Dear new grad students: One tired prof's perspective

Sep 07 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The new semester is bearing down and with it a bunch of bright-eyed grad students have come to campus To Do Science. I am happy for these new students and am genuinely excited to get to know them.


There's a few mistakes that one or two will make right away that always leaves the non-n00bs shaking their heads. With that in mind, a couple of do's and don'ts for the newly fledged.

Do's (Almost all of these can be figured out online or in a quick conversation with grad students who have been around for a year or more. It may also be covered in your orientation.)

- Figure out the structure of your program a bit and who you need to talk to with certain questions. Who is the Grad Director? Who is the Chair? Who are the key Admin Staff? What types of questions should be directed where?

- If you're in a rotation system, figure out how it works.

- If you are not, get a feel for the structure of the lab you just entered. Who are the people most related to your project? Is there a postdoc you can talk to when you are stuck? Which students will show you "the ropes".

- Read.

- Are there required classes for your program? If so, get signed up. If not, how many course credits do you need and which classes are the best for your area?

- Get to know your cohort.

- Read.


It is important to realize that your priorities may not be immediately aligned with those around you. This is not undergrad anymore, things are going to be different.

- Don't email busy people on a holiday weekend with the subject line "URGENT" unless you are trying to find the MSDS for a chemical you just drank or spilled on you.

- Don't request permission numbers for the wrong class. Twice.

- Don't expect an immediate response from people on non-urgent issues. And even then, don't get your hopes up or email again after 20 minutes has passed.

- Professors are not the only people who know How Things Work. Don't go to them for every minor question.

- Finally, don't assume that professors live at the university and work 24/7. Many of us* have lives and other things going on. Our personal lives can affect how we approach our job, even if those things are hidden from your knowledge. Take it from someone who hasn't had more than 3 hours of uninterrupted sleep in four weeks, sometimes we're cranky for reason unrelated to you. Don't take it personally.

Generally, it'll take you some time to settle in, but don't expect that you're going to walk in and start running on day one. Get to know your surroundings and the people who can help make your transition easier. A well-run lab has a hierarchy of support and assistance which is there to make sure you have the tools and knowledge you need to succeed, but it's up to you get up to speed.

Now get reading.

* Though not all.

22 responses so far

  • Dr Becca says:

    Also? It is OK if you cry every day for the first month or so, something that maybe happened to an acquaintance of mine.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    As long as it's not in my office. The undergrads used all my tissues.

    But seriously, if you are that sad you need to talk to people around you and your PI and figure out if you are in the right place for you.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Polish P-lS's Bentley with circular motions, not back and forth.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Do: Generate data. As soon as you can. Do this, and the odds of the faculty you work being happy go up. WAY up.

    Don't: Worry excessively about your GPA. Don't fall below the minimum required to stay in the program, but don't go nuts trying to max it out. From here on in, you're going to be evaluated much more on the research you do.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Polish P-lS's Bentley with circular motions, not back and forth.

    Dude, I sold that thing. Who needs a Bentley with the new Aston Martin out. And only postdocs get to polish that.

  • Dear New Grad Students,

    A sense of entitlement and an inability to follow simple directions do not bode well for your success in this program.


  • Do not trash talk about PI or labmates with random people. You make think that you are showing off your amazing science prowess, but really you just look like an idiot. (There's a new grad student doing this now and it reflects poorly on him/her. Also, if you think your PI is misguided in his/her science, why did you join that lab?)

  • Yael says:

    PiT: That goes for new postdocs too!!

    Also saying: "we did it this way in my previous lab and your way is wrong" (for new grad students and postdocs) is an almost sure-fire way to get everyone to dislike you.

  • Alyssa says:

    I second what PiT, Amanda, and Yael said. Don't act like you know everything. If you ask for advice, don't scoff at everything other, much more experienced, people tell you (there is a new student here like this).

  • becca says:

    Don't write off faculty as useless because other students have had problems with them.
    But don't feel so compelled to give everyone a fair hearing that you join a lab that has had recently kicked out a student.

  • DRo says:

    Do: take notes. Even if you have a photographic memory. No one has time to show you how to do things twice.

    Don't: skip out on department seminars b/c you're "too busy". Or for any reason, for that matter.

  • marc says:

    Do make friends with older graduate students. They know things, scientific and otherwise.

    Don't act like an entitled superstar

    Do realize that your advisor doesn't actually spend that much time thinking about you

    Do Read. Learn. Work.

    Do find the best nearest places to procure coffee and beer.

  • neurowoman says:

    Do: Arrive before the PI arrives in the morning, stay until after the PI leaves in the evening - you are likely to get something done in that time, even if you're not sure what ahead of time! (advice from my undergrad mentor)

    Do: read in the lab at your desk or break room, ask lots of questions about the science. Be available to look at results, discuss data, impromptu meetings, participate in experiments, watch others work, be interactive.

    Don't: take your reading home (or the library) to read in isolation during the day just because you're "not doing anything in lab". Just being present counts for a lot.

    Don't: join a lab coming from a different background than everyone else in the lab and imply everyone with their background has been approaching the problem wrong and you're going to finally do it right.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Do: Arrive before the PI arrives in the morning, stay until after the PI leaves in the evening - you are likely to get something done in that time, even if you're not sure what ahead of time! (advice from my undergrad mentor)

    This will vary substantially from one PI to the next. As will "Just being present counts for a lot.". I don't care where my students do their work, only that they get it done. For some, they need quiet and that's fine.

  • studyzone says:

    DO attend your grad program's orientation session. The grad programs at my grad school and postdoc school have very helpful/informative orientation programs that provide the "lay-of-the-land" and dos/don'ts for that program, how to plan rotations, approach faculty, etc. I've seen too many students skip these sessions, to their detriment.

  • Dr 27 says:

    If you haven't done so, learn how to take GOOD notes and use and keep track of your lab notes/notebook. Something you may think you'll never use or do again may be important on your last year in school. If you keep good notes (or keep the note that your PI gave you on which sample you were working on before you switched projects for the 3rd time), it may be the key to getting your name on a paper you were working on as part of a rotation (and never thought would see it again until 6 months prior to your defense, ha!).

  • Dr 27 says:

    Oh, and take advantage of career seminars and counselling. It may be the last time you get them for "free" or covered by school. Do not waste those valuable resources and learn to use them now.

  • DO eat something before going to the after-work wine and cheese to welcome new students on your first Friday afternoon. There will not be much cheese and you will have to talk to your new supervisor about your project while ever so slightly tipsy (happened to me! But it was OK 'cos everyone else was in the same boat).

    DON'T look upset when your PI tells you they have no time to meet with you when you've already been told it's a grant deadline day (saw it happen 2 weeks ago!)

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Go back in time and read the catalog long before you arrive on campus. Fulfill entrance requirements as best you can before you enter.

  • DJMH says:

    DON'T: assert with total confidence that GFP is pronounced "Gee-FAP".

    (I think this was Dr Becca's friend.)

  • Do: be willing to admit this isn't your scene. If you don't enjoy what you're doing, don't tough it out for the sake of it. Switch projects, switch departments, but don't just do it for the sake of it. If you're not happy, evaluate if that is indicative of a bigger problem.

  • DO: choose reasonable work locations. If your office is a dank dark hole with 60's era CRT's on all the computers, consider coughing up the money for a good laptop and making a home office. Graduate student offices are often located behind wormholes, the other end is typically in some god-forsaken corner of Siberia (except in summer, they relocate to the Sahara).

    DON'T: assume somebody knows what they're talking about just because they act like it. The two are entirely independent things.

    DO: start learning to judge when somebody in your topic area knows what they're talking about.

    DO: figure out people's agendas. If you're going to be surrounded by long-simmering vendettas, bizarre expectations, and giant egos you might as well enjoy it. These typically bust out: 1) during departmental seminars (especially during Q&A); 2) at qualifying exams; and 3) during dissertation committee meetings.

    DON'T: forget your kids' names.

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