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BenchFly's Guide to Graduate School
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Welcome to Graduate School!

WelcomeAll over the country today a new crop of eager young scientists begin their journey of discovery.  Graduate school is a great time of learning and exploration, but it can also be stressful – especially the beginning.  Perhaps the hardest part about the transition to grad school is the uncertainty involved.  When will I graduate?  Who should I work for?  What’s expected of me?  Can I drink the lab ethanol?

All important questions.

Some of these questions are easier than others (No, you shouldn’t drink the lab ethanol).  Despite the diversity of graduate experiences, there are some milestones that are common to all of us.  Each day this week, we will profile a different year in grad school and discuss what key milestones will arise and how to deal with them.  If you’re doing the math, yes, we will stop on Friday, after covering five full years of grad school.  Given the average of five and a half years, most of us should be out by Monday…

Guide to Graduate School: Year 1

You finally enter the building as a student, not a prospective, and this time it feels different.  It’s a mixture of anticipation, excitement, hope, insecurity and sheer terror.  You’re walking the same hallways that many great scientists before you walked.  The dream of becoming a scientist is now a reality.  Take a minute to appreciate what you’ve accomplished just being here!

OK, that moment’s over.

Now you’re about to start making decisions.  Decisions that will affect your day, your career, your life- how do you know?!?  The weight on your chest feels heavy.  Your breathing is shallow.  You’re lightheaded.

Relax, it’s not that bad.  Here’s a glimpse of some key milestones you can expect during your first year.

Before getting started

Take a moment to sit down and write a few sentences about why you decided to go to graduate school, why you love it, and why this was the best decision for you.  It won’t take more than a minute.  Save the file somewhere on your computer where you can easily find it later.  This will become relevant in the years to follow.

Milestones and Actions

Taking classes

Classes are intended to provide a solid foundation of knowledge.  Maybe they’ll end up being relevant to your project, maybe not.  In reality, most of your learning in grad school will be focused on the topic you choose for you dissertation and it will be your responsibility to learn it.  Although grades are generally not that important in graduate school, it’s worth noting that many postdoctoral fellowships will ask for a list of classes and grades.

What you can do about it

Most programs include both required and elective classes.  This sounds obvious, but when selecting electives choose topics you’re interested in.  If you always wondered about computational biology, take the class.  You will spend countless hours reading and studying every aspect of your project in the lab, so look at this as an opportunity for forced diversity.

Doing rotations

Look beyond just the science to things like the people, funding, excitement, work style of PI, etc.  There are always stories about a student who got a Science paper from their rotation project.  That’s rare.  Nobody expects you to get a paper in your rotation.  They do expect that you’ll think about the project, show interest in the lab and work hard when you’re there.

What you can do about it

Do as many as the program allows (usually 3) even if you know where you want to go after the first one.  There is a myth that as soon as you know what lab you want to join you should stay and never look back.  Sure you may get a few extra experiments in by not doing other rotations, but when you compare it to the amount of work you’ll get done in subsequent years (when you don’t have classes), the first year looks pretty stagnant.  Rotations are particularly valuable for a few reasons:

  • Networking with students – you’re going to need friends and collaborators
  • Networking with PIs – you’re going to need qualifying exam and thesis committees
  • Gaining exposure to new concepts and techniques – they will prove to be useful in your own project even if the connection is not apparent for years

Choosing a lab

This is probably the biggest decision you’ll make in the first year, if not in all of grad school.  It deserves more than a sentence, so we’ll follow-up.

What you can do about it

Talk to people.  Talk to old grad students in other labs, talk to grad students in the labs you’re interested in.  Specifically, ask to hear pros and cons for each lab.  Find out which one seems to be most like your style – do you like to be micromanaged or left alone?  You’re walking into a system and it’s not going to change for you.  Find one that fits your style from the beginning.

Applying for a fellowship

Many programs require students to apply and offer a course to help with the process.  Applying is incredibly important.  After going through the process, you’ll have an appreciation for what a grant is, how it works and how to best position your next applications (if necessary) for success.  They also provide an opportunity to work with a PI more closely than you would just as a rotation student.

What you can do about it

Do it.  In most programs, you will apply with sponsorship from the PI whose lab you’re currently rotating in.  NSF and NIH fellowships are the most common.  It will seem like a giant pain in the butt, but it’s worth it.  This is one of those hoops that can really benefit you if you jump through it properly, so prioritize it accordingly.

So there you have it – year one in the books!  Piece of cake, right?…


Check out the other articles in this series:

Guide to Graduate School Year 2: A Few More Hoops

Guide to Graduate School Year 3: The Sun is Shining!

Guide to Graduate School Year 4: Hang in There!

Guide to Graduate School Year 5: Approaching the Finish Line



12 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. 13columns

    wrote on August 31, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    i would also highly recommend doing several rotations. you quickly find that the more people you have a personal connection with, the better. this is especially true for references. you'll get a much stronger letter from someone you did research with than you will with someone you just took a class from.

    along those lines, i might even add "bond with classmates/colleagues" as a separate milestone, since they will end up being a big resource for you in grad school and beyond.

  2. dayman

    wrote on August 31, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    The best piece of advice I have received about picking a lab is to ask about the PI's graduation rate.

    It's something that often gets overlooked until you feel committed to a project, but is clearly crucial to why you are there in the first place. The professor who stressed this to me told about one of his classmates who joined a lab without checking, and after 6 months or so, realized that his lab hadn't graduated anyone in over a decade and that the last 3 graduate students quit – apparently the PI wanted the students stay for as long as he could milk it.

    I don't care how great the project is or the lab environment seems, you are going to NEED to graduate at some point.

  3. BenchFly's Guide to Year 2 of Graduate School | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on August 31, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    […] two of our series, we profile the second year of grad school.  Here’s what to expect after the first year is […]

  4. Year 3: The Sun is Shining! | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on September 1, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    […] we take a look at the third year of graduate school.  With Year 1 and Year 2 completed, we’re nearing the halfway […]

  5. Year 4: Hang in there | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on September 3, 2009 at 12:26 am

    […] this point, open the file you created during the first year describing why you came to grad school, why you love it and why this was the best decision for […]

  6. DoctorZen

    wrote on September 5, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Although this article makes them seem ubiquitous, not all graduate programs have rotations.

    Anyone have any data on the proportion of graduate programs with rotations versus without?

  7. alan@benchfly

    wrote on September 7, 2009 at 2:04 am

    This is a great question- I'm looking into it and will let you know what I find out!

  8. alan@benchfly

    wrote on September 10, 2009 at 2:45 am

    Although I don't have exact numbers, wh

  9. dayman

    wrote on September 9, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    All the graduate programs I applied to had rotations, though some required them and some did not. Many mentioned though that that was a newer development, so I wonder if it will become more and more prevalent.

    Overall, my impression is that it depends on your field. I think the "harder" sciences like math and physics don't have rotations, and my guess is that it has to do with funding.

  10. Doctorzen

    wrote on September 10, 2009 at 3:04 am

    My impression is that rotations are largely a product of NIH grants.

    So, biomedical doctoral programs have them, but Master's programs or research program that has medical implications don't.

  11. alan@benchfly

    wrote on September 15, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    This is also true. NIH Training grants usually require students to do rotations, so schools/departments with training grants will have them. Interestingly, it goes both ways – departments can require rotations in order to make their students eligible to apply for training grant money.

  12. alan@benchfly

    wrote on September 10, 2009 at 2:55 am

    Although I don't have statistics, it does seem that dayman is correct in that departments in the physical sciences are less likely to have rotations than their biological counterparts. When looking for programs, I would say this is an important piece of information to take into consideration.

    If anyone knows where to find data on the number of graduate programs with rotations, please pass it along.

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