Saturday, January 29, 2011

Guide to graduate school

The graduate admissions process is in full swing right around January/February for most graduate institutions, and this has led me to reflect a little on both what it means to be a graduate student and how to do it well. I decided to collate some useful resources for graduate students and those who are thinking of entering grad school, and must post a disclaimer along with the advice below: one of the unique aspects of grad school, from my experience and that of my friends, is that most people have a fairly unique experience. And this is probably as it should be. My advice on the matter comes from my own perspective, thus, take it with a grain of salt. However, there are a few commonalities of the graduate school experience, and while most center around common sense, it's a good idea to be well aware of the expectations of the position you now hold and have some tools to help you navigate.

First, here is a good guide on getting in to graduate school from my undergraduate adviser Chris Boake. She addresses the aspects of getting in to grad school and is a must-read.

Now that you are safely in a program, let's work on your sanity-saving repertoire that will aide you through the dissertation or thesis.

General advice: grad school is not like being an undergraduate. If you focus solely on your classes your research will flounder. Unless you are in a non-research thesis track, you'd best work diligently on your project. This means developing said project (Is it a good idea, and what does it add to the scientific literature that is unique?), working out the kinks of your project (persevering through months of crappy results, knowing when to change course), keeping up with the literature that seems to be published at an ever-alarmingly increasing rate, maintaining good notes (you MUST have a lab notebook), and writing up your methods, analyzing your data, and finally, writing everything up into papers/chapters.

It's a slog. I think the best analogy I have come across is that being in graduate school is like running a marathon. Persistence and patience are key.

Links to some good general advice:
John Thompson's guide to being a graduate student
Modest advice for graduate students
A less cynical reply to the above
Be confident! This is a must read, especially, I think, if you are of the female sort.
Staying healthy and happy in grad school
Switching advisers
The qualities of the successful grad student
Getting what you came for
Project Runway is just like grad school*
"On Project Runway, fashion becomes a metaphor for every creative endeavor: the necessity of training and hard work, requiring the ability to manage time and budgets, the importance of being current in your field and having a historical perspective, and the realization that bad luck and happy chance sometimes play a part."
Be organized or beware: This is a topic that I personally re-visit quite often. The amount of time one saves by being organized probably more than makes up for the time it takes to get organized. Below I list a few of my favorite blogs, books and tips about being organized to be productive.

Getting things done and 43 folders
Time Management I
Penelope Trunk's take on time management
Organize that literature!

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: This is high on my list. Be respectful--you are a professional now and you need to own up to it. Think about what you say before you say it, ie, try to put yourself in many different shoes and realize not everyone might enjoy your particular sense of humor. Be sensitive to those among you who are different than you are. Try not to make assumptions about people according to the way they look. Also, practice good personal hygiene. If you share a small office with lab mates, you might consider showering after a good workout and before coming back to work. Recognize that some people you may be in close quarters with are highly sensitive to smells, ie, perfumes and the like can trigger migraines. Is your cologne or perfume so important that you're willing to cause someone a 3-day headache and vomiting spell? C'mon. It isn't.

Be respectful of your lab mates in the lab as well -- follow the safety rules read the safety literature, keep the chemicals where they are supposed to be and always clean up after yourself. Finally, it's ok to disagree with your lab mates and your adviser about the science that you are doing, however, you should recognize that your PI is in charge of their particular science, and they have final say about what is produced in, and comes out of, their lab.

Here are some links about being a respectful student:

Your end of the bargain when being mentored: Suggestions from Kate Clancy

Work smart, not just hard: Everyone has a life. Or should. The mentality that we live to work is a mentality ripe for disease. I am not suggesting students (and others) should not be passionate and dedicated about their work. I *am* suggesting that one attempt to recognize early on how they work best and plan their days accordingly. For example, if you can read and comprehend best the first thing in the morning, then do your daily reading at this time and save asinine tasks for later in the day when your brain is tired. Strive toward being healthy--develop a support network of friends and colleagues, exercise, daily if possible, and eat as well as you can. Try to recognize symptoms of depression in yourself and in your friends around you. Go on vacation. Go to movies, plays and do sports-related things. It is my opinion that one does not develop as a scientist by sitting in front of the computer 20 out of 24 hours per day, every day. Below are some links for work/life balance and resources at the University of Cincinnati for students.

Work/life stuff relevant to all
FSP's take on being a mom and a scientist
Mental health resources at University of Cincinnati
Student health clinic
UC wellness center
UC women's center: provides help and outreach to women and LBGTQ students and faculty
UC women's health center

*Some of the above links I post above I found thru the Saygin lab wiki, search this for many more excellent recommendations

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