What to Expect in Graduate School

Applying to graduate school can feel overwhelming; there are so many more factors to consider than when you applied to college. You have probably done tons of research on the degree you want to pursue and the fields of research that interest you. You may even have spoken to some graduate students about their experiences. But no matter how prepared you think you are for graduate school, you will likely discover something you wish you knew before starting. After speaking with both current students and graduates, I have compiled a list of things to expect. We hope this list will provide a useful starting point for contemplation as you prepare for a research-focused graduate program.

PI Mentorship Style / Lab Environment

PI mentorship style is a major factor to consider when deciding on a lab. If you are going into a research field with little experience, you might want a mentor that is “hands-on.” If you are comfortable working with limited supervision, then you might be happy with a hands-off mentor. Newer PI’s might be more hands-on as they are getting their lab established and working towards tenure. Established PI’s may be more hands-off due to having more responsibilities within the department, frequent travel, or possibly having more students and postdocs to supervise.

Compatibility between you and your future lab mates is also important to consider. These are the people you will be spending the most time with during graduate school. When given the opportunity, get to know the students and postdocs in the labs you are interested in joining. This will help you gauge whether the lab environment is a good fit for you. Learning about their experiences in the lab can also give you more insight into the type of mentor / mentee relationship you may have with the PI. If people seem unhappy, then you may want to continue your search.

Time Management Skills

One of the biggest challenges in graduate school is finding a balance between all your responsibilities. In addition to course work and research, you might also have to teach. Teaching assistantships typically consume twenty hours of your time every week. Further, you might also be responsible for training and mentoring undergraduate or other graduate students in the lab. This role is often given to PhD students in the lab and will typically arise after your first year of graduate school.

The above responsibilities consume most of your time; however, there are also tasks that come up throughout the year such as preparing posters and presentations, traveling to conferences, and writing papers for publication. And don’t forget about thesis committee meetings! It is crucial to develop good organization and time management skills to succeed in graduate school.

Mental Health

With so many responsibilities on your plate, it is no wonder that many graduate students report struggling with their mental health. In fact, depression and anxiety rates among graduate students are higher than in the general adult population in the US1. Thus, it is imperative to practice self-care. You might feel guilty about taking time to unwind and relax when there is something you could be working on. However, there is always something that you could be working on; you have to give yourself time to recharge too.

In addition, you may find that you are tougher on yourself than ever before in graduate school. You might doubt yourself and your accomplishments, eventually convincing yourself that you do not deserve to be in your position. This psychological phenomenon is called “impostor syndrome.” Everyone experiences this at some point in school or in their career. If you find yourself going through this, remind yourself that your hard work and your accomplishments got you to where you are today. Practice self-kindness more often. Celebrate goals when you meet them, whether big or small. Instead of comparing yourself to your peers, focus on your strengths; everyone is different, and in science that is a good thing.

Many universities provide on-campus services for students. If you are struggling with your mental health, it may be beneficial to schedule an appointment at your university’s counseling and psychological services (CAPS). For more helpful tips on maintaining good mental health in graduate school, visit https://www.gograd.org/resources/grad-student-mental-health/ .

Measuring Success in Grad School

Succeeding as an undergraduate student versus a graduate student are very different experiences. Undergraduate students typically measure their success by getting good grades. This mindset has to change in graduate school, especially in a research-focused program. Passing your courses is important in graduate school, but the main priorities are to learn laboratory techniques and further develop problem-solving / critical thinking skills in application to research.

You will drink a lot of coffee. You will also spend a lot of time looking for free coffee.

Performance Feedback

Mentor feedback changes in graduate school as well. As an undergraduate student, you receive a lot of positive feedback when you do well. In graduate school, generally, if you do not receive any feedback from your mentor, then assume you are doing well. It can be tough transitioning to graduate school with the expectation that you will be praised for every right thing you do. This can be especially difficult if you are the type of person who seeks validation from others. Some programs require mentors to complete biannual or annual formal evaluations of their students’ performance. This may be one of the few times that you receive positive feedback in your graduate career.

Working in an Animal Lab

Animal research is very common in the biomedical sciences, but the experience of working with lab animals is rarely discussed. If you are interested in working in a lab that uses animal models, do your due diligence to ensure this is something you are comfortable with. Ask individuals who work with lab animals about their experiences. Some tasks can be very emotionally draining, such as euthanizing animals. Euthanizing methods vary and some methods may feel more personal than others. Thus, working with animals requires a balance of compassion and emotional detachment: you must ensure the animals are well-cared for, but refrain from getting attached because they are ultimately part of an experiment and will eventually be euthanized.

Lastly, depending on your research project and the model organism, you may have to go into lab for hours on weekends, holidays, or in some cases, overnight. Make sure you are comfortable working your schedule around the needs of the animal / model system.

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  1. Evans et al. Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology 36, 282-284 (2018). PMID: 29509732