Graduate School Year 5: Approaching the Finish Line

Year 5 color adjustedIn the final installment of our week-long Guide to Graduate School, we profile the final (hopefully…) full year. There’s no way to pull a Rosie Ruiz here – the only way to make it this far is to run the entire race…

Guide to Graduate School: Year 5

Coming out of the darkness of Year 4, this year is filled with a number of milestones that start to make graduation feel like a reality.  As such, it can be a very exciting year.  Busy, but exciting…

Milestones and Actions

Publish a paper

As discussed in our article on Year 4, papers are the key to graduating.  By the fifth year, the project is usually in full-swing and results are finally pouring in.

What you can do about it

Be a mercenary.  Only do the key experiments.  By this point in our graduate career, most of us are finally reaping the rewards of years of hard work.  With a limited amount of time left, prioritizing experiments is essential for maximizing the payout.

Amazingly, writing the paper may actually look like the easy part of the process.  Selecting a journal, formatting appropriately, submitting online and dealing with the review process can all be surprisingly time-consuming.  However, it’s well worth the effort to do it right since you’re writing your own ticket out of grad school.  That should be motivation enough.

Plow the field

Now that things are working in lab, it’s worth maximizing the return.

What you can do about it

Take a look at your results.  Most likely one or two very clear stories have emerged.  However, do you have other figures that don’t seem to fit into the current manuscript?  Sometimes great data are buried in our notebooks.  Perhaps there just wasn’t room for it in the paper or maybe we didn’t understand the results two years ago when we obtained them.  With the addition of one or two new experiments, it’s often possible to stitch seemingly disparate figures together into a coherent story.  You’ve worked very hard to get to this point, it’s worth looking around to make sure you get as much out of the project as you can.

Figure out the next step

This can be a very difficult time for most of us.  In addition to figuring out the career trajectory we’re interested in, we also have to think about the field.  We’re beginning to create our own scientific identity and that’s no small task.  If we did our graduate work on kinases, should we do a postdoc on phosphatases?  Should we stay in the same field to increase our expertise?  Should we change fields to broaden our knowledge and develop a unique perspective?  Should we start buying two lotto tickets a week instead of one?  These are all deeply personal questions.

What you can do about it?

Looking for the next position is exciting.  The promise of moving on to a new opportunity is invigorating and can be a great way to keep motivation high throughout the rest of your time in grad school.

Start early.  When looking for postdocs, it’s not a bad idea to start sending letters out a year before your anticipated graduation date.  Many of the competitive labs will fill postdoctoral slots well in advance.  Also, some labs will provide a slot with the understanding that you will find your own funding.  Given the time required to obtain funding, the more lead time the better.

To help make decisions, talk to people – postdocs, P.I.s, possible future labmates, career counselors at the school, etc.  Ask about their experiences, their advice and their opinion of the lab/company you’re considering joining.  Listen carefully.  Sometimes people will make a point, without explicitly making the point… “He’s a great boss if you like a hands-on P.I..  He loves to swing through the lab around lunchtime and talk about new data with each person.”  That’s a nice way of saying, “This guy is an insane micromanager, so be warned.”

Write your dissertation

While this will likely come after the fifth year is completed, it’s one of the major milestones of the graduate career.  Of course, it’s largely symbolic given that almost nobody will ever read it – including your committee…

What to do about it

Policies on the dissertation are highly variable.  Many places will allow you to cut and paste papers as chapters.  This is ideal.  It usually leaves us to write an intro and conclusion, which is significantly less painful than writing the full 200 pages from scratch.

A nice trick for the introduction is to see if you can parlay it into a review.  That’s basically what you’re writing anyway, so ask the boss if there’s a way to frame it so it could be published.  Bingo, there’s another paper…

Logistically, check out the requirements for formatting first.  If it’s possible to put figures at the end of the chapter, I highly recommend it.  In-text figures in Word are a nightmare.  An incredible amount of time (most of it angry…) will be spent formatting the dissertation.  If there is an option to eliminate one of the major offenders, jump at the opportunity.

Defend your Dissertation

My program required an Exit Seminar, which is a public seminar geared towards friends, family and colleagues without the private grilling of the traditional defense.  It’s a wonderful time to explain, in plain English, to all of your friends and family what you’ve been doing for the last five and a half years.

What you can do about it

The exit seminar was one of my favorite memories of graduate school because I finally got to share my work with the people outside of science who had supported me throughout the process.  Take a moment to recognize the people who have played an important role in helping you get through grad school.  And finally – Enjoy the day!  You’ve certainly earned it.


Any other fifth-year milestones?  Any advice on handling the traditional defense?


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 4: Hang in There!



3 comments so far. Join The Discussion

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

    wrote on September 9, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    […] The end is near, here’s what to expect in Year 5 […]

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

    wrote on August 17, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    […] Guide to Graduate School Year 5: Approaching the Finish Line […]

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

    wrote on August 17, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    […] Guide to Graduate School Year 5: Approaching the Finish Line […]

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