Graduate School Year 2: A Few More Hoops

Year 2In day two of our series, we profile the second year of grad school.  Here’s what to expect after the first year is history.

Guide to Graduate School: Year 2

FINALLY classes are over!  This is no small feat – after 20 years of sitting in a classroom, taking exams, you have reached the end.  However, the time that was previously filled with classes and rotations will now likely be spent teaching and stressing about the qualifying exam, which looms on the horizon for most second-year students.  But overall, it’s a good time and you’re one step closer to performing full-time research.

Milestones and Actions


Some people love it, some people hate it.  This can be a reflection of who we teach for and what our responsibilities include.  Grading papers is boring.  Giving an occasional lecture can be exhilarating.  Remember, it’s transient and unlike grad school, you know the exact day this will end.

What you can do about it

If you think you might want to go the academic route, this is a great opportunity to dip your toes in the water.  Talk to the professor about giving an occasional lecture.  Most professors will jump at the opportunity to lighten their load a bit.  If you see teaching as nothing more than a vehicle to justify your stipend, at least be decent to your students.  Just because you don’t want to be there doesn’t mean they deserve attitude.

Qualifying exam

Institutions and programs vary on how this is performed.  Most involve the oral defense of your dissertation project or a hypothetical one – sometimes both.  This is a great opportunity to take time to learn the field and understand every detail of how your project may unfold.  May unfold because almost nobody’s dissertation ends up resembling their proposal.

What you can do about it

If possible, take time out of lab to study.  All the way out.  Even just sitting in lab to “study” will end up being very distracting since the temptations to set up experiments will surround you.  If your exam is based on your project, take advantage of this time to learn the background and all of the potential pitfalls of your project.  Talk to third and fourth year students who have recently gone through their exams and ask for advice.  Who is a good committee member?  What can you expect in the exam?  What’s the best way to prepare?  Set up a few practice exams.  Often, fellow students can be far more critical than the faculty.

Selecting a dissertation project

While this may be a big decision, nothing is written in stone.  Many people change projects to some degree.  In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed that your project will take turns you can’t anticipate.  However, it’s important to make sure that you find your work exciting.  You will think about it in the shower, in the lab and even in your dreams.  If you don’t care about the work, it’s gonna be a long several years.

What you can do about it

Talk with your PI.  Talk with lab members.  There may be a history to this project that you’re not aware of (eg, six postdocs have already tried this and failed, but the boss doesn’t want to give it up).  Think about the direction of the project and whether your lab/department is equipped to support it.  If you work in a cell biology lab, but your boss wants you to synthesize a natural product from scratch, make sure the facilities are there.  It’s tough to remove solvent without a rotovap.

Read the post How to Choose a Good Scientific Problem by Uri Alon.  Great advice.

Establishing a relationship with your PI

Now that you’ve officially joined the lab, the relationship will change.  The boss now has expectations and demands.  Try to figure out their rules and follow them.  If they like to see people in lab from 9-6, be there from 9-6.  If they like people to hold questions until the end of group meeting, hold them.  At this point, you’re just starting.  You have no leverage.  As you prove yourself and the boss feels more confident in you, they will often give you the freedom you seek.

What you can do about it

Don’t make waves in the beginning.  Just focus on running some experiments.  Talk to other grad students and postdocs in the lab to find out the “dos and don’ts” of dealing with the boss.  The reality is that some part of dealing with the boss is playing their game.  The sooner you figure it out, the sooner you call “checkmate.”

Integrating into the lab

This is very important.  Life will be so much easier and enjoyable if the people you work with everyday consider you a peer.  This is not to say you need to be best friends, but a cordial relationship with your colleagues will benefit you in ways you may not realize initially.  Everyone in the lab can help you with something, if they want to.

What you can do about it

See our earlier post Make Labmates, Not Enemies.  Pretty simple stuff – certainly worth the effort, both in and out of lab.

Any other memories of the second year come to mind?  What’s your take on the importance of these issues?


Check out the other articles in this series:

Guide to Graduate School Year 1: Welcome to Grad School!

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



6 comments so far. Join The Discussion

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

    wrote on September 2, 2009 at 12:02 am

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

  2. 13columns

    wrote on September 2, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    i actually found the second year tougher than the first. not necessarily in the workload, but i'd much rather have been learning something in classes than grading exams ("teaching"…) for an entire year.

  3. 13columns

    wrote on September 2, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    i actually found the second year tougher than the first. not necessarily in the workload, but i'd much rather have been learning something in classes than grading exams ("teaching"…) for the entire year.

  4. dayman

    wrote on September 3, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    definitely agree…the first year has no expectations in terms of productivity, and the novelty overcomes any cynicism.

  5. BenchFly's Guide to Starting Graduate School | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on September 9, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    […] Check out what to expect in Year 2 […]

  6. BenchFly's Graduate School Survival Guide | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on September 8, 2010 at 10:46 am

    […] […]

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