Graduate School Year 3: The Sun is Shining!

Grad school year threeToday we take a look at the third year of graduate school.  With Year 1 and Year 2 completed, we’re nearing the halfway point.

Guide to Graduate School: Year 3

The clouds have parted and the sun is out!  No classes.  No teaching.  No exams.  The third year is a great one.  The qualifying exam likely helped create a well-defined project for you and with all the distractions out of the way, it’s time to focus on making some progress.  Finally, you’re doing what you came to grad school to do – research!

Milestones and Actions

Full-time research

This is really fun.  In the first month, you will likely have performed as many experiments as you did in the entire last year.  Focusing exclusively on research means you can ask many more questions and set up the experiments to test them.  However, moving too quickly can sometimes be dangerous.  There’s a difference between doing a lot of experiments and doing the right experiments.

What you can do about it

All labs run differently.  In some cases, you’ll see the P.I. daily, in other cases it will be more like annually.  In either case, don’t rely on the P.I. to solve your problems.  First of all, they’re incredibly distracted and between 10-15 other projects in the lab, they simply can’t remember the details of each project.  Second, and more importantly, graduate school is about learning to think critically and solve problems independently.  The sooner you learn this skill, the sooner you’ll be outta there.

Take the initiative to talk to the postdocs in your lab.  Talk to them even when you’re not having a problem.  Questions like “Do you think my project is going in the right direction?”, “What experiments do you think could provide the highest impact results?” or “What would you do if you were on my project?” can be incredibly valuable.  Pay attention to how they think about your project.

There’s a sort of mercenary approach that you will develop.  Sketch out the hypothetical figures for your paper and start attacking them.  Don’t get bogged down in troubleshooting irrelevant experiments.  I have.  It sucks.

Finally, start a side project.  See how to manage them in our post The Importance of Side Projects.

Set up a committee meeting

We often look at these meetings as if they are the sequel to the horrific qualifying exam.  This is not the case.  These meetings can be very valuable for a number of reasons.

What you can do about it

Think of these meetings as a discussion about your project, not a grilling.  Set up your committee accordingly.  The committee members are on your side.  In fact, they can be very strong allies in trying to get you out if your P.I. suddenly develops separation anxiety and doesn’t want to let you graduate.  Maybe you get nothing out of the meeting.  So what, you lost a few hours.  But maybe, someone has a brilliant idea that changes the direction of the project.
You just don’t know what will happen, but don’t assume it will be bad.

Go to a conference

Big or small.  Domestic or international.  Just go.  Conferences are an incredible way to get exposed to all of the research that’s working.  They’re inspiring and will often result in a handful of new ideas to take back to the lab.

What you can do about it

Talk to your P.I.. Depending on how you’re funded, you may have access to a travel stipend.  Alternatively, talk to your graduate coordinator.  Often times there are travel awards available in the department.  Finally, check the conference itself.  There are usually funds available to help students defer the cost.

Select a conference that is relevant to you.  If it just so happens to be in Tuscany during the harvest season, so be it… You may want to tack on a few “personal days” at the end of that one…

Any other notable third year events you’d like to add?


Check out the rest of the articles in this series:

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

Guide to Graduate School Year 2: A Few More Hoops

Guide to Graduate School Year 4: Hang in There!

Guide to Graduate School Year 5: Approaching the Finish Line



4 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. BenchFly's Guide to Year 4 of Graduate School | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on September 3, 2009 at 12:29 am

    […] fresh set of eyes and brains can never hurt… See Year 3 suggestions for more […]

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

    wrote on September 9, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    […] See what’s ahead in Year 3 […]

  3. BenchFly's Guide to Graduate School | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on August 17, 2010 at 3:32 pm

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

  4. The Graduate School Survival Guide | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on September 14, 2010 at 3:46 pm

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

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