Advice to First Year Graduate Students

As we welcome our new colleagues to graduate school, I thought I’d throw my grad advice into the overflowing pot. My favorite piece of grad advice is this one by Azuma and my old boss Charles offers a great idealized timeline which I follow.

I’ve been a first year graduate student twice! Once for my MS and again for the PhD. Both these adventures started by resigning from a good job, packing up my house, and a very long car-ride with three nervous cats. I know I didn’t have a perfect semester either time, but this would be my advice to first years.

1- Start reading…everything and anything Reading is a huge part of your job as a graduate student. Two suggestions if you don’t know where to start; first, a review paper related to your thesis project (if known) or the theoretical work that underlies your lab. Your labmates or advisor should be able to give you one but try some keyword search terms on a citation aggregator (Web of Science, Scopus, Google Scholar) first. A good review starts the snowball method of research where you can now use the citations in the review (or papers that cite the review) to find new papers to read. Second, read your advisor’s (or potential advisor’s) body of work. They’ll reference their papers over time, so it’s helpful to know what the papers are about. Read broadly and deeply to best prepare for both your comprehensive exam and your career in science.

2- Get organized Don’t delay filling out human resources forms (W-2, health insurance, direct deposit), getting your student ID (allowing access to the gym and library), and a parking pass if needed. Next, download any software packages you know your lab uses. If you don’t already use software to organize your citations ask your lab what they use as you may share manuscript drafts and will want to use something compatible. Discuss with your advisor which desk, lab bench, and filing cabinets are yours. Set up file folders (electronic or real) to organize the influx of papers that is about to happen. Connect your computer to the wireless network and download any drivers needed to access the lab printer.

Many new graduate students quickly realize that time management is their biggest challenge. The demands on your time in graduate school are wholly different from undergrad or 9-5 jobs. Figuring out a schedule that works for you is critical. I suggest identifying your “peak hours,” the time of the day when you are the most productive, then do the most demanding tasks at this time. It’s important to note that your “most demanding task” may change over time or cycle with seasons. I also suggest identifying what you need in terms of downtime and scheduling how and when you plan to decompress from the stress.

3- Plan out all of your coursework Figure out how many hours of coursework (not research hours) are required for graduation and when courses are offered (every year vs every other; fall vs spring). Then make a plan. Make a multi-semester plan that fits in the courses you really want in the fewest number of semesters. You learn so much more doing your research, figure out how to take the fewest classes in the least amount of time to maximize your learning.

4- Orient yourself to the town and campus As a first year I really struggled simply with being in a new place but with limited time to learn my way around. I was so busy with research I didn’t know where to buy a sandwich if I forgot to pack lunch, or where the bank was, or the dry cleaners. Everyday life just got so much easier once I knew my way around and picked out my favorite retailers. The best thing about exploring campus is that universities tuck their treasures all around: murals, sculpture, artifacts, awards, botanic gardens, quiet study spaces, and out-of-the-way eateries.

5- Write a paper* This is the one I didn’t do and really wish I had. There are many ways to write a paper as a first year. The easiest is to collaborate with your labmates; do some labwork or analysis on a project and write up the methods and results. Second, ask PIs if they have unpublished data you could analyze and write-up for them. Third, ask PIs if they have a half completed project that you could do labwork on and finish, then write that up. Finally, write a literature review on your potential dissertation work.

*-Does not apply to MS candidates. You should be handed a project to run with, ideally one where the first experiment is 50-100% planned (even better if supplies are on hand) and you start your graduate career doing that experiment.

6- Understand your funding I don’t mean your TA/RA/Fellowship funding, I mean the cash money that pays for lab or field supplies, travel to the field, data collection, and publication fees. Talk to your advisor about what grants fund the lab. If your lab has multiple grants, does it make one big pot or do supplies for each project only come off individual grants? Will the grant cover your supplies and data analysis? Will it cover a $1,000 mistake? A $10,000 mistake? When does the grant end and what are the chances for renewal? You are trying to assess (and may ask directly) to what extent is it your responsibility to fund your project. If there is no money for your field season costs, that will redirect your priorities your first semester.

7- Make a Plan B One or more things you attempt in graduate school will fail and some may fail spectacularly. It’s part of the nature of generating new knowledge through original research. You can mitigate this by having a backup plan. When you’re collecting field data, maybe collect an ancillary dataset that you could analyze; or learn to code in case you need to do a simulation study if your empirical dataset results in non-significant results. The key here is to think through your research and identify risky areas that may require mitigation, then make a backup plan and be ready to execute it.


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