Surviving and thriving in grad school

So you’ve decided you want to get a Ph.D. in science and you’re wondering what to do next. You aren’t sure which program to choose, how to select a mentor, how to make it to the other side with your regalia intact.


Why dedicate 4+ years of your life to MORE school?

I know, you’ve been in school for what feels like forever. Why would you sign on for more? Some of the main reasons we choose to continue our education at this level include an insatiable curiosity and desire to understand the how and why of a process or phenomenon, a desire to open more doors for yourself when you graduate, and most simply, a pure love of science. Figure out if this is the path you want to take and why. When things get tough, remember why you’re here.


How to choose a program/lab?

One of the biggest decisions to make is where to do your graduate studies. Because you have a scientific mind, you’ll inevitably begin by researching a variety of programs at different universities. Visit different places, find out which atmosphere best suits you, narrow down your search. The biggest piece of advice I can give for choosing a program or department is to identify what the degree and course requirements are and decide which will best prepare you for your next step. This includes the required courses, available electives, teaching requirements, etc. Sometimes your lab of interest will have more than one affiliation, so you will need to use this information to choose a program.

PhD Comics grad student brain

Your lab includes your mentor, fellow grad students, and others that will make up a big part of your support system over the course of your graduate career. Your relationships with these people can play a huge role in your success as a student and beyond. This process will begin before you ever start grad school. Visit labs, talk to current students, learn as much as you can about the lab dynamic. Some of the most important questions include what the PI expects of the students and what kind of mentoring style is employed. Will you be a good fit for the lab, and will the lab be a good fit for you? During your first year, you may do 2-3 lab rotations to get a better idea of where you want to spend your time. If your program includes this, use this time to continue asking questions throughout the rotations!


How do I make the most of my time?

Here is a mix of tips adapted from Twitter responses*:

  • Form a bond with your project, but don’t let it define you
  • Work more efficiently, not necessarily longer or harder
  • Develop strong writing and presentation skills
  • Attend seminars, defenses, and networking functions
  • The. Literature!
  • Learn how to work well in a team and collaborate
  • Know what is required for degree completion (as determined by your program, advisor, and committee)


Finally, I would like to offer a few suggestions for those times when you’re NOT in the lab. Find a few things that you enjoy doing and MAKE THE TIME TO DO THEM. You will be most effective when you take the time to care for yourself. I mean this in every sense of your well-being to avoid burnout. You may feel guilty about not working every second of every day, but sometimes you just need to zone out in front of the TV or take a break to attend that yoga class. Develop a solid group of support among your peers and look out for one another, go to happy hour once in awhile, do something fun as a group. Grad school goes by shockingly fast, so enjoy your time!


*I decided to Storify the great advice provided by some wonderful Tweeps as an additional resource. Check it out and follow these people for great science and excellent conversation. Additional advice came from two fantastic professors, Josh Drew (Columbia University, @Drew_Lab) and Sean Elliott (Boston University, @Prof_SJE).