By Kelly Hallstrom, University of Massachusetts Medical School
Dear newbie graduate students,
To all of you about to start on the exciting, confusing, rollercoaster-of-emotions path of graduate school, I’d like to share some advice and lessons I’ve learned (and am still learning!) during my own experience as a graduate student in biological sciences.
Own your project
Graduate school is going to be vastly different from your undergraduate experiences. As an undergrad, you most likely helped out on another person’s project, running a few PCRs here, taking population samples there. You were a helper of sorts, learning a little of this and that as you went along. It was a great opportunity to get your feet wet in research. If you worked in a lab after your undergraduate studies, you probably had more responsibilities but most likely were still an assistant to someone else.
As a graduate student, however, you transition from being a helper to having ownership over an entire project. This situation was new to me. I inherited my project from a postdoc, and it took some time for me to stop thinking about my work as what I needed to do to finish this project he started and start thinking everything from this point forward was my project.
This ownership is exciting. Your ideas, perhaps for the first time in your research experience, are given weight and consideration. You are involved in the decisions of which experiments to do and which to shelve perhaps for later.
This responsibility also can be daunting at times. You are in charge of understanding the how and why of every step, technique and experiment. You are expected to know the state of the art of the field surrounding your project, to remain up to date on new relevant findings and to contribute new ideas.
It might take a little time fully to embrace this new responsibility. Don’t be afraid of it, though. Instead, learn from it. Become the expert. Own your project.
Swallow your pride
You’ve been warned: You are going to be criticized. A lot.
When you give presentations at department seminars or at conferences or meet with your thesis committee, your approaches and conclusions are going to be targets for questioning and criticism. But this is part of science. Science is constantly self-checking and self-correcting. That can’t happen without criticism.
As much as you may think you’re doing everything right, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision and to forget to approach your work from different perspectives. This may cause you to miss an alternative explanation or key experiment. Without those people in the crowd to point out your errors, your work (and the science behind it) can’t improve.
Most people who will criticize you are going to do it from a place of well-meaning – with the goal of helping you and your work to progress in the right direction. Always be open to considering what those people have to say.
Explore all career options
Though you may enter graduate school with a clear plan of what career lies ahead for you, be open to that plan changing a little or a lot. It is not uncommon for people to enter graduate school with the goal of becoming an academic researcher or executive of a biotech company and realize halfway through that those career paths are not right for them after all.
That is OK, and that’s why it’s good to explore as many career options as possible while you are still a student. Do your homework, and find out what career-development opportunities your school provides and take advantage of them. On the flip side, don’t feel limited by the opportunities for growth available at your school. You may have to seek out volunteering or networking opportunities beyond your campus.
For example, if you decide during your graduate studies that you’d like to teach but your school offers few ways to gain teaching experience, contact nearby schools. In short, no matter what your reason for choosing to enter graduate school, continue to explore all of your interests.
Live your life
Finally, I urge you to remember to have a life outside of the lab. Becoming engrossed in your project is important (own it!), but you don’t want to live in a vacuum and cut off all social down time.
Breaks are important for allowing your brain to rest. Often, time away from the lab brings you out of the tunnel for long enough that when you return to work you spot issues you otherwise wouldn’t have noticed.
Aside from giving you and your brain a break, having outside interests ensures that your life in general doesn’t stop just because you’re in graduate school. I know people who have lamented over “wasting their youth” in graduate school while their friends’ lives progressed into promotions, marriages and other accomplishments and milestones.
Just because you’re in graduate school doesn’t mean the rest of your life has to stop. In fact, it’s the other parts of your life that often will save your sanity when lab life is giving you trouble. So go on dates, go to hockey games (go Bruins!), have karaoke nights – do whatever it is you have to do to stay connected to the outside world.
In closing, graduate school is your opportunity to hone your skills as you transition from a classroom student to an independent researcher. This time marks the start of you shaping your unique career path, and it is a time of immense professional and personal growth.
Learn as much as you can, and enjoy the ride!