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Transitioning From Undergraduate to Graduate School

Today, I am a third-year graduate student, so I cannot presume to tell you how to successfully complete a Ph.D., but I can give a little insight into the transition from undergraduate to graduate school.

As an undergraduate student at Utah State University, I felt that I had everything under control. I was successfully completing my courses, had established a local support system, and was sure that I was well on my way to becoming a research scientist. The next step was to prepare for graduate school. But at this point I realized I had run into a stumbling block: I had to find an answer to the question "What is Graduate School?" If I didn't know what to expect from the next step in higher education, how was I going to be prepared to succeed?

Unfortunately, I was the first of my family to get through college, so I was unable to look to my family for advice in the arena of higher education. I'd had limited interaction with graduate students, and therefore, was unable to get much information directly from those who would be my peers. So, I decided to do an extensive literature search, to determine which graduate programs would offer the best opportunities in the fields of computation, biology, and engineering. This search involved reading articles about research of interest being conducted at various facilities, evaluating numerous "top ten schools" lists, and flipping through tons of university catalogs. Eventually, I chose a number of programs ... a few "dream schools," and a few practical choices.

The application process for graduate school was much like that for admittance to undergraduate programs. The big difference was the interview process. For the first time in my experience, my personality was going to be a determining factor in my educational progress. I was uncomfortable with that idea at first, but the key is to be natural, while maintaining a sense of professionalism.

I was accepted to my first choice: Baylor College of Medicine's (BCM's) Structural and Computational Biology and Molecular Biophysics (SCBMB) graduate program. Now it was time to actually make the transition!

Besides the move to a new city, there were a few adjustments that I knew I would need to make in the intervening months. The fact that I was one of the few ethnic minorities at BCM, as well as the only woman actively participating as a graduate student in my program, meant that I was unique. I was able to use this to my advantage. I was more easily recognizable to my professors, which also meant that I was held more accountable for my presence, or lack thereof, than others. This allowed me to feel more comfortable approaching professors and advisors, because they were more apt to remember who I was. By utilizing resources, including. professors, study groups, and review sessions, I was able to complete my first year of courses. I had made a successful transition from a 4-year college to graduate school!

Since then--and, in fact, throughout my 3 years of graduate training--I have picked up some useful information that has helped me adapt to the world of graduate school:

The glory of research is being the first and only person to know something at a particular point in time. The graduate student is the person who does the experiment, and therefore, is the first person to report the results. There is a certain satisfaction in knowing that newly discovered scientific facts are hinging on your experimental results.

Ph.D. training is just training. Although a few graduate students are blessed with the opportunity, skill, and luck to make phenomenal discoveries in their graduate career, the majority of us are just learning to think independently as scientists. Graduate school is an opportunity to learn how to test theory and apply technique.

The ability to network is more valuable in graduate training than could be imagined. Building a good rapport with peers, technicians, advisors, and professors is invaluable. You should never underestimate the usefulness of any connection. Your advisors are those who will help you establish collaborations with others who are well established in their field. Your peers will be the very people with whom you will collaborate in years to come. Although senior students can be helpful most of the time, technicians have been in the lab long enough to have a good idea of how things work and the most efficient way to get things done.

Learning to deal with failure is the definitive characteristic of a successful graduate student. When in the realm of research, disproving a hypothesis is just as valuable as proving one. Either way, significant information has been revealed.

And most important ...

Revisit the source of your passion. Remember the inspiration that drove you to embark on this path. As long as you continue to do what makes you happy, you will always be a success.