If you’re thinking about applying to graduate school, starting your PhD this fall, or are in the early years of your program, this post is especially for you.
The BMS Times asked current Biomedical Sciences graduate students and recent alumni, “Looking back, what do you wish you had known coming to graduate school? What advice would you give incoming or early stage graduate students?”
And here’s the advice we received, starting with the most recent members of our program:
For incoming students, I think being open minded and open to opportunity is very important. I would also highly recommend learning basic computer science skills as it opens up many more options. -1st year
Research is great, but also consider an advisor who can mentor you for your career, especially if it’s something outside of academia or even industry. Also, take care of yourself: take up hobbies, volunteer! Do something fun for yourself every week or so. Research is important, but it isn’t everything. -2nd year
I definitely wish I knew ahead of time that there was a steep learning curve and lot of feeling incompetent involved during the first and second year of grad school. I’m also a perfectionist by nature so I had a tough time adapting to repeated failures in lab. It’s important to recognize early on that “failing” is a natural process in science and is okay, as long as you’re thinking critically and actively trying to solve your problems. -2nd year
Try to pick a project that you absolutely love. A question you really want to answer, that is super interesting to you, will help keep you going when experiments fail and you need some motivation. Also make sure you have mentors (whether that be your PI, post-docs, or older grad students) and friends that can help you when you feel lost in your project/experiments. -3rd year
Before you join a lab, spend time talking with the current graduate students as well as the postdoctoral researchers. Ask questions! What kinds of projects will you be working on? Who in the lab will be available to mentor you directly when you first get started? What is the PI’s mentorship style? What do people do once they leave the lab? Open communication between you and your lab members, as well as your PI, is key for a positive PhD experience. -4th year
If you have any interest at all, learn some basic programming. If you decide to leave academia you will have more job options. If you stay in academia you’ll be better prepared for “big data” type analyses. -5th year
Ask for opinions on labs. If you’re getting a vibe in one direction, listen! Also, during your rotations, talk to the lab members and immerse yourself 110% in the lab to get the best feel. PIs might not interact with rotons as they would with their grad students, but if you develop relationships with labmates, you should be able to get honest opinions (and again, listen!). If something doesn’t feel right after a few months or a year in the lab, don’t push away those feelings. Talk to others about it. Making a change is nothing to be ashamed of! -6th year
Don’t be scared to demand help. You aren’t supposed to know everything yet! -Alum
1) Select an advisor based on their ability to be a good mentor, not for the flashy research they do. 2) Get a hobby outside of grad school; you need a break from thinking about research. 3) Make spending time with your significant other a priority. Anyone who sticks with you through your graduate education is a very special person indeed; cherish them! 4) Something unexpected will invariably happen (I was halfway through my Ph.D. and realized I didn’t like research after all). That’s okay. Don’t panic. Make a plan. -Alum
Fame is not as important as your education. Find somebody that you enjoy talking to and would enjoy working for. My bias is also to look for a collaborative spirit, to look for somebody at the heart of UCSD that will allow you to branch out within the vast collaborative network that this place encompasses. -Alum
It’s not surprising to hear that graduate school is no piece of cake, but it’s important to remember that there are many people who have done it before you, and will do it after you. Here at The BMS Times we hope you’ll find some of this insight useful and that you’ll continue to ask for (and soon provide!) advice well into the future.
…And if you’d like to share that advice through writing, drop us a line! We always love hearing from you.
-Samantha Jones, current editor of The BMS Times