4 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting Grad School

Gastric bypass- a wonderful alternative to graduate school

'Tis the season of grad school acceptances and major life choices. Two years ago (!) I was an overly confident undergrad preparing to become a graduate researcher. Late night Googling of "how to prepare for grad school" further assured me I was ready. Have experience in a research lab? Check. Know I may have weird hours? Check. Secured some kind of TA/RA funding? Check. Today, reflecting upon this time of year, I wish someone would have told me about a few aspects of grad school that seem to never be highlighted on those "What to Know about Grad School" websites:

1. Yes, being successful in grad school is about working hard, but it’s even more about being creative.

Probably in your undergrad studies, the more time spent on homework or a project was directly proportional to your grades or success. I assumed that since I was a hard worker and previously worked in a research lab, I would be a great grad student. However, once you enter a graduate program, you are likely designing your own study and teaching yourself research methods. In other words, your success is entirely dependent on your creativity. If your plan is to research whales in the Antarctic, for example, you will have to figure out HOW you are getting to the Antarctic, HOW many whales you are tagging, HOW you are tagging the whales, and most importantly, HOW you are paying for it- not your advisor, not your department, not your best friend- YOU. Also, you will have to go way beyond the idea of “I want to study whales in the Antarctic.” You will have to come up with testable hypotheses, such as “Using complicated organic chemistry, I will show that the number of female whales in January positively correlates with annual apple harvests in United States- here’s how I will experimentally prove it…”

2. Often in the sciences there is not a specific timeline for graduation.

Many students entering grad school enter with the belief that getting a master’s degree will be completed in exactly 2 years while a PhD takes 4 years to complete. Most people are familiar with the undergrad concept of schooling: when you earn X number of credits, which should take Y years to complete, you get your degree. The timeline of your graduation, however, is ENTIRELY dependent on your thesis/dissertation progress. Have your class credits out of the way? GREAT! Experiments not working- well, you’re staying here another 3 years.

3. Be prepared for the fact that no one will respect your “flexible” schedule.

Because you likely aren’t confined to a 9-5 schedule, your friends with "real jobs" will assume you are always available to talk on the phone, pick them up from the airport, help them move, do their weekly grocery shopping, groom their monitor lizard, etc. Additionally, when they are free from work, they assume you are as well. “Hey, I got tickets to Soviet Russia the Musical without consulting you; you can write your thesis some other time.” The best way to deal with this is to simply lie: “I teach 9 classes and no one can replace me.”

4. Unless you clone yourself, someone will see you as a bad grad student.

Many times you will have an obligation to be in 3 or 4 places at once.  Tomorrow, for example, I have boat crew training, which is required for my field work.  This time spent on training, however, means I'm not working on my thesis writing, not working on homework, not available for makeup labs with my students, and not attending the weekly grad seminar.  Somewhere along this line, a student of mine, a professor in my department, one of my committee members, or my neglected dog will wonder where I am and why I am a horrible person.  And why did I spend so much time writing this blog post?


  1. Aww neglected dog more important than any of the others! And my policy is no makeup labs period!!

  2. Aww neglected dog more important than any of the others! And my policy is no makeup labs period!!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Diatom of the month - February 2016: Cyclotella meneghiniana

Diatom of the month - January 2016: Gomphonema parvulum