April brings showers, allergies and, for college seniors, post-college decisions. Six years ago this month, I decided that I would stay at Yale to obtain a Ph.D. in immunobiology. I have definitely learned a lot while in graduate school, about science and about life. And not to add myself to that often-overeager crew of advice givers, but I think I can distill what has improved my experience into three tips for those of you bound for graduate school in the sciences and maybe other paths as well.
Choose a lab whose negative aspects you can best cope with. I can’t claim credit for this particular nugget — a very wise graduate student told me this while I was doing my lab rotations in my first year of graduate school. Every lab has negatives. You are not going to find some kind of scientific Eden and if you go in thinking that you have found that, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Some labs are more laid back, some labs are very well organized, some PIs are micromanagers and some PIs could care less if you rolled in every day after lunch. Additionally, labs also evolve with time; people and funding come and go and this affects the lab environment. While you can’t anticipate evolution, you can think long and hard about not just what you like about your prospective labs in their current forms, but also what you don’t like. You want to feel reasonably confident that the things you don’t like about the lab you eventually choose to join are not going to drive you insane a few years later.
Don’t underestimate the role of luck. I know that this will sound weird to scientists-in-training — and successful students and postdocs may deny its existence — but the hard truth is that luck (or perhaps its less inflammatory synonym “timing”) will play a significant role in your graduate school career. Some students have good timing, picking up a project whose experimental system has been well worked out. But many will not, and even with a fairly “straightforward” project, things will likely go wrong. Don’t get frustrated — this is typical. And as a corollary to this tip, remember that long hours are sadly not well correlated with a fast track to graduation. The green monster of jealousy that rises in you as you see one of your lab mates coasting out every day at 5 p.m. is neither warranted nor helpful to your psyche. Everyone in graduate school works hard, but some people have projects that are less time consuming than others. Hard work does pay off, but not at the same rate for everyone.
Make time for old friends and make new friends. In the last month or two of college, this seems easy, but don’t let the nostalgia of senior spring fool you — life finds a way of making this hard. Something goes awry with an experiment or a meeting runs over and you have to miss dinner with a friend. You are consumed with studying for your qualifying exam and you forget to respond to emails. Don’t fall victim to the over-used “I’m so busy” excuse. You will regret it. I don’t know of anybody who wants to be in or think about lab work 24/7. Making time for past friends and making an effort to reach out to new friends in graduate school will help you get through your toughest moments. I can’t emphasize enough how important it has been to have people – both in New Haven and elsewhere —– give me advice and help me take my mind off of work. PCRs will work or fail, but homies are forever.
I hope these tips help you maintain your sanity and sense of humor when you have one of those terrible, no good, very bad days. May the force be with you and may http://whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr.com/ always be there for your amusement!
Saheli Sadanand is a graduate student in the immunobiology department. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .