6 Tips for a Successful Start to Graduate School

 

By Michael Burel

In many ways, graduate school is a lot like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Belle, an intelligent girl with her “nose stuck in a book,” seeks to escape her small, provincial life and adventure to “the great wide somewhere” (wherever that may be). Along her journey, she becomes imprisoned in a castle governed by the fearsome Beast, exudes patience and compassion in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, and catalyzes the transformation of her once nemesis into a benevolent, more universally accepted form. The parallels should be obvious: You are Belle. Graduate school is the castle. Beast is your thesis. (And that patience/compassion part is just Disney magic.)

 

Pursuing a PhD is jarringly different than undergraduate education, industry jobs, or the like. First of all, you won’t know anything. Literally. That’s kind of the whole point. You will wade into a project in which the unknown is your only foundation, much like flailing for the bathroom light switch in the middle of the night (you know it’s there, but you just can’t find it); you will become a connoisseur of seminar cuisine (cookies, stale crackers, room-temperature cubes of cheese, more cookies, and pizza); and vacations will become confused for the term “conference.” One could argue a conference is just an evolved species of a vacation, but alas, I’m not an evolutionary ecologist.

 

So how does one embrace this flood of change with all the patience and compassion of a Disney protagonist? Here are some tips to get you started:

 

Embrace ignorance

As many will attest, graduate school levels the playing field. You may have been at the top of your class as an undergraduate, but so too are your next-door neighbors. But really, who cares? There is no longer a fight to be the best; there is only the fight to do your best. Science demands humility as you stumble for ways to find the answers to exceedingly difficult, nearly impossible questions. Being ignorant is innate to the job description: If you already knew something, then why study it? The excitement lies in what we do not know. Learn to say “I don’t know” with care and confidence. Admit it, embrace it.

 

Be confident

The first year of graduate school is incredibly demanding. You must balance challenging rotations, difficult classes, and unfamiliar environments. When things get difficult, remember this: You are here for a reason. People had enough confidence in you to pay you to study what you love. While you may not find confidence in yourself, know that others have already found it for you. You can do this.

 

Never compare

You will be tempted to compare your achievements to those of your classmates. This can snowball throughout your graduate education. “He got an A on the test, but I got a D…I must be stupid.” “She completed her qualifying exam before I did! I’m so behind!” “She got a grant, why didn’t I?” “He already has four publications…I’ll be lucky if I get on a review!” This can become an all-consuming process, but here’s a tip: Just stop. Never, ever compare yourself to that of a colleague. Sure, comparison is healthy from time to time, but as soon as you start trying to correlate your achievements (or lack thereof) with those of a peer, things quickly go south. Every person comes from a different life, educational, research, and mentorship background. Making a comparison in this scenario is pointless because the comparisons will never be equitable. Don’t worry about how Sally or Sean got what you wanted a step faster. Do your own thing. Do you.

 

Manage your time

This may be self-evident, but as you start juggling all of your responsibilities, you may find yourself saying, “Oh, wow, it’s 4 AM, and I forgot to eat today!” Don’t be this person. Budget time to complete your classwork, execute in rotations, an—of course—eat! If you aren’t sure you are performing well, seek advice from a fellow student, tutor, or advisor. No one wants to see you fail. Everyone wants to see you succeed.

 

Read

…A lot. Reading scientific articles is one of the most important yet underdeveloped skills a graduate student possesses. To help get you started, try this: For every figure, write out the question being asked, the experiments that answer the question, the results of those experiments, and how those results feed into the overarching message of the work. You’ll ace discussions, and reading will become faster and second nature. And of course, if you haven’t already, sign up for  Scizzle to keep up with your scientific interests and field.

 

Be happy, be healthy

(Not to quote Cheerios, but it is sound advice). Being healthy is a mental process as much as it is a physical one. Exercise, eat well, and play. Develop a close circle of friends you can lean on in times of need. Go see a movie. Take a weekend trip outside your campus. Relax and build time for yourself. You cannot perform your duties as a graduate student (or anything, really) if you are miserable and ailing. Take care of yourself first so you can be your best version every day. If on some days you can’t remember what that version is, then please, channel your inner-Belle. Be curious, courageous, and open to change. Steer clear of Gastons. Tame the Beast.