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More things to expect while in grad school (post first year)

Hooray … it looks like my PC is working again (though slowly) … and I can finally write the ending posts of the series on grad school. I plan have an entry grouping all (or linking all) the entries once I’ve finished the series. I think that besides this entry on how some of the next years might look like, I’ll add a little bit on how my defense went and what I did once I had completed my lecture and defended the thesis.

On to the goodies, what to expect after your first year of grad school:

  1. Once you’ve passed your classes, you will more than likely take courses for part (or all) of the second year. At this time you might be preparing for the qualifying exam. It will be a lot of hard work because by now you’ve completed rotations and are ready to immerse your mind, body, soul and life into the thesis project. It’s hard to strike a balance, and sometimes it will feel like you can’t do all three (and balance it all with a little bit of life outside of the lab). It’s Ok to neglect a bit lab work .. but please don’t take this as a license to automatically leave all the work. You’ll more than likely will deal with tons of reading, learning new techniques or perfecting the ones you know. I think that some schools have a policy of allowing students to take some time off the lab to work on the qual. I think this is totally fair and necessary … especially if your quals are a little like mine. Your boss might object, but if there’s a policy in place to protect you, make good (and fair) use of it.
  2. Once quals and classes are out of the way, you can rest assured a bit that you’ll be in full thesis mode. Take as much advantage of your first years after completing the qual to put in as many hours and effort as you can … why you might ask … well, because this is just the beginning and you will get tired of it, especially towards your 4th or 5th year, when you start getting the itch to leave.
  3. Go to seminars and present your results, however humble you think your research is. You’d be surprised to see how many people find your area of research interesting and want to lend a hand, start a collaboration, or maybe recruit you as a postdoc later on.
  4. Network …. ’nuff said.
  5. Check out what resources your school has available for you (both for funding and your post-academic path) so you can start planning for what’s to come once you’re out.
  6. Update your CV as much as possible, so when the time comes to apply for a job, fellowship, or just network it will be in need of just a few touches. I’d add, carry it with you at all times, because like I mentioned in #3, you never know who’s recruiting and who’s impressed by your work.
  7. You’ll meet with your committee anywhere from every 3 to every 12 months, so be ready weeks in advance to move your schedule so you can adapt to theirs …. because as we all know PI’s are always super busy, revising this, critiquing that.
  8. Participate in as many seminars as possible, especially if you’re shy. This will give you the chance to get acquainted with presenting your work, polishing your speaking abilities … and network.
  9. Expect to be tired …. it’s one of the”perks” of grad school.
  10. Have regular meetings with your boss … to keep him/her updated about your projects, instrumentation, worries, conferences … in one word, everything. Keep him/her in the loop. I think that because my PI and I developed a close relationship, it was especially helpful for when I was getting tired of grad school and needed to get out, or for “trivial” things like vacay time.
  11. Expect to give and/or receive mentoring from/for colleagues, as well as any newcomers.
  12. Save money, not only for vacay but for when it’s time to get out. I’d say, have a few hundred bucks safely stored in case a family member becomes ill, your mode of transportation needs repairs (or there’s a transit strike), or if you need a weekend off to recharge your batteries. Also, that extra money will come in handy when you approach the end of your grad school run and you need to look for a job, cover a move or live off of something while looking for a job.
  13. You’ll gain and you’ll lose friends. It happens. It sucks, but it’s also a relief especially if you have sucky “friends” or frien-enemies.
  14. Expect tons of competition, and many deadlines to beat so you get your paper published first, your abstract accepted at that ultra-sleek conference, or while satisfying the demands of your department and/or grad school.
  15. Grey hairs … ’nuff said.
  16. Heartbreak … whether it’s due to a nasty break up or a divorce, or your sometimes boyfriend/girlfriend leaving school, it may happen …. and you will get over it … grad school will give you the strength to survive pretty much everything.
  17. Your year(s) after the qual. will be the ones where pretty much all the data acquisition, analysis and publication goes on. Some labs have “policies” on when students will get their work published. Previous students in my lab had their work published after they defended (basically their committees were happy to sign off if the paper was on its way to the editor). When it was my turn, I had to have a first author paper published. So check with your lab and department (and maybe even the grad school).
  18. As soon as you get permission to write ( or even way before, it’s usually a few months prior to your thesis defense) gather as much of your materials and methods and start putting those together. The materials and methods chapter (if required as a separate entity from the publication(s) chapter(s)) is probably one of the first ones to get done, the sooner it’s done, the sooner you’ll get to start working with the other, more “meaty” chapters.

These are just some of the experiences you might live to tell as you progress in your graduate career. If more come to mind, I’ll share, but basically it boils down to keeping your project alive and your boss and department happy. There might be some drama here and there, especially when scheduling meetings, or even your defense, but bear in mind that we all go through some sort of drama at some point in grad school. It’s ok, it will be ok, and sooner or later it will be over, and you might get a laugh or two.

Cheers, and good luck!

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