How to Succeed in Grad School / by James Wade

I'm nearing the end of grad school--or so I hope! After a few years, I'm starting to get the hang of it. I know how to design a good experiment. I manage to stay reasonably up-to-date on my notebook. And, I'm ready to get the hell out!

I constantly feel like there is so much I can learn, so much to improve. Every now and again I think back to my first years in grad school and wish that I could have known then what I know now. In honor of that low-lying regret, I offer my advice to those who come next.

So you've arrived on campus and finished your orientation. Class is starting soon, and your graduate career is about to begin. You made it through college, and you're ready for what comes next. You know how to take classes. You probably have a decent idea of how to work in a lab and even to TA a class. How do you make sure that your graduate experience is the best it could be? Here's my advice.

Listen. (You're new. Don't forget that.)

Your biggest advantage as an incoming graduate student is your enthusiasm. You are ready to learn. Part of learning is listening. Always remember that everyone around you has been in your shoes. They already took these classes, taught those undergrads, and did that experiment. Use their experience to your advantage. Advice will probably be free flowing. Not all advice is good, but a lot of it will be. The older students know the good classes, the professors to avoid, and the best tactics for dealing with the undergrads that won't stop pestering you about a regrade. They perfected that complicated assay, and they already went down that rabbit hole or know of the that postdoc who did.

I have noticed through the years that the quiet first years are the ones people tend to like. Even if you are the graduate student of the century, you are still a first year. Your advice is not wanted and probably not warranted. If you have questions, ask them. If you have suggestions, deliver them respectfully and carefully. Or at the very least, frame it in the form of a question. For instance: "I noticed you used this reagent in that protocol. What do you think would happen if you used this one instead?" Or: "I was reading about a project similar to yours in a paper. I had an idea I was hoping you could help me flesh out. Do you have any free time this week to discuss it? Coffees on me!"

Grad school is full of drama and gossip. Avoid it at all costs. There is not need to create enemies or to take sides. Stay positive and friendly. This sounds simple, but the stress of grad school often channels into animosity, usually directed at other graduate students or your adviser. Do your best to avoid this negativity.

Manage your time.

Sometimes, I will hear the occasional student talk about how little there is to do, saying things like: "I didn't know grad school was this easy!" No one likes that kid. If you're finding that you have a lot of free time in your first semester, there is probably something you should be doing that you're not. This graduate school honeymoon period doesn't usually last very long. Between teaching, classes, and research, there are plenty of ways to fill up the hours of your week. Your best bet is to establish a system before you feel overwhelmed. I use the GTD (Getting Things Done) method along with Evernote and Todoist to keep track of notes and tasks. The method you choose is mostly irrelevant. Pick a system that works for you, then stick to it.

You got into graduate school because of your academic success. Some of you may have glided through undergrad without the all-nighters or Saturday night study sessions. Great! Grad school is not about classes or grades. You will be running two or three experiments at once while trying not to miss lab meeting or office hours. Do not try to keep all of this in your head! The earlier you learn this the better. As a bonus, the more efficient you are with your time, the more time you will have to have fun and explore your new community!

I struggled to adjust to the lack of deadlines. Grad school is a race to a hidden finish line. Sometimes you will feel like you are running that race in the wrong direction. Sometimes you will stop running all together. Having a reliable time management system will help you make steady progress.

Work in Lab, Have Fun at Home

Remember, every day you waste in grad school is another day you stay in grad school. Every week you spend without a PhD is $1000 out of your pocket. You'll be amazed at how easy it is to spend a day playing around with data workup, skimming through the literature, chatting over coffee with some friends - the list goes on.

To avoid wasting your day, have a routine. Some people read a paper first thing in the morning. Some spend some quiet time planning their day. It does not really matter what you do, just have something to get you going in the morning.

You do not have to be all serious and focused all the time. Give yourself time to relax, to make new friends, to get to know your future colleagues. When people invite you to go grab a drink, to go to a fooball game, or to watch the Bachelor, say yes. You might feel an urge to always work. That feeling can be productive when you're in lab, but don't let it keep you from having a life outside of lab. You will work better if you find some time to get your mind off of work.

Finally, do not forget to take care of your body. Carolyn Bertozzi published an editorial recently on the importance of exercise. I do not think this can be overstated. Find a way to exercise, the more fun it is the better.

Okay, that's enough advice for now. Please leave your advice in the comments!