Graduate School Year 4: Hang in There

Year 4

In the fourth installment of our Guide to Graduate School, we profile what is arguably the toughest year.

Guide to Graduate School: Year 4

My fourth year made Glenlivet and Advil a lot of money…

For most people, this is a brutal one.  We’ve been banging our heads against the wall trying to get the project to move forward and things just aren’t working. The long hours and constant failure are taking their toll.  As we enter the fourth year, papers are now top of mind and there is an increasing pressure to get them out (if we haven’t already).  The reality that we will not graduate until something gets published is starting to weigh heavily on the mind.

It’s usually the fourth year students that graduate coordinators like to keep away from the new recruits…

But it’s important to remember, as my mom says, “This too shall pass…”

Milestones and Actions

Staying motivated

A football player once described an NFL game like lining up 15 feet away from your garage door and running straight into it at full speed.  Then repeating for an hour.  Sound familiar?…

It’s hard to stay positive in the face of negative results.  Often the bitterness makes us want to blame someone for this awful predicament we find ourselves in… “I should have picked another project”, “I should never have come to grad school”, “This is all X’s fault…”

These feelings are normal.  Nobody said graduate school would be easy.

What you can do about it

At 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 you.  I read that note a lot in my fourth year.  It really helped me remember the reasons I was there and more importantly, it helped me stop complaining that maybe it was someone else’s fault.  It was exactly where I wanted to be, I just needed some occasional reminding.

Everyone has a different way of staying motivated.  Personally, I started thinking “there are X experiments left between me and graduation.”  Every experiment, failure or success, brought me one step closer to graduation.

The other steps I took were to dial back on the hours a bit.  This doesn’t mean mailing it in with 30 hours a week, but it does mean trying to have a more regular schedule.  When I looked at my daily schedule, there was a lot of room to streamline my day to make it more efficient.  Better planning meant the same amount of work with less time in lab.  To my surprise, my productivity increased as did my ability to set up key experiments, not just any experiment.

Burnout in grad school is common – in fact, almost expected.  Learning to give ourselves a break at the right time is very important.

Publish a paper

Oh, if it were only that easy…

A paper is our ticket out of grad school.  We know that.  Our P.I. knows that.  With every day, we feel increasing pressure to write something up.  Unfortunately, there are no guarantees in science – that’s just the nature of it.  So publishable results can be very hard to come by.

What you can do about it

A piece of advice that helped me was to create sketches of the figures you imagine in your paper.  Then set up the corresponding experiments to generate them.  As the results come in, update the figures accordingly.  If the result for figure 2 ends up being the opposite of our hypothesis, figures 3, 4 and 5 will likely change as well.

The other option is to hit a single now and then.  Many of us strive for the home-run, high impact mega-paper that will be referenced from now until eternity.  There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to great heights – we all should!  However, holding out for a publication like this can be extremely risky.  Sometimes it makes sense to publish a few singles or doubles as opposed to a home run that may never happen.

As a graduate student, a high-impact paper is a luxury: it’s nice to have, but not necessary.  Of course we should strive for them, but with realistic expectations.  Many incredibly successful scientists started out their careers with solid, but not remarkable graduate careers.  Does it make sense to stay an extra year or two (or ?…) trying to get the big paper, or is it better to move on?  Personally, I’d hit a hard shot to the outfield, stop at second and move on.  But that’s a personal call.

Set up a committee meeting

A fresh set of eyes and brains can never hurt… See Year 3 suggestions for more details.

Any fourth year stories to share, or has therapy effectively removed them?…


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 3: The Sun is Shining!

Guide to Graduate School Year 5: Approaching the Finish Line



6 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. [email protected]

    wrote on September 3, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    You forgot about fighting back the urge to blow up on friends and family when they ask THAT question. Do I even have to say it….when are you going to graduated?! argh!

  2. dayman

    wrote on September 3, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    According to a friend of mine, the trick to this is to always say "2-3 years". That way they won't start thinking that you are graduating soon, and if, godforbid, you need to keep saying it for 4 years, it's ambiguous enough that no one remembers.

  3. BenchFly's Guide to Year 5 of Graduate School | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on September 3, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    […] out of the darkness of Year 4, this year is filled with a number of milestones that start to make graduation feel like a […]

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

    wrote on September 9, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    […] See if the good times keep rolling in Year 4 […]

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    wrote on August 17, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    […] Guide to Graduate School Year 4: Hang in There! […]

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    wrote on August 17, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    […] Guide to Graduate School Year 4: Hang in There! […]

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