July 10, 2014

Lessons from My First Year in Graduate School

By Crystal Mendoza

I would like to thank my fellow Diversity Blog editors for their helpful advice and input for this blog post.

As summer begins, my first year of graduate school comes to an end. The fact that my first year of graduate school has come to a close brings mixed feelings. I have come a bit further than I was at this same time last year, and thankfully, have learned a few things. In honor of the incoming graduate school class, I have decided to dedicate this post to them to hopefully offer some helpful advice on first-year experiences.

The most important aspect of a PhD is the mentor and lab in which you will be conducting your thesis work. It’s easy to get caught up on the idea of a project that sounds exciting and groundbreaking even though the mentor may not be a good fit for you. During rotations, it’s best to approach the lab objectively, and think critically about which aspects of the lab truly work for you. Mentor should be most important, followed by the research environment, and finally, area of research. Your mentor is highest on this list because they’ll be the one guiding you throughout your PhD and while lab members may come and go, your mentor is the one constant you have. Secondly, your research environment should allow for you to grow as a scientist to think critically, and apply your knowledge by conducting experiments. Support also comes to you in the form of postdoctoral fellows, research scientists, technicians, and fellow graduate students. Again, as mentioned previously, lab members do tend to come and go, but they will also contribute to your success as a scientist. Finally, your research area should be exciting and catch your interest, but not be the driving force to your lab selection (although it can play a big part). For more information on choosing your thesis lab, please refer to Clara Castillejo-Becerra’s post.

Don’t expect to spend all of your time in the lab. I know this seems counterintuitive since first-year of graduate school is dedicated to rotations, but classes and tutorials take up quite a bit of time (not to mention journal clubs, seminars, and works-in-progress). In addition to actual class time, you’ll find that time spent studying will also cut into lab time. For this, the best thing to do is to learn to manage your time wisely, a highly useful skill. Also, forming study groups isn’t a bad thing, but may not be for everyone. Often times, talking over and reviewing concepts discussed in class helps when you’re asked to apply your knowledge in different situations during exams and quizzes. Each student can offer insight into different areas of expertise, and that can come in handy during tutorials and journal clubs. Overall, getting together with other students and studying helps not only with clarification of course work, but also bond with classmates.

Find a hobby or just something fun to do outside of the lab. If you’re going to properly survive grad school, you’re going to need a little down time here and there. Whether you’re fond of tennis, soccer, or knitting, odds are you will find someone with the same interest. Having hobbies not only allows for you to get out and do something, but also expands the people you meet to outside of the lab and graduate school. Thus, you have a support system of people outside of work, and people that you can talk to about other things (yes, besides science). During the winter, especially in Rochester, MN, hobbies allow for you to combat the winter blues. Remember, we all need time to ourselves, and going out and enjoying the city and being with people is one of the best ways to do that.

Finally, you’re not alone. This is one of those things that should go without saying but still often needs to be said. Sometimes, graduate school may be the furthest you’ve been away from home (I lived in Texas my whole life) and being in a new state, environment, and culture can feel lonely. Mentors, new friends, old friends, and lab members are part of your daily life and care, especially if things aren’t going well for you. Older graduate students not only offer great advice when choosing a thesis lab/mentor, but can also provide insights on classes, and work-life balance. Student groups, such as Mayo’s Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD) program is not only an outlet for students to talk and discuss with others of different backgrounds, but to develop professional skills such as public speaking and grant writing. And if there’s no one else to talk to or if you prefer anonymity, there are counseling services available for any sort of situation.

Overall, the first-year of graduate school (at least for me) was about personal growth, finding a home in a lab, and getting acclimated to a new environment. The sense of belonging and feeling at home in a lab is a wonderful feeling, especially after being in limbo for several months during lab rotations.  Time management as a whole is useful when balancing work, school, and life and is essential for getting through grad school with some sanity intact. Involvement in activities outside of school and the lab is not only important, but will also draw out any monotony that may take place from everyday lab work. Finally, as was mentioned to me by a very wise professor, never be afraid to ask questions and continue to ask questions because curiosity is the fuel for science.

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