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Surviving the First Year of Graduate School

It was a black Monday. After a terrific weekend partying with friends, I woke up late, missed my usual bus, and arrived at the lab 40 minutes late. Still unable to get into the working mood, I was dilly-dallying at my desk, flipping over my notes as my laboratory's research officer shouted over the partial partition of my study cubicle, "Lynn! Lynn! Get your stuff ready! The boss has been looking for you!"

Hastily, I put my working records into order, but before I could do anything else, the phone rang. It was the boss, my graduate supervisor. "Lynn, could you come over to my office with your latest records? I am considering sending an abstract to our annual scientific meeting." My heart sank. I had not organized the previous week's records because I hadn't completed the statistical analyses of the earlier data set. I tried, but the variables were so great that I gave up making any sense of the data. I was thinking that I could try to improve the experimental conditions and achieve a better data set later. ...

In the hour-long meeting with my supervisor, I struggled to explain things, imagining scenarios and projecting statistics. But it was all in vain. My supervisor was furious. "I want to see a set of good data and proper analysis," he demanded. "Come back to me with everything done and properly organized!" He emphasized, "properly!" I left his office, very dismayed. I vowed never ever to be caught unprepared again.

That was my first and worst lesson in graduate school. I believe I am not alone in this. So often, inexperienced graduate researchers land themselves in troubled waters due to lack of common survival skills--organizational and management abilities that they seldom, if ever, get to learn until they arrive in graduate school. And, it is not that they teach all this stuff in graduate school, either. We have to learn those skills "on the job." And often, it is not until you start doing things--even seemingly trivial things like keeping a journal of your work--that you realize how useful they can be.

I have now picked up a good number of skills, often through great personal hardship (like that conversation with my boss), and in hopes that it might help aspiring graduate students avoid some of the pain, I'm going to share a few of them here.

Formulate a working plan and set up a schedule

First and foremost, before you even embark on your program, you should formulate a working plan and set up a reasonable schedule for yourself. You should best do so with the help of your supervisor so as to ensure that common goals are taken into considerations. Be practical. Divide your project into manageable phases and have a timeline for each phase. Be sure to set scheduled time off for yourself, because you can't work all the time. Once set, keeping to schedule is important. Timeliness says a lot about you. It demonstrates to others that you are committed to your work and shows people that you can be counted on. As you move on, continue to update your progress regularly.

Learn the functioning of the department

Knowing the place where you work and the people with whom you might be dealing is more important than you may realize. In fact, you can't work effectively without knowing your way around. So, don't coup yourself up in the lab all day. Open up, mix and mingle, and get to know your department better. Find out the facts from senior graduate students and staff members. Be sure to note those who could be helpful to you on matters such as ordering research materials, operating high-end equipment, troubleshooting technical problems, laboratory safety, and so on. Make sure you know whom to ask or where to go to for help when you need it. And don't take things for granted. All departments have their own rules and regulations. Ask if there are procedures to follow before you proceed.

Maintaining a good work journal

A well-maintained comprehensive work journal will help you keep track of your progress. Remember that the usefulness of a journal depends entirely on what you record in it. A neat and tidy journal is not necessarily a good journal. Many of us started with the misconception that an ideal journal has to be a clean one that shows only perfect records--clean rows of instructions and neat tables of data carefully filled in. Seeking perfection, we tend to omit the obvious flaws, unplanned events, and unexpected encounters and outcomes. This is a costly folly and one for which I myself have paid heavily. The fact is that many inexplicable experimental results could be due to matters so trivial that people tend to overlook them. If you don't have them recorded, you will never find out the fault. So, if you do not wish to go around in circles trying to trace the cause of a questionable result, record everything honestly and faithfully.

Tackling the research blues

There are always ups and downs in life, and no less so in the area of research which is prone to unpredictability. Research can be frustrating sometimes. Expect to go through periods of stress and anxiety, be it due to work, study, or anything else. Taking a little time off to break the tension always helps--you'll probably come back refreshed. It is always useful to build your own informal support groups. It could be your research team or just a group of peers, seniors, or anybody you get along with and with whom you could share your problems and get moral support when you most need it. Don't keep problems to yourself. Unresolved problems simply don't go away, and if you do not resolve it, it will keep bugging you.

Making sense of your research results

If you keep a proper record right from the beginning, making sense of your experimental data could be a lot easier. Having done that, just be sure that you know which statistical analysis technique to use with your type of experimental design. Understanding the appropriate use and interpretation of statistical tests is essential for all research work. Otherwise, nothing makes sense. Nowadays, there is a lot of statistical software available. You may seek the help of experienced seniors who are well versed in the particular analytical method that you need to apply or seek the advice of a professional statistician. Books detailing statistical methods and software are usually available in all university libraries.

Presenting your work

You need to keep a working bibliography--a list of publications you actually use as reference for a research project. Start compiling it from day one and build it up as your work progresses. This will take away part of the workload when you have to finally write up reports, research papers, and your thesis. Once you have sufficient data for a preliminary report, write it up and submit it to workshops and conferences. Paper presentations are good exercises for graduate students. Establishing your track record through paper presentations will help you with your career. Of course, eventually, everybody's aim is to go for publication in high-impact journals. That you can do towards the later part of your program when you have substantial data to contribute to science.

As for now, all you need is to stay focused, take one step at a time, manage well, and you will be on your way to better times.

Lynn Wong is a graduate student at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

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