Tips for Grad School

I recently got an email from a thoughtful undergraduate who’s going to grad school. He asked for some general advice. Here are my thoughts, for what they’re worth.

Whose Lab Should I Work In?

  1. When picking a lab, pick based on the lab’s principal investigator (PI) more than the specific project. Projects change. Look for a PI who will provide the supportive environment you need to grow as a scientist.
  2. Different PIs have different managerial styles. Some are micromanagers. Others are so hands off you might not even see them that often. Similarly, some students thrive when micromanaged, and others thrive when given complete independence. There’s not just one right way to manage a lab. But do be sure to find the right kind of PI for you.
  3. Labs with more senior PIs (tenured, for example) often have well established projects and hierarchies. A lot of students benefit from that. Senior PIs also tend to be better known in the community, which can be helpful when job-application time comes around.
  4. Labs with more junior PIs often (but not always!) afford students more opportunities to craft their own projects. Working for a younger professor often provides fun opportunities to help “grow the lab.” Younger PIs tend to work closer with grad students, too, though there are certainly exceptions. Excellent graduate students can also play important roles in helping a younger PI establish his or her lab. Letters of recommendation that cite concrete examples like that can be very powerful!

How Many Hours Should I Work as a Grad Student?

If you’re a graduate student, your career has begun! That means this is a full-time job. You should work at least 60 productive hours a week. Working more may lead to more career-advancing publications, but few can manage 80 hours a week. Don’t burn out!

There is a certain amount of random luck when it comes to getting a dream job after graduation. But there definitely is a correlation (even if it isn’t perfect) between how hard you work as grad student and how well you do professionally afterwards. Even if your PI isn’t counting the minutes you’re in the lab, don’t cheat yourself by working less than you should.

Try to Get Your Own Funding

Even if your lab is well funded, try to get a fellowship of your own. Even if you don’t get it, it’s good writing practice. And, regardless of your career plans, it’s impressive to see that kind of thing on a graduate C.V.’s.

Be Open to Jobs Outside of Academia

I worry that not enough graduate students consider careers outside of academia. I worry we don’t prepare them well enough for careers in industry. While I obviously love academia, there are many advantages to working elsewhere. Consider doing a summer internship with a biotech company during your PhD if your PI can spare you.

Work on Multiple Projects

Given that projects often fail, it’s good to work on multiple projects as a graduate student. Here’s some good advice from my graduate PI, J. Andrew McCammon:

Your main project at any given time should be one that is well-defined and that is solvable within 6 months. As you become established you may want to add a second project of medium difficulty, and then one of greater difficulty that would have a very great impact if completed… As soon as your main, straightforward project is underway, start on your second, slightly more ambitious project. If you run into problems with one project, you can set it aside for a day or two while you work on the other one. Then you can take a fresh look at the troublesome project.

At the same time, don’t take on so many projects that you can’t finished any of them. An unfinished project has the same career-advancing value as no project.

Spend Time Both Reading and Writing

It’s easy to focus so much on doing experiments that you don’t spent time reading about others’ science. Writing down your own research plan also keeps you organized and makes it easier to write manuscripts when the time comes. Don’t neglect both your scientific reading and writing!

Manage Your Time Carefully

Again, from Dr. McCammon:

Set daily, weekly and long-term goals. Review your goals and progress frequently. If you are consistently falling short of your goals, try keeping track of how you actually spend your time for a few days. Use this inventory to help plan adjustments. Know when to be meticulous and when you can be sloppier. If you’re banging your head against an obstacle in your research, step back, rethink the problem and try to go around the obstacle instead of through it.

Don’t Get Discouraged!

Grad school can be very difficult. There certainly are days and weeks where you will feel like you’re not getting anything done. But if you’re persistent, things will move forward eventually. Don’t get discouraged!

I hope these ideas help!

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