Hang in There, Baby: Surviving Graduate School

Just before beginning my graduate studies, my supervisor asked me, "Are you certain you want to get a Ph.D.?" It wasn't until several years later that I understood why she asked. Graduate school is a major commitment, which will affect your life profoundly and should not be undertaken lightly. Yet, at the same time, graduate school can be very exciting, a period of personal growth and self-fulfillment, filled with new experiences and new challenges. Hard work, commitment, perseverance, patience, and most of all, desire are the key ingredients for succeeding in graduate school. Unlike undergraduate studies where everything is well defined, graduate school does not provide course outlines or end-of-semester deadlines. If you're just beginning or contemplating the pursuit of a Ph.D., you may appreciate my personal thoughts on how to survive and enjoy graduate school.

All successful scientists possess two sets of skills: technical skills that allow them to obtain results and nontechnical skills that help them survive and succeed. Graduate students must develop both sets of skills as early as possible. The technical skill set is acquired through practice and includes a range of techniques encountered throughout graduate school.

However, these technical skills, usually described as "good lab techniques," are not sufficient for success in graduate school. Students must acquire some nontechnical skills such as organizational, analytical, and problem-solving skills. In addition, it's very important to have strong oral and written communication skills in order to communicate your findings.

Other nontechnical skills include the ability to design an original research plan that will lend direction to your project, an essential step of your graduate career that allows you to remain focused on your goals and on the experiments you need to do to finish your thesis. It's very tempting to try a new experiment because you or your supervisor has a wonderful idea that you think is sure to work. But unless these experiments are directly related to your project, at the end of a couple of years, you'll find yourself with a lot of interesting results but few completed projects.

Finally, one of the most difficult skills to acquire (and most important of all) is the skill of "managing your own expectations," and accepting that many experiments won't work. It's important to recognize the limitations of your experiments while recognizing your own strengths. While fatigue and distraction may account for some failed experiments, others may be more difficult to solve and will require some careful analysis.

But graduate school is much more than doing experiments. You'll also be expected to remain knowledgeable of advances outside your immediate field of study (i.e., reading about cell biology if you work on transcription), which will permit you to round out your education. It may also provide you with a different perspective on your own project, leading to new ideas and approaches.

Graduate school is also about networking--it's important to speak with as many people as you can in order to devise a plan to successfully complete your experiment. This involves talking to your fellow researchers, as well as professors and visiting scientists. Often, there are some tricks which can help, and these are usually passed on by word of mouth. Through careful assessment of your experimental design, by speaking with others, and with some perseverance, you should be able to obtain a result. Remember that it's important to remain self-confident and perseverant at times when nothing seems to be working as things will eventually turn around (believe it or not). If you're too quick to blame yourself, you'll keep struggling with the problem, only to watch yourself become more and more frustrated and you may eventually give up. Developing this last skill takes time and effort, but it does get easier as you progress through graduate school.

As I reflect upon the last few years of my life spent in graduate school, I rarely think about the long hours spent in the lab or the failed experiments. Instead, I appreciate the challenges that I've overcome. In addition, I now appreciate a Ph.D. not only for its scientific training but also for the development of a number of transferable skills that will help one succeed in life even if one chooses to leave the bench. If I had to start again, I wouldn't change anything except appreciate that not all things in life come easy. I encourage everyone to use their negative experiences to their benefit by learning how to improve their next experiment. Should you remember one thing from my own experiences, let it be that you need to persevere and believe in yourself if you wish to succeed in accomplishing your goals.

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