Graduate school: 5 strategies for first-year success
By Rahul Kumar
Welcome to graduate school. Your path toward a PhD in biomedical or life sciences marks your transformation from almost two decades' worth of answering instructors’ questions and following syllabi to embracing the unknown and forging your own path. You will become your own teacher, relying on the support and criticisms of your peers, faculty, and the scientific community.
Most graduate programs design the first year to prepare students for several more years of independent research. Such programs include coursework and lab rotations, as well as seminars, conferences, and meetings that are not as “extracurricular” as they might seem. These activities help to propel you into the trenches of science while exposing you to a variety of research areas and approaches.
Having recently completed my first year as a PhD student at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, I can share with you some coping skills and strategies for a productive and rewarding graduate school experience.
Successful scientific research hinges on critical thinking and problem solving. Every researcher needs to adapt these general traits into a specialized, professional toolkit. Here are a few examples:
These analytical skills can never be perfected, and continued success requires intensive reflection and unending requests for critical feedback. Rather than focusing on minutiae and memorizing facts, learn the subtle intricacies of thought that scientists spend decades refining. Ideally, you should leave every lecture with some deeper understanding that could never be found in a textbook.
Yale biologist Stephen Stearns tells his new arrivals to “read and think widely and exhaustively for a year” because the nurturing of intellectual curiosity eventually yields new ideas for science.
As you begin to push your own frontier, pay attention to what piques the curiosity of your professors:
Harvey Cushing, father of modern neurosurgery, said, “The capacity of man himself is only revealed when, under stress and responsibility, he breaks through his educational shell, and he may then be a splendid surprise to himself no less than to his teachers.”
Science involves failure, and dealing with setbacks is crucial for your success and general sanity. You will learn to reframe your definition of failure in the context of opportunity:
As a budding scientist working under the aegis of a faculty mentor, you have the unique chance to strike out in unexplored directions. Asking profound and fundamental questions early in research careers has formed the academic backbone of many future Nobel laureates.
After the first year, most of your time in graduate school will be spent in your lab. Choosing the “perfect” lab might seem like the most important task of your first year. Personally, I doubt that such an ideal exists. Many students arrive with strong interests in specific areas, but keep an open mind as you review your lab options:
In your lab rotations, you will not only immerse yourself in the study of specific fields, you will also be studying the labs themselves. Consider the thousands of hours you will spend with your mentor, not to mention with other lab members and the micro-culture they have formed:
The unstructured, sink-or-swim nature of graduate programs can tilt a student into clinical levels of anxiety or self-doubt. Despite the importance of independent learning and academic self-reliance, remember that you are not in this alone:
“There is an old saying that interest does not bind men together: interest separates men; there is only one thing that can effectively bind people, and that is a common devotion.” — Harvey Cushing, MD (Consecratio Medici, 1926)
Rahul Kumar is a PhD student at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and a medical student at the University of Tennessee. He holds a BA in biochemistry and biophysics and an MS in physics from the University of Pennsylvania and is pursuing neurobiology research at St. Jude with the Northcott Lab.