The Unwritten Rules of Graduate School

Each graduate school has its own set of criteria and expectations for their graduate students. Having just recently completed my second year, I realize that in addition to the formal rules there are also informal unwritten rules or expectations that are critical to having a great graduate experience. I don't claim to have a definitive list, but the rules that follow reflect my experience thus far in graduate school.

My primary responsibility as an undergraduate at Iowa State University was to take classes and earn good grades. The rules and expectations were clear and familiar to every undergraduate on campus. However, when I left Iowa State and started graduate school at Cornell University, I was shocked by how unstructured graduate school is compared to my undergraduate experience. Upon my acceptance at Cornell in the plant biology graduate program, I received a copy of the program rules and expectations. I would have to take classes and would be required to do a minimum of three lab rotations to familiarize myself with the faculty and the research going on in the department. At some point I would have to take and pass a preliminary examination, and finally I would need to write and defend a dissertation.

Research Verses Coursework

The first rule is that in graduate school research is the top priority. Given that, how much time should I commit to my classes versus my research? I'm sure that every graduate student has struggled with this question at the beginning. Undoubtedly, when you first start a graduate program you will have to spend time in classes. However, at some point you?ll need to make a transition to focus on your research. Active involvement in research helps you develop the technical and critical thinking skills you?ll need on the way to becoming a good graduate student and scientist. Lastly, your involvement in research, no matter how small it starts out, makes it easier for you to participate in discussions with your fellow graduate students and professors.

Reading the Scientific Literature

The second rule, which is intimately related to the first, is that selective reading of the literature is mandatory. The key is to read the important articles that are germane to your research. Survey the literature within reason; this should keep you up to date at meetings and among colleagues. Don't go overboard with the readings, because no one can ever really know all there is to know. This is not to excuse scholarly excellence, but if you are at your desk buried in papers you won't have time to be at the bench doing research.

Attending Conferences

Rule number three is to attend conferences and seminars. Although this may sound trivial it is really important. Attendance at conferences allows you to market yourself and network with others. However, it will also give you insight on where your field is moving. Seminars are important because they often give you up-to-date information and allow you to see what problems your colleagues are working on. They?re great networking opportunities, too: For example, an invited seminar speaker might one day become your postdoc PI.

Networking With Peers

The last rule is to socialize with other graduate students. When I first started graduate school, I was the only minority in my program, and when I wasn't in lab or in class I was reluctant to hang out with some of the other graduate students. However, I now realize that socializing with other graduate students is an important part of networking and becoming part of the scientific community. Your fellow graduate students are useful resources. They can share with you their experiences and can help you overcome problems you may have in the lab. Graduate school can be much smoother and enjoyable if you can share your experiences with others. Additionally, your fellow graduate students may one day be collaborators and it is much easier to collaborate with someone you already know than a stranger.

To overcome the isolation of being the only minority, I became active with a campus organization for minority graduate students--Graduate Students of Color in Science. We meet regularly to share experiences, give practice presentations, and talk with minority faculty about being a minority in graduate school. The knowledge and fellowship gained from interacting with my fellow graduate students has been a real benefit to my graduate experience.

Graduate school can be a great experience. Although it is an inherently less structured system than the typical undergraduate experience, there are rules that can help you have an enjoyable and successful graduate school career.

Mr. Charles Stewart is currently pursuing his graduate degree in plant biology at Cornell University. For further information, please send Charles e-mail at You might also want to check out Next Wave?s ongoing series by Micella Phoenix deWhyse, a first-year graduate student in materials science

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