Transitioning to graduate school can be a really difficult time. You have probably moved to a new city, are in an unfamiliar environment, and must somehow manage to study for classes, prepare lesson plans, and be productive in lab. What does it mean to be successful in your first year, and what can you do ensure that success? As a second year graduate student, I wanted to highlight some of the lessons that I learned from my transition, and share some advice on preparing yourself for your graduate career.
1. Finding a lab. One of the first and most important decisions that you will make in your graduate career will be choosing a PI and finding a lab. Although this process varies from school to school, most graduate programs give students time to explore all of the research opportunities within the department before making a decision. At Illinois, I was given roughly 2 months in my first semester before I was able to join a lab. During that time, I attended as many different group meetings as possible to learn about each lab and the research each was conducting.
I would advise you to explore each lab as thoroughly as possible. Schedule meetings with faculty members and the graduate students currently working for them. You never know exactly what type of research you may be interested in until you see it for yourself, so make the most of the time that you have. Aside from research, graduate students will give you a picture of the lab dynamics, typical work schedules, and PI management styles. Choosing your lab will be a difficult decision, but it is important to find the lab that is the best fit for you, and is somewhere that you will be happy to work for the next five years.
2. Wait, read, and think. During my first year, I ran around like crazy trying to run as many experiments as possible, and, unsurprisingly, many of them failed. Looking back, it is very easy to see why. I did not understand my project as well as I needed to, did not have a strong enough knowledge of what had been tried before, and made mistakes that could have, and should have been avoided.
Before you run any experiments, it is incredibly important to pause and critically think through the question that you are trying to answer, and evaluate the best way to answer it. Read through all of the relevant literature and make sure that you understand the strengths and limitations of current approaches. As for learning specific lab techniques, take the time to sit and watch an older graduate student work. They were once in your shoes, and can help you learn from their own experiences. You can learn more in 1 hour from watching an experienced chemist run a column than you could by spending 4 hours trying to figure it out for yourself. By strategically learning techniques from a mentor and critically planning and understanding experiments before you run them, you will be a much more efficient scientist, and your productivity will increase.
3. Defining Success. Don’t be surprised when you don’t win a Nobel Prize during your first year of graduate school. However, luckily, that is not expected of you. You are going to struggle. Experiments are going to fail. It is going to take you longer to complete tasks than the 5th year student who sits next to you. You are not going to be able to spend as much time running experiments as you would like to because you are bogged down by studying and grading exams. However, if you set unreasonable expectations for yourself, you are going to become overwhelmed and feel like you are unable to do anything right.
Keep pushing forward, learn from your mistakes, and always keep in mind that your PI does not expect you to revolutionize your field in one semester. The more you learn during your first year of graduate school, the better position you will be in for the rest of your graduate career. If, at the end of your first year, you have completed your course requirements, made it through a year of teaching undergraduates, learned new techniques, and have a better understanding of your project and how it fits within the landscape of the field, then you have had a very successful first year that has positioned you for success throughout your graduate career.