The Toughest Year in Grad School

By Susan Sheng

Dear Third Year Self,

You did it! You finished all your coursework, successfully presented and defended your thesis proposal, and are now officially a PhD candidate! You’re probably tired but relieved to have finished your qualifying exam, and excited to get started on those experiments you proposed. Better get working so you can stick to that timeline, find some novel and interesting data to publish, and be able to graduate in 3.5 more years right? Let me offer a few words of advice as you get ready to start your third year.


First, add at least 6 months to those proposed dates on that timeline. Your PI is right, they are overly optimistic, and even the most straightforward-sounding experiments will take longer to troubleshoot and optimize than you think.


While you’re troubleshooting and optimizing, talk to people. Talk to labmates or colleagues in other labs who may have experience with your procedure. Reach out to the technical support staff at the companies producing your reagents. If for whatever reason you think your yield from commercial kits is not as high as expected, and even if you have scoured their websites without finding anything useful, call technical support and they might be able to give you some tweaks that will make all the difference.


I’m not going to lie, third year is going to be tough. You will go months without seeing any positive data. You will have some promising results, and then fail to be able to reproduce them. In the spring, when it’s time to submit poster abstracts to the department retreat and to the big annual conference, you will remember that time in second year when you remarked to your friends, “Next year I’ll have data to present!” and you will wonder where you went wrong.


This year, some of your classmates will leave with their Master’s degree and pursue other career paths, and you’ll wonder whether you should do the same. Take the time to look at job postings and attend career panels. Again, talk to people. Learn about what is out there, see what types of jobs interest you and find out what skills are needed for those positions. Maybe it will make more sense to leave with the Master’s degree, or maybe not. Maybe you will need to learn new skills; make a plan and figure out how to best acquire and demonstrate those skills (i.e. online or in-person classes, volunteering, etc.)


Cultivate your life outside the lab. Yes you will spend many hours working in the lab, but make sure you step away from the bench to get some fresh air. Connect with your classmates and commiserate over the struggles of grad school. Find some hobbies, maybe a local recreational sports league, or some fitness classes. Get out into nature (fun fact, a recent PNAS study has suggested that nature walks may help calm the brain. Take care of yourself so that you can go into lab rested and recharged.


Things will get better. You may need to switch gears and try different approaches and techniques to get at the same question. While you don’t want to juggle too many experiments and projects simultaneously, it might also not be ideal to focus solely on one single experiment, so try and find some balance. Having multiple experiments increases your chance of finding something that works, but you don’t want to split your time and attention too much.


Make sure you take time to read. You will be reading anyway as you troubleshoot, trying to see what conditions other people have published successfully, but take some time to read other papers relating to your project, your field, or just science in general. Step back and think about how your experiments fit into the bigger picture. Read about new discoveries and remind yourself why you were so excited about your project in the first place, and why you are in science to begin with. Remember, grad school is a marathon, not a sprint.



Soon-to-be Fourth Year Self.