9 New Year Resolutions for Grad Students and Postdocs (and tools to help keep them)

By Gaia Vasiliver-Shamis, PhD

Let’s face it, reality is that our new year resolutions usually don’t last past January…while the world wide web is full with “science-backed” ways to keep your new year resolutions, it’s almost had the same number of articles explaining you why new year resolutions don’t stick. But let’s stay positive on New Year evening and use the latest behavioral research (from 4 days ago!) showing that if you want your resolutions to stick you should ask yourself a question rather than make a statement. For example, don’t say “I will exercise” but ask yourself: “Will I exercise? Yes or No?” – the answer should clearly be yes. So in this spirit here are 9 New Year questions every graduate student/ postdoc should have for a successful 2016!

Let’s start with scientific-related resolutions…. I mean questions.


  1. Will I finish my paper?

Publications are the token of productivity in the research realm so no matter what your next step may be, you should show that you have been productive. Some struggle because they think they need to get one more experiment done before they start writing…this one big experiment that will turn your work into a Nature paper. While this might be true, this is not the case for most of us. To finish your paper, you actually need to start it! Start with summarizing what you have thus far by creating a sketch of your figures. This will force you to think what is the story you are trying to tell in your paper; this will help you identify the “holes” or the missing experiments in your story. Once you identify those, discuss it with your mentor and make an action plan with some deadlines for the missing experiments and not less importantly for writing!

If you are a visual person or just love “to do” lists, I highly recommend you try Trello – it’s a great, free, tool to help you organize your plans and projects in one fun dashboard (and between us, there is something extremely satisfying by dragging an item to the “done” list).


  1. Will I present at a meeting?

I am sometime shocked to discover that some trainees barely attend scientific meetings. Attending conferences is a bundle of important opportunities. Beyond the obvious of learning about the latest research in your field; it’s an opportunity for you to present, get an award (travel award, best poster etc.) and not less importantly network. Yes, I know…networking…it’s so sleazy….so let me rephrase: you will meet new people. Depending on the conference and its size, you will get a chance to interact with top researchers, editors in journals you wish to publish in and scientists from industry and other young scientists like you!

Now, this is something you should plan for, especially if you need to apply for a travel grant so plan early. Nature has a list directory and the myriad of events can be overwhelming. If you’re new to the research business just ask your mentor and peers which conferences they usually go to and recommend.


  1. Will I apply for a grant?

Getting funded not only shows that your research is solid and promising, but it also speaks greatly to your written communication skills. It does not matter whether you want to stay in academia or not, having a grant you written get funded will look great on your CV/ resume. Take advantage of any grant tutorials or clubs you may have at your university/ institute and apply even for a small grant. Not sure where to find a grant you can apply to? Try this list from Science Careers.


Moving on to career-related resolutions, the arching question you should ask yourself is “will I make the time to take care of my own career?” and the answer should be “hell yeh!”. I’d also like to stress that the following questions hold true whether you are planning for an academic or non-academic career path.


  1. Will I attend an event from the Graduates/ Postdoc Affairs Office?

First, if you are not already aware of it existence – find out whether there is a postdoc office or graduates affairs office and what kind of events they offer and make sure you receive their emails.

Once you are in the loop of what’s going on in your institute be sure to attend their events. Whether it’s a CV seminar, career panel or what not – make the time to attend this. I know life happens and experiment go wrong but you should block this time on your calendar for YOU! Taking 2 hours a week to attend a workshop will not stall your research, seriously!


  1. Will I intentionally meet new people? (aka the networking more resolution)

I can’t stress this enough! While networking is a pretty dreaded concept for some people (and if you’re one of those people be sure to read “Networking for people who hate networking” by Devora Zack), try to approach it as meeting new interesting people and building relationships. Use LinkedIn and your existing network to identify other professionals you can talk with, reconnect with older or dormant connections or simply join your grad students/ postdocs association. My favorite posts about this topic were titled “Cold emails and hot coffee”. This four –part series in Science Careers shows how you can advance your career in a few hours a week and offers practical tips. Also, if you’d like to stay organize tracking who you talked with and what about, use MyIDP or Evernote.


  1. Will I keep my CV/ resume updated?

This is a good habit to form for your professional life in general. Always keep a “kitchen sink” CV/ resume where you add everything you’ve done. I know it’s easy to remember to add a published paper to your CV but you may forget being a member on a committee or writing a piece for the student newspaper or giving a talk so it’s a good practice to add those as soon as you’re done. Also, don’t forget to include any metrics (because sometimes these are easily forgotten).  I’d suggest having your “kitchen sink” CV/ resume as a Google doc so then it’s available for you anytime on any device so you’ll have no excuses (plus you’ll have a backup)!


  1. Will I create my career “wish list”?

If you are looking for opportunities beyond academia, you should have 2 lists one for 2-3 career paths of interest and one for companies you’d like to work for. If you’re interested in the academic path, you should have your list of universities/ institutions you are interested in. Once you completed your list, go to question/ resolution #5 and make sure your meet people working in careers you’re interested and/ or people working in the companies/ universities on your wish list.  Since networking is about building relationships – the earlier you start – the better!


  1. Will I learn something new?

If you were not into learning new things, you probably wouldn’t have taken the research path right? Whether it’s a new technique in the lab, learning R (which is super valuable on the job market these days) or just expanding your horizons – there are multiple ways for you to learn something new in 2016 and it doesn’t have to cost you a dime! The Muse had a couple of posts with links to FREE online courses in programming, finance, digital marketing and much more, here are the links for 45 courses and 43 Career-advancing courses, you can finish the listed courses in 10 weeks or less. Now who wants to start 2016 smarter?


  1. Will I gain a new skill (or develop an existing one)?

You have opportunities both inside and outside the lab to gain/ develop different skills such as leadership, teaching, organizing and more. You should proactively seek opportunities to gain the skill(s) you’re interested in having. Mentoring is a skill that can be easily be acquired when you’re in the lab, if your PI haven’t assigned you someone already, express your interest to her in mentoring an undergrad student or a grad student if you’re a postdoc already. For leadership and organizational skills join the student/ postdoc organization and be active. And if it’s you’re written communication skills you’re looking to strengthen – the Scizzle blog is always on the lookout for talented writers, so drop us an email if you’re interested.

I know, these are some very serious resolutions and it may seem overwhelming at first. A known way to set goals and achieve them is 1) to write them down and 2) have them be SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Time-bound) and you can learn more about how to set them here. If this is not enough find an accountability buddy, it can be your friend, your spouse or the career person in your grad student/ postdoc affairs office.

Now I know some of you must be thinking “I don’t have time to do my research AND all of this!”. I’d urge you to put your own career and success and a top priority. Taking even a couple hours out of the 168 hrs you have in a week to advance yourself is very doable. Not convinced? Try  Toggl that allows you to track time based on tasks/ projects or use it to time your career-related activities or find out how much time you really spend on pointless browsing by using Rescue Time.

And if all this is too stressful for you, try this fun website called Pixel Thoughts, it will help put things in perspective and calm you down in 60 seconds. After all, mindfulness meditation is the like new non-GMO (though it’s actually a trend that is based in solid science).

I hope you find this post useful and I wish you a very happy and successful new year!



How I Nailed My Lab Rotation and Got in the Lab I Wanted


By Evelyn Litwinoff

From the first time I met with my now PI to discuss a possible rotation, I knew I wanted to end up in her lab. She took me seriously even as a lowly first year grad student, and valued my thoughts and input on the rotation project we discussed. I left that meeting super excited about the rotation to be, and I couldn’t wait to get started.


Arguably the best part about this rotation was that I made and had my very own project as a rotation student that had the possibility to become a thesis project if – I mean when – I joined the lab. And the project was all about autophagy – a topic I had been introduced to in undergrad, found super exciting, and wanted to learn all about. (A quick refresher: Autophagy is a cellular recycling mechanism used to degrade large proteins, organelles, aggregates, and other substrates. It is essential for cellular health, especially in times of starvation. As Bill Nye the Science Guy would say,Now you know!”)


Step #1: Taking initiative


I came in on day one ready to generate tons of data, eager to become friends with everyone in the lab, and “wow” them all with my super science skills. Then I hit roadblock #1: the person in the lab I was assigned to work under wouldn’t let me do anything myself. I would watch her as she plated the cells, changed the media, dissected the mice, etc, and all I was able to do was label tubes. Not exactly how I imagined this rotation would be. But instead of sulking around wishing things would be different – ok after doing that for 2 weeks and spending time looking up other labs to rotate in – I spoke with another post-doc in the lab, and she agreed to have me work with her instead. Later after I joined the lab, I found out from this post-doc that by taking charge of my situation and changing it for the better, I showed her (and therefore my PI) that I really wanted to be a part of the lab and I could take initiative with my own project.


Step #2: Learning and mastering new skills – Evelyn vs. the Western Blot


My undergrad research was all about Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) genetics, so most of my science skills before grad school consisted of PCR, running DNA gels, sequencing, and C. elegans specific handling. Hence, I had never done a western blot myself before this rotation. But by the end of my 3 months in the lab, I was a western blot master! One of the main ways to assess if autophagy is upregulated is to look for increases in the autophagy specific protein, LC3. So the end points of all my cell culture experiments were western blots for LC3 and another autophagy specific protein, Beclin. I worked my butt off doing western blot after western blot, sometimes staying in lab until 1am, and was able to have new results at almost every meeting with the PI. At the end of my rotation, one of the research associates came up to me and said, “I can’t believe how much data you generated in such a short period of time.” I was very proud of how much data I was able to produce, but more importantly, I was happy I learned this new skill quickly enough that I didn’t have to take up a lot of my post-doc’s time when running my own experiments.


Step #3: Being a good labmate


When I used up my post-doc’s stocks and buffers, I always asked her for the recipe to make more, and I replaced whatever I took. Same thing goes for refilling the pipettes in the cell culture room, emptying the vacuum, etc. Doing these types of lab chores goes a long way in showing your commitment to the lab, and in convincing everyone that they want you to stick around. I didn’t realized how important these small things were until I joined the lab and saw everyone’s reactions to the, let’s say “absent-minded” summer students.


Step #4: Admitting mistakes


At one point in my rotation, I left some antibodies on the bench overnight. Major whoops. I apologized profusely to my post-doc. Although she was not happy with me, she understood it sometimes happens to everyone and appreciated my straightforwardness in telling her.


Step #5: The big finish!


One of the things my PI from undergrad engrained into my head was how to make a good presentation. She would never be happy with my slides until they were mostly pictures with very very very few words underneath. I used these skills to put together a presentation for the end of my rotation. In my now PI’s words, “Evelyn, these slides are gorgeous!” Cue the inner Cheshire cat grin. I left that rotation with good impressions on the lab and the PI, and I kept in touch with the post-doc I worked closely with. Sometime in the middle of my next rotation, I emailed this PI and asked to join her lab. To my delight, she said yes!


How I Chose a Lab in 3 Easy Steps


By Lauren Larkin


There are four big decisions one has to make when deciding to pursue a graduate education: 1) to actually pursue a graduate education, 2) at which institution, 3) working on what, and 4) in whose lab. Once you have answered for yourself that yes, you do want to go for your Masters and/or Ph.D., you have some control in determining where, but once you have submitted your grades and gone on your interviews, whether or not an institution accepts you is largely out of your control. What you do have more control over, and what I personally found more daunting, is deciding what you want to work on, and for whom. Your lab is not only is it where you will spend a considerable portion of your time for the upcoming years, but it is your first foray into Science as a career and can follow after your graduation.
In my last post, I wrote about how I approached graduate school a little more nonchalantly than I should have and therefore struggled to hit my stride. One of the ways this manifested was when I was tasked with choosing three labs in which to rotate and to finally choose one in which to complete my thesis. I knew I wanted to study molecular/cell biology most preferably in the context of cancer or immunology. This was not a very helpful way to narrow down labs at a major medical research institution with an umbrella graduate program.


I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of potential labs so I sort of panicked and made rash decisions. Luckily, I wised up enough by the end of my first year and ended up in a lab I am happy with and am enjoying my research. From this experience (as well as watching others go through the rotation/choosing process), I’d offer the following advice that I wish I had taken:


Clearly decide what you want to study and how you want to study it

I alluded to this in my last post that this was an important decision to make even before choosing to go to graduate school. Some people enter into an institution already knowing exactly whose lab they want to enter into, but for those who don’t it is good to have as distinct a focus as possible be it a disease, cellular process, or technique. Doing so will help narrow down your choices to make the most out of your first year. It will also afford you the opportunity to learn more deeply about your particular field. With the multiple perspectives you can learn how different labs approach the same problem, learn different ways to ask questions, and rotations are a good opportunity to try new methods.

What goes along with this is deciding the approach you want to take to what it is that you want to study. For example, my background is in biology and chemistry, therefore I’m most interested in asking questions from a biochemical and molecular point of view. But if I someone asked me to think deeply about genetics or systems biology, my head would just about explode, which would be unfortunate for everyone involved.


Consider lab dynamics and your potential relationship with your mentor

Would you prefer to work in a big lab or little lab? Social or quiet? More closely managed or more flexible? These factors will be important when you are late into your third year and the newness of your graduate career has worn off and you see how long the road is ahead of you.

Also important to take into consideration is your relationship with your mentor. As much as scientists would like to think of the world as a logical and fair place, we are human beings first and how you interact with your boss can and will affect your graduate career and the science you do. However, because we are all different snowflakes, this is a highly personal preference. Some people know they need their boss to be a little bit of a hardass to push them. If that were me, on the other hand, would constantly be on the edge of a mental breakdown. Personally, I like a good balance of pushing versus flexibility. I know I learn best by trying on my own (usually followed by failing a lot on my own), then asking for help.


Your mentor is also just about the only constant in the lab. Other lab members will come and go, you could move your lab, even move to another institution, and your project is definitely not constant, but your mentor will remain. Make sure that it is someone you can stand, and ideally even enjoy, working for.


Assess longer term funding capabilities

My first two pieces of advice are the parts of choosing a lab that depends on you and your preferences, but this is the practical one. Although I think it is within everyone’s preference to join a lab that can, you know, buy things. With the uncertain funding climate, choosing a stable lab can be vital to your success as a graduate student. Stable does not mean that the lab will be able to afford all of your whims for kits and antibodies, but that it will be able to sustain you through your Masters or Ph.D. Having said that, I think it is a good idea during your stay in the lab to apply for outside funding if for no other reason than the education and to take pressure off of your PI. Regardless, choosing a financially stable lab will take ease stress throughout your stay.

If I had to do my first year over again, I’m confident I would wind up in the same lab, but I would have chosen my rotations differently and with more intention. For the first 6 months of my first year I felt like I was flapping around in the wind. In the end, choosing a lab is a personal choice. There’s no such thing as a perfect lab or an inherently bad lab. You will want to cry in lab (or desperately feel like it) if you chose what you think is an awesome lab, and you will have victorious science data days if you feel like you wound up in a bad lab. What matters is that you make the best decision for yourself that you can with what you have available.

Till Science Do Us Part


By Celine Cammarata

The two-body problem is no secret in academia; indeed, prominent voices such as Nature Blogs have written numerous excellent resources on the issue and how to avoid separation (see below for a taste of these).  But as a graduate student or post doc, you might not have the same kinds of bargaining chips that PIs do in negotiating dual placements, not to mention that at these career stages you and your significant other are likely somewhat reliant on working with the right mentors – which might not be in the same location. Most of us were well aware getting into it that our scientific careers would be demanding, but for many this is where the dual-career rubber meets the road.  So what do you do?

This was the situation I found myself in at the start of graduate school, as I headed to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, MD and my then fiancé pack off to Cambridge, England.  Yes, it was stressful and difficult, but over time we did find ways to make it easier.  So, if you are facing a scientific separation, here are a few suggestions to make the experience as smooth as possible.


The Groundwork – basic tips for a good foundation

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  • Know the Plan. Don’t underestimate the power if good planning. Knowing when you’ll see each other again relieves stress, gives you something to look forward to, and makes parting more bearable.
  • You’re Not Alone (In Being Alone). Chances are many of your peers and colleagues are going through they same thing – in my lab every lab member but the PI was in a long distance relationship! This creates a valuable support network; not only will these people understand the emotional strain you might be under, but you can help one another in concrete ways too, like taking turns with lab chores so everyone has some free time to visit his or her partner.
  • A Warm Welcome.  Many universities have tight-knit communities – and as the live-in-another-country partner to someone if one of these communities, it’s hard not to feel like an outsider when you visit.  Making an effort to include your significant other in your group when he or she is present can go a long way in relieving tension and making your visits more enjoyable.




Beyond Skype  – some concrete suggestions to stay connected

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  • Can You Picture That?  The typical “how was your day” conversation ca get tiresome very quickly, but somehow seeing pictures of someone’s day never does (if you need proof just look to Instagram).  Setting up a joint online photo album with your significant other can be a great way to share and compile images to capture all the little things in your day and keep one another feeling present and involved.
  • Long-Distance Teamwork.  If you were together and one of you wanted to start eating better, the other probably would try to help out, right?  Well, the same holds in a long-distance relationship.  Setting shared goals – whether it’s to read one paper every day or go to the gym – then checking in with one another on how you’re progressing can be both very motivating and a great way to feel like a team despite the distance.
  • Take on Projects.  Believe it or not, this can be a great time to learn something new together.  For instance, my husband and I set up a “cooking challenge” – every week we each prepared a meal from a specific category, then Skyped to compare our results.  The challenge was not only fun and excellent protection against the notorious “running out of things to say” problem, but we both came away with a new skill.
  • How Puzzling.  After a while it gets to you – being able to talk to one another is important, but it’s not the same as being able to actually do something together.  Though it sounds a bit silly, simple puzzles and games can be a great way to break this tension.  We routinely played MadLibs and an assortment of goofy two-player online games, which were always sure to lighten the mood.


Terrific posts on the two-body problem and related challenges in academia:

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5 Tips to Pass Your Thesis Defense with Flying Colors


By Thalyana Vikos-Smith, PhD

If you are defending your thesis anytime soon, congratulations! Here are some tips for the big day:

1. Victory lap

The thesis defense is supposed to be a happy occasion and shouldn’t be looked upon with fear and dread. This is a day to celebrate! Depending on which university you attend, you have probably already completed writing the actual thesis and have gotten through multiple committee meetings to confirm that you are ready for this day. All of the hard work is done, so the defense is the opportunity to tell your friends, family and coworkers about all of this hard work.

2. Make it relatable

If you have invited non-scientists to your defense, then prepare the talk for a general audience, i.e. it should be different from a departmental research in progress talk. The introduction is especially important so that you don’t lose people right from the beginning. Also, the thesis defense should summarize all the research you have done but should relate this research back to your personal scientific interests; it’s a story about you! For example, my thesis defense was on the genetics of aging, so I began my talk by explaining my interest in research that has been done on a group of extremely long-lived people on the island of Ikaria in Greece; even though my thesis had nothing to do with Ikaria, my family is from Greece, so by introducing the topic of aging in this manner, I also provided a personal touch. Additionally, if you are doing a postdoc after your PhD, feel free to mention how your postdoc research relates to your PhD work and why you decided to do this type of research.

3. Keep it loose

For all the comedians out there, now is the time to exercise your skills! Again, the thesis defense is a celebratory occasion, so no one is going to mind a joke or two during the talk. For example, any difficulties that you encountered in your research can be introduced with a dash of humor. Other great opportunities to be funny are in the introduction and when you are giving your acknowledgements.

4. Make it flashy

The thesis defense should be a summary of all of the research you have done; you will definitely not have time to discuss everything in detail. Thus, making some attractive summary diagrams to include before you transition from one thesis topic to another and to reiterate everything at the end of the talk will be very helpful to the audience. Be adventurous with this presentation; this is your last opportunity to wow the audience with your professional PowerPoint skills. If you are super adventurous, try using Prezi, a very appealing alternative to PowerPoint. It will also be helpful to provide a flowchart at the beginning of the talk to outline which topics you will discuss, roughly how long you will discuss each topic, and any topics that you won’t have time to talk about.

5. Q & A

I have found that most questions asked at thesis defenses are “big picture” questions; it doesn’t make sense to scrutinize small points anymore. While “big picture” questions can be very insightful, they can also be difficult to answer, so be prepared to take a stab at trying to shed some light on the question by thinking on your feet, and also throw in this lovely phrase, “that’s a great question; I’ll have to think about that some more and get back to you.”


Follow Thalyana on Twitter @ThalyanaScience

Marathon Diaries: Season Finale

By Elaine To


After hours of toil, pain, and sweat, I am proud to say that this Sunday I finished my first full marathon. I’ll celebrate later; let’s first talk about how you can achieve the same.

So you’ve done it. For months, you ran during your incubation periods and woken up at unimaginably early hours on the weekends just for your long run. It’s now race day and time for you to cross the finish line. When months of training coalesce into that single glorious moment, you don’t want anything to stop you from achieving your goal. How can you ensure that you run the best race ever? It’s not much of a surprise, but the pre-race preparation doesn’t just begin the day before! Here are some tips for preparing:

Days before:

1) Hydrate well in the week leading up to the race. It’s not just something to do a couple days before! Make sure you’re getting 8 glasses of water a day.

2) Your training should have tapered in the 2-3 weeks prior to the race. Any runs should still provide you an adequate workout, but be comfortable. Now is not the time to push your limits!

3) Get a good night’s sleep on the two nights prior. You’re likely to be nervous and unable to sleep well the night before, so build up a buffer with the previous night.

4) On the day immediately before, pick up your race packet and make sure you have 4 safety pins for the bib. Double check your running gear, because if you’re missing anything, the expo that accompanies the packet pick up is the place to buy it.

5) The day before the race is also the time to carbo-load. You want your glycogen stores to be as full as possible, so eat a lot of pizza and pasta. Avoid anything you don’t regularly eat or that has a chance of causing stomach problems.

6) Pin your bib onto your shirt and pack your gear check bag the night before. This isn’t something you want to worry about on the morning of. Good things to put into the gear check bag are warm clothes and granola bars.

7) EAT BREAKFAST. It should be mainly carbohydrate based.

During the race:

1) You can come to the start line wearing extra clothes so that you stay warm until you start. Most races donate clothes that are left behind to charity. If you don’t have anything you’re willing to toss, buy something from a thrift store.

2) Don’t be stressed or nervous! You should be running at a pace that allows you to talk to those around you so don’t be afraid to chat it up with your fellow runners. This will prevent you from trying to run too fast, especially in the beginning. Near the end, your fellow runners are also a great source of encouragement.

3) Do not drink at every water stop unless drinking water every 1.5 miles was normal during your training. If you overhydrate you may deplete your electrolytes, and even if you’re drinking the sports drink, you may get too full. Have faith in your training and follow that. To alleviate the fear of needing water but being far away from the next water stop, I would suggest carrying a bottle that you can refill at each stop. Also make sure you eat during the race, whether its energy gels or provided snacks. Again, be careful to follow what was normal for your training—do not overeat.

4) Make it a goal to high five or thank every single volunteer that you see. They are donating their time so you can run and they are behind you all the way! The morale boost you will get is absolutely crucial for the second half. On this note, you can try to wear something that makes you stand out so you can tell when cheers are directed towards you. Some wear flamboyant clothing such as tutus or hats, many have sentiments on their shirts. In the past my shirts have said “Hopkins,” and supporters have used that. The Virginia Beach bibs actually had our names printed in bold font; it’s an amazing experience to hear “Go Elaine! You’re rocking it!” from complete strangers.

5) If this is your first full marathon, it’s almost guaranteed you will be in pain during the second half. Don’t be afraid to walk and take stretch breaks. Finishing a couple minutes later is better than injuring yourself. On hilly courses, the uphill is particularly painful but reprieve comes during the downhill stretches. Flat courses use the same muscles constantly, so in some ways they are more difficult. I found that even the brief moments spent in a porta-potty revitalized me and helped me come out much stronger and faster.

6) Hopefully your family and friends have signed up for runner tracking so that every time you cross a checkpoint they get a notification. Think about this! Think about all the people who are behind you, wishing for your success, and who will congratulate you in the end! Don’t lose hope!

Crossing the finish line & afterwards:

1) Hold your hands up high, smile, and make sure you get that nice photo finish!

2) Hobble towards the gear check and food lines. Grab your medal(!) on the way. Most races give out mylar sheets so you can stay warm until you get your gear. It’s a good idea to wrap yours securely around yourself before you try to pick up the water and snacks provided.

3) Walk, walk, walk. The more you walk and stretch now, the less pain you’ll have later.

4) Eat a hearty meal that includes both carbs and protein as soon as possible. Rebuild and refuel.

And that’s it! Pat yourself on the back, happily receive the congratulations from your friends and family, take a nap, and then go back to lab. With one big race completed, it’s time to bring that other race to completion: your doctoral thesis!

5 Do's and Don'ts for Choosing Your Thesis Committee


Robert Thorn

As a 2nd year PhD student I know that picking a thesis committee can seem like an overwhelming decision. Having just gone through the process of picking a committee and setting up a committee meeting I’ve compiled some of the tips that I received to help you put together the best possible committee.


1)    Pick PIs who have complimentary experiences to your own PI

Throughout your PhD training you will most likely be writing grants as well as papers. If your PI does not have much experience with graduate student training it may be difficult for them to help you in this writing. It is a good idea to have a committee member who can help you write and even co-sponsor you for grants if needed. This will help make sure your training is as successful as possible

2)    Pick a committee with diverse interests

This one goes along with #1. Just like you want a committee with different experiences from your PI, you also want committee members who have a range interests. By having this diversity you will be able to maximize the range of input you receive on project.

3)    Pick PIs you feel comfortable talking to

Remember that you will be stuck with this committee for most of your PhD career and they will be the ones who make the ultimate decision on whether you are qualified to graduate or not. By making sure you have a committee you can talk to, you can keep an open line of communication with your committee members and make sure you are reaching their expectations.

4)    Ask other students about PIs you are considering

If you know of other students who have had PIs on their committee they will be able to let you know. How are they with responding to emails? How open is their schedule? Are they open to talking outside of meetings? All these questions can be answered by your peers who have already gone through the process and help you make the final decision.

5)    Pick PIs who ask thoughtful questions

You want to make sure your committee helps guide you through the process of developing your PhD project. You can get a sense of the types of questions a PI asks by listening to the questions they ask during seminars and classes. Make sure that the questions the PI asks are going to fit with the way you want to receive feedback and so that their feedback can help further your project.



1)    Pick PIs who don’t get along

The last thing you want to worry about is whether or not your committee members will get along for a committee meeting. Asking your PI or other students about how different PIs get along with help keep drama out of your committee meetings.

2)    Pick too many busy PIs

It is very tempting to immediately pick a few high profile PIs to have a really high impact committee but this could backfire big time. Picking a time for a committee meeting can be difficult enough to begin with and the busier the PIs are, the more difficult it will be for you to get all your committee members together at one time.

3)    Pick PIs who talk too much about unrelated topics

Make sure the PIs you choose know how to keep their discussion to a limited amount of time. Even though committee meetings only happen once or twice a year, you still probably don’t want to have 3 or 4 hour long committee meetings because your committee members keep talking about tangential or unrelated topics.

4)    Pick selfish PIs

The point of the committee is to help you grow and develop your project. You definitely do not want a PI who will continually want to know how your project will relate back to their research. Make sure the PIs you choose will have your needs in mind during committee meetings.

5)    Make the decision lightly!

Your committee will play an integral role during your PhD, from guidance and advice to letters of recommendations for grants and post-doctoral positions you will rely on your committee for many different aspects of your training. Make sure to talk with your PI, lab mates and peers to get the best possible information you can while putting your committee together.

Have Do’s or Don’ts we didn’t mention? Share them with us!

5 Ways to Make the Most Out of Your Grad School Experience

Welcome to grad school, you are on your way to adding 3 magical letters at the end of your name. As we’d like y’all to start well-informed and be prepared, our brilliant contributors share their wisdom and best advice on making the most our of your grad school (and beyond) experience!

That’s our top 5:

  1. Run while you still can! Just kidding….
  2. Learn new things and learn all the time and it will all come together at the end, we promise!
  3. Take a careful look of the PI personality and lab’s dynamics when choosing a lab.
  4. Keep it balanced, as in stay healthy!
  5. Diversify your experience at the bench and beyond it.

Now read on: Continue reading “5 Ways to Make the Most Out of Your Grad School Experience”