, don’t skip or slack off in any rotations! Take the time to explore totally new areas of research that you never considered before. You’ll learn new skills, and build relationships with people you might not have met otherwise. And you never know, that random lab might end up being your perfect match! During each rotation, be sure that you get adequate time with your mentor to determine if their mentoring style is right for you.

Your classmates can be your best friends and your best scientific colleagues

Studying for first year courses and your qualifying exam can be pretty grueling. For me, it was essential that I had my friends and classmates by my side the whole time. From late night study sessions to holiday potlucks (and some nights out at the bars), my classmates were a huge support system throughout graduate school. In addition to the social aspect, your classmates will become your best scientific colleagues. Students from my program can join labs across nine different departments here at the School of Medicine. As a result, if there’s a new technique I want try out there’s a pretty good chance I know someone who is doing it. Likewise, I am my classmates’ resident expert on protein purification and I love troubleshooting with them over coffee.

If you have to switch labs, it’s not the end of the world

Students change labs for many reasons. Sometimes their mentor is moving to a new institution and the student doesn’t want to transfer. Other times, either the student or the mentor realizes that they are not a good match, and the student moves on. No matter the reason, if you have to join a new lab at any point in your graduate career, it is not the end of the world. The thought of starting over can be really daunting. After all, you’ve put years of work into your first lab, and the thought of throwing that all away can be overwhelming. The truth is, when you start in your new lab you’re not starting from scratch. You are probably much better at managing your time in lab, and you are (almost) done with most of your course requirements. This means that you’ll be much more productive and focused when you are in your new lab. Having the right mentor in your corner can make all the difference as well. No matter the cause of the switch, dive in to your new research with confidence!

Share your own tips for new graduate students by tweeting at me, @lscairns18!

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