July 13, 2012

Perspectives on Starting Graduate School

By Danielle Miranda

With June about done, many of you who are reading this blog are well on your way to a graduate program (Mayo or elsewhere) or starting some kind of science based work. For this blog, let's focus on grad school. Many rumors abound on what you have to do, how hard they make you work, and what people in grad school are like (nerdy types who sit in dark rooms behind computers and never see the light of day). Lies, all lies! You do have to work hard, and much will be expected of you. But it's not as bad as you think.

So in keeping with the spirit of this blog I present ten lessons I would tell my past self on the first day of graduate school.

1. No matter what you think or what you are told graduate school is hard.
It's tough. Be prepared to sweat, cry, burn the midnight oil, but know it's not all for naught. What you are doing will have a purpose be it building lab skills, writing, doing lit searches. All of it has a purpose. Do it to the best of your ability and enjoy it.

My dry erase board on any given week. Note that everything is planned. This will help keep you accountable for your goals. Also I don't want to hear anything about my yellow walls. I'll be repainting this summer.

2. You won't make it through alone. Get a support system.
I know many out there who came into grad school thinking they could be autonomous islands and operate on your own (myself being one of them) but you know what? YOU WILL NEED A SUPPORT SYSTEM!!!!! Friends, your lab, your mentors, your parents, boy/girlfriend, whatever. You need to have people in your corner, people who you can call at 3am when you are at the end of your rope and need a push back to sanity. That being said, disassociate from toxic people, those who will stand in your way and not be there to support you. You don't need them and you don't need the negative energy.

3. Have something you use to disconnect. The life of the mind requires that you sometimes get out of the mind and into the body. Exercise, go outside, do something!!
While many of you reading this have undoubtedly pulled some epic study sessions you cannot sustain that and keep your sanity. Do something for fun, be it physical (I do powerlifting and Muai Thai), intellectual (reading things-scientific papers do not count), or artistic. Just make sure you do something.

Craving a little destress are ya? This is my combination but find what works best for you.

3a. With the above said I must also stress the importance of being healthy. If your body doesn’t function or if you just put garbage in you’ll get garbage performance. If you are short of time, buy a slow cooker and do all your meal prep on the weekends.

4. Study smart, not necessarily hard! Graduate School is a full time job with very tough classes thrown into the mix. No matter what your time will be stretched and you will still have to study. Make your list of what needs to get done, set your priorities, and just get them done. Things will get tossed by the wayside but you need to keep first things first. While you are still a green grad student, your classes come first and you have to get past your qualifiers.

Sure you could read the whole 600 pages worth of stuff like you may have done in undergrad. But is that really the smartest thing?

5. Keep on top of things, and don't neglect the small day to day things.
Make lists, know what needs doing, and do it. Even though you may be tired after a long day in lab don't neglect the small things like cell culture, updating your notebook, etc. That sort of thing adds up pretty fast and you will find yourself in a world of hurt if you neglect your duties.

6. Get yourself a good coffee maker and good coffee.
Folgers Coffee does not count, nor does Maxwell House for that matter. Get yourself some good espresso (Cafe Bustello is a good choice) or a Latin/South American coffee. The taste is better and the caffeine content is higher. Trust me, at 2 am you will want something that will give you a solid kick yet keep its smooth flavor.

7. Don't get wrapped up or involved in what is going on around you unless it actually does involve you.
Self explanatory. There will be many things going on around you, grants, people disliking other people, drama of many sorts. There will be drama, just like high school, just like undergrad. Be ready for it. Just don't get involved and above all else don't let the latest drama flying around the lab or even the program ever be about you. Enough said!

8. If it is not productive for you then don't do it.
Your time will be limited as it is. I am not saying don't get involved with any other programs but instead I am saying that if an endeavor does not grant you any fulfillment or does not help advance you in some way, chances are you are wasting your time. Don't waste any time. It becomes much more valuable and it is something you can never buy more of.

9. Did I already mention have some kind of de-stressor? Exercise, get outdoors, do something!

10. Don't lose hope and just enjoy the ride.
Yes graduate school is hard, yes a lot will be expected of you, but get through it, earn your degree and be ready to reap the spoils of your hard work. There are times you will feel very very broken down and like all you are doing is for nothing. Plow through them, you are still alive, and will be more than alright when the dust settles.

Not as bad as it seems. Just enjoy your work and you'll be fine. Find a nice place to work. I resort to taking over conference rooms. If you’re lucky (like me) you can get one with a frig, microwave, and sink.

Okay first years, that is all for now. Maybe I'll post again soon. Any questions spill them in the comments below!


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