Transitioning to Graduate School

By Jane Naberhuis

UMD professor with students.

Congratulations to those who have accepted positions to attend graduate school in the fall! As future graduate students, you have already successfully navigated the transition from high school to college. The transition from college to graduate school will likely be a similar experience. The ease of your transition depends on many factors, such as whether you’re switching institutions or moving across the country. I want to share a few thoughts on things I wish I had known during my transition to graduate school in order to help make your transition a smooth and successful one.

First of all, recognize the need to be self-motivated in your studies, but also be aware of when you may need help or guidance. It will quickly become apparent that graduate education is far less about completing a series of tasks that are nicely laid out for you (think: completing required courses and maybe an undergraduate research project or two) and much more about asking and striving to answer very open-ended research questions. Take control of your work and make your time in graduate school as productive as possible.

Of course, being self-motivated will come much easier if you love what you do. Enthusiasm for your area of study and research will make it infinitely easier to be persistent when you cannot get that assay to work quite right (for the fourth time) or you really do not want to wake up for a 4:00 am time point. Try not to think of graduate school as merely a means to an end. Rather, think of it as an opportunity to begin to establish yourself as an expert in your field of study. Your research is something you will know intimately and it should be something you are excited to talk about, share with others, and apply in meaningful ways.

Although graduate school is more than simply a step in forming your career, it is important to consider your career goals as you make the transition to graduate school. Seek out opportunities to teach or hold an internship early on in your graduate studies. Also seek quality mentors in addition to your advisor. Keep your resume/CV updated and regularly evaluate it for ways in which you could expand your skill-set.

Finally, learn to be an expert communicator and expand your professional network. Learning to communicate effectively is key and will prove helpful when it comes time to “promote yourself” during a job interview, when articulating the importance of your project to potential funding agencies, and in being able to explain just what it is you do to your relatives during the holidays. Make ASBMB and other relevant professional organizations a part of your transition. Do not forget that science is social. Balancing work and life is important, and so is being a part of the larger science community. It’s possible that your best ideas will come to you while taking a coffee break with a colleague.

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